EuroBasket Notebook: Storylines from the Qualifying Round

EuroBasket Notebook: Storylines from the Qualifying Round
Sep 10, 2007, 09:26 am
EuroBasket in Madrid

Now that the action has shifted entirely to Madrid, we’ve landed in the city as well to take in the rest of the tournament. Outside of a half a mile radius surrounding the Madrid Arena, though, you would never guess that the European Championships are going on here. There just doesn’t seem to be that much excitement, even if yesterday’s victory did spark a beautiful celebration outside the arena leading all the way up to the nearest subway stop.

Take out the games Spain is playing, and the gym isn’t anywhere near full capacity. Part of the reason for that probably has to do with the exorbitant ticket prices the organizers are asking for—$150 a pop for the cheapest ticket. No wonder there are still many tickets to be had at the box office…1,200 journalists were supposedly credentialed for the event, but you’d never guess judging by the media coverage (Formula 1 dominated the newspaper headlines today…indoor soccer gets more coverage?) or the ugly bald spots all over press row.

That doesn’t mean that the fan bases that did send adequate representation aren’t creating a terrific atmosphere…Lithuania and Greece being the most noticeable so far. Sitting next to the Greek section during the terrific Croatia-Greece game has to rank pretty high up there on the most memorable basketball experiences this writer has taken in so far. When their team went down by 13 points mid-way through the third quarter, the fanatics didn’t falter for even a second, instead raising the decibels to another level and not letting up until Vassilis Spanoulis’ miraculous 30-foot buzzer beating 3-pointer set off a massive celebration in the stands. A real treat indeed.

Lithuanians Flexing their Muscles

Challenging the Spaniards for top contenders for the championship has to be the terrific Lithuanian squad, clearly the deepest and most balanced team here.

Featuring the outstanding leadership skills of Sarunas Jasikevicius, the Lithuanians go two deep at every position besides point guard and have a plethora of scoring threats they can throw at opponents at all times. They’re getting terrific production in the frontcourt from the Lavrinovic twins (highly impressive with their combination of athleticism+skill) and an extremely aggressive Linas Kleiza, who has taken the role of off the bench sparkplug and really embraced it—dunking everything that comes his way and creating huge mismatch problems at both the 3 and the 4 spots. The Lithuanians have yet to see the same type of competition the Greek, Russians or Spanish have, so we’re eager to see how they can take their game to the next level when they finally do.

Terrible Turkish

Seeing it on TV is one thing, but having to watch this in person is another thing altogether. The Turkish team has to be considered the biggest disappointment of the entire tournament. If they didn’t have the talent or athleticism it would be understandable, but they do, and in spades, which is what makes it all the more frustrating. We blamed Hedo Turkoglu in particular for the way Turkey looks in our last column, and while he hasn’t really done much to get himself off the hook, in person we see that the problems run much deeper than we initially thought. The Turkish just don’t seem to have any direction on the court, running the same two or three bland plays over and over again until they inevitably break down and the players start going one on one. They lack any type of rhythm or cohesiveness, obviously stemming from the poor play they are getting at the point guard spot from Ender Arslan, who seems to have completely lost his confidence.

The most ironic quote of the tournament so far (besides Darko’s tirade) has to have come from Turkish national team coach Bogdan Tanjevic, who had plenty of criticism for everyone but himself following his team being blown out by Lithuania. When asked about Sarunas Jasikevicius, he started firing on all cylinders…”He showed tonight that American coaches don't understand basketball. They're not able to understand him." Whether or not Jasikevicius should be playing more in Golden State is an interesting topic, but you have to wonder whether this was the right time (immediately following a blowout) for Tanjevic to start questioning other coaches…particularly Don Nelson. Considering the way their team looks and the fact that they’ll be hosting the World Championships in 2010, the Turkish federation isn’t going to have much choice but to let Tanjevic go.

Is Greece for Real?

The best Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hype impersonation seen here so far has to be the performance of the Greek national team. For 25 minutes the Greek couldn’t find the ocean with their outside shots, throwing up brick after brick on the way to what appeared to be a devastating defeat to Croatia. All of a sudden, though, Dimitris Diamantidis started heating up, knocking down four 3-pointers en route to an exhilarating comeback that was completed with Spanoulis’ miracle at the buzzer.

So does that mean the Greeks are in the clear from here on out? It’s very difficult to say. This team has a history of being able to turn the switch on and off almost at will, particularly when their backs are up against the wall. It’s entirely possible that this win might have been what they needed to get themselves back on track.

But with that said, it’s hard to forget the horrendous offensive displays they put up against Israel, Russia, Serbia, Spain, and the first 25 minutes or so against Croatia. Arguably their best player, Theo Papaloukas looks passive/disinterested, standing in the corner for too many possessions and relying way too heavily on his outside shot (which is obviously not his strength)-- in his semi-unfamiliar role playing off the ball for the Greek team. He plays almost exclusively as a point guard for CSKA Moscow. Diamantidis’ heroics in the second half and the fact that he’s flat out been Greece’s best player means that that isn’t going to change anytime soon.

The situation doesn’t look much better when you start to consider the rest of Greece’s backcourt. Vassilis Spanoulis looks extremely rusty after an entire season sitting on the bench in the NBA, taking bad shots, playing risky defense, and generally making very poor decisions. Nikos Zisis clearly isn’t himself either, meaning that opposing defenses will continue to pack in the lane and force Greece to beat them from behind the arc—which Diamantidis and co. were able to do yesterday in the second half. Is that something you can rely on consistently, though? We’ll have to wait and see.

Foul, up two?

The last few minutes of the Greece-Croatia game yesterday highlighted another stark contrast between NBA and International basketball. With Greece in the driver’s seat--up by two points with seven seconds to go—and the ball in Croatia’s hands, coach Giannakis made the very interesting decision to foul Marko Popovic rather than risk losing the game the way Spain did against this very same team—on a 3-pointer. Popovic drained both of his free throws and the game looked to be heading for overtime, until Spanoulis and the Greek Gods decided otherwise at the buzzer.

Even though it worked out this time, it’s tough to understand this strategy….wouldn’t you rather play tough (typical Greek) defense on the last possession of the game and take your chances on the Croatians hitting a 3-pointer? They were 7/23 from behind the arc on the game so far after all…You have to think that mathematically, the odds of stopping them on the last play are a lot higher than letting them tie the game on the easiest play in basketball and taking your chances in overtime.

Different strokes…

Unstoppable Spanish?

Just a word to complete this column on the terrific Spanish squad…who faced an extremely well prepared Russian team and completely picked apart their stingy defense.

There really is no optimal way to shut this team down. Double-team Gasol down low and you’re bound to face the wrath of Calderon, Garbajosa and Rudy Fernandez from behind the arc…Switch on pick and rolls and the Spaniards will find each other with crisp, unselfish passes thanks to their quick minds, superb creativity and excellent hands…Play flawless defense for the entire shot-clock and you’re still mostly taking your chances with the athleticism and one on one skills players like Gasol, Calderon, Fernandez and Navarro possess—able to make something out of nothing on a regular basis at this level…This might not be the most tactically brilliant team you’ll find, but they really have the perfect combination of athleticism, shooting, smarts and especially chemistry.

And what a luxury it is to be able to bring a scorer like Juan Carlos Navarro off the bench…the ultimate sparkplug 6th man. This works incredibly well considering that he’s much better suited to be the go-to scorer for the second unit rather than have him compete for shots with Pau Gasol and Jose Manuel Calderon. The Memphis Grizzlies should be taking notes.

That’s all for right now from Madrid.

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