European Championships, Day 1
Spain gets a brutal wake-up call.
Greetings from Poland! I’m here with two good friends, watching the group involving Britain, Serbia, Spain and Slovenia. We planned this trip in the hope that Team Great Britain would hold their own, but with Luol Deng missing, we’re really struggling to compete.
Britain’s match with Slovenia was the matinee to the main event of Spain-Serbia, but it was desperately disappointing from a British perspective – GB had a sluggish start but recovered well, before collapsing at the start of the 4th quarter. Slovenia are missing their stars, Beno Udrih and Sasha Vujacic, as well as captain Matjaz Smodis (who should return later in the tournament). But they showed more hustle than the British, and their fans vastly outnumbered the Brits – the arena in Warsaw has a capacity of 5,000, and I would guess at least half of them were dressed in the national color of Slovenian green. Britain’s merry band consisted of about 50 hardy souls… Basketball doesn’t register high on the British radar, unfortunately.
There was still some NBA interest – the sight of Primoz Brezec draining a mid-range jumper to open the scoring was more than a bit scary! He finished with 8 points and 2 rebounds in 33 minutes, which I think is more like the Brezec we all know. Instead, Erazem Lorbeck killed us with 19 points, 8-8 from the field and 2-2 from the line. He even drained the back-breaking three-pointer with 0:01 on the shot clock with 6 minutes remaining in the 4th quarter – there was no coming back from that. It was a lucky shooting night – we’ll look out for him over the next two nights and see if he’s NBA-worthy.
It was good to see Bostjan Nachbar again. He ended up with 7 points and 6 boards. Meanwhile, it was only when reading the box score that we realised that Goran Dragic played – Wikipedia tells me “the Suns hope that he will take over the starting point guard position after Steve Nash relinquishes it” — well, good luck with that; he had 14 anonymous minutes with 1 assist and 2 turnovers.
Pops Mensah-Bonsu led the British team in scoring, and spirit. And, unfortunately, when he started sulking because he wasn’t getting any calls, that’s when Britain fell apart. He finished with 18 points and 6 boards. Britain has a couple of decent big men too, but Robert Archibald got 10 points early on, and then went scoreless for two quarters. He finished with 12 points and 5 assists, and the fact that no other Brit got more than 2 assists tells the story of its stagnant offense.
Anyway, onto the main event. We watched the Spanish warm-up with interest, noting that Ricky’s jumper was not falling every time, and that Rudy Fernandez was getting an intense one-to-one workout with one of the coaches – he ended up not playing, though he did a great job of cheering them on from the sidelines! I guess he must be carrying an injury…
The Spanish starting lineup hinted at the complacency that would lead to their downfall, with Ricky starting alongside Garbajosa, Navarro, Alex Mumbru and Marc Gasol. Ricky scored the first two Spanish buckets, but then went scoreless until the end of the 4th quarter. He’s clearly a level above in terms of positioning and basketball “sense,” but Spain was trying to get Navarro (3-16) and Garbajosa (0-5) going, and Marc Gasol was a nervous wreck offensively too, passing up three or four wide open lanes in order to find teammates. There were a few Rubio passes that wowed the crowd, but often they went unconverted.
Serbia was inspired by Spain’s difficulties, as well as Nenad Kristic’s veteran know-how and leadership. He took Marc to school a couple of times in the post, and then rejected a Navarro layup, forcing the Spanish into Plan B – time for Pau.
Immediately the Spanish looked more settled, and Pau and Ricky are a formidable force at this level. Pau hit a couple of deep jumpers, including a nice fadeaway to end the first quarter 15-12 to Serbia. The Spanish then introduced Victor Claver and Felipe Reyes – Reyes scored straightaway, but Claver’s impact was less effective. The guy is pure energy, but it’s very reckless, and Portland will need to coach him heavily. On his first possession, he attempted to use a Serbian as a stepladder on his way to the basket, inevitably missing a wild lay-up, and then committed a bad foul a couple of possessions later, “over”-hustling defensively on a fastbreak and gifting the Serbs an easy and one.
We were particularly keen to check out Ricky’s defense, as this is often criticized by people who’ve never seen him play, and it was quite interesting. We decided he’s “predatorial” — I don’t know if Iverson is the best comparison, but Ricky seems to hang off his defender, wanting the steal. It’s a risky strategy and not always effective. He had a great sequence where, down 16-24, he anticipated that his team needed some energy – so he pushed the ball, took a quick shot, got fouled and missed both free throws. He committed a soft foul, but then stole the ball off the ensuing possession – he got mugged while on the ground in the melee after, but he quickly recovered to alter the Serbian shot and eventually force a turnover that led to a Spanish bucket.
The first half drew to a close with Marc Gasol turning the ball over by bouncing it off his knees, although it’s fair to point out that he was dominating the boards. However, as Kristic drained a face-up over Marc and then Pau missed a tip-in at the buzzer, it seemed to suddenly dawn on the arena that Spain were in real trouble here – 23 points scored at halftime was, obviously, way below expectations, so we all anticipated 2nd half improvement. The 3rd quarter was still sluggish, however, as Ricky got irritated by the close attentions of his defender (whining to the refs and drawing calls – veteran savvy in the 18-year-old?), and Marc continued turning the ball over.
Of course, it wasn’t all Spanish incompetence – the Serbs came out ready-to-play, and although Krstic is their only NBA player, Novica Velickovic impressed with 12 points and 8 boards in 23 minutes. Real Madrid have just signed him and, while he might be too lightweight for the NBA, he’s one of these big Europeans who is agile and has good range. He also had a useful knack of hitting the big shots at the right times.
Spain cranked up its defense toward the end and succeeded in putting some pressure on the Serbs, but unfortunately Pau’s rustiness let them down – just as they were making a run, Pau ran through someone setting a screen off-the-ball, and he also had a sequence where he missed seven free throws in a row. In the end, Spain’s complacency was the key factor – it seemed like they were treating the game like a warmup (and to be fair to them, they could “afford” to lose this as they’ll easily beat Britain, and that’ll be enough to qualify for the next stage). They were trying a few things, including a lineup that will interest the T-Wolves as Rubio played alongside other PGs while Navarro played the 3! It might fuel the ideas that David Kahn is mad, because it didn’t prove very effective.
There was a great moment in the arena as the Serbians realized the game was won with 40 seconds left, breaking out in applause which was shared by their former-Yugoslavian countrymen, the Slovenians who had hung on to watch the game. The Serbians were indeed impressive, although I’d expect Spain to be better in future games, and I doubt that Serbia has enough to win the tournament. We will see over the next couple of days!