European Championships, Day 2
Slovenia rides high and Spain continues to underachieve.
Day 2 from the Torwar Arena and, as Slovenia are not Britain’s opponents today, they are our friends. So we’re invited to join their wall of noise. I don’t yet know why Slovenia is taking this so much more seriously than the Brits, Serbians (of whom I haven’t seen any) or the Spanish, but I’ll find out. Once again, they dominate the arena, and the halftime 39-29 lead that they have leads my friend Dave to wonder whether they’re playing better or if the lead is a result of pure intimidation. It certainly feels like Slovenia’s home court, and once Krstic picked up two early fouls, the Serbians were never really in the game.
After not really noticing Goran Dragic’s presence yesterday, we were determined to look out for “Steve Nash’s successor” today, and his performance was definitely noteworthy. Bostjan Nachbar led the Slovenians in scoring with 17 points, but Dragic had 16 points himself and provided a spark off the bench. Of course, the Suns are probably looking for more than that, and I’m not sure I’d rate him worthy of being a starting NBA point guard right now. He rarely ran the offense in this game, with the Slovenians choosing to defer to Jaka Lakovic’s veteran leadership. Goran certainly had some nice moments, but I was keenly observing the mistakes. We saw his indecisive attitude as he shot desperation 3s as the shot clock expired, turned the ball over carelessly, and also inexplicably failed to convert a simple continuation layup once the foul was called, and then failed to hit both free throws. He ended with 16 points (on 6-9 shooting) but no assists, 2 steals and 3 turnovers.
Fortunately for Slovenia, they were able to overcome these mistakes as the Serbians looked tired after yesterday’s big effort against the Spanish. Kosta Perovic, who played 38 minutes in a seven-game Golden State NBA career two years ago, was able to punish the Slovenian defense occasionally, but Krstic only played 13 minutes and Novica Velickovic wasn’t able to impose himself as he did the night before.
Slovenia utilized their 6th man advantage perfectly too, with Brezec quiet in the first half, blocking Serbian drives twice in succession. They then introduced their captain Matjaz Smodis during a timeout, sending the adoring Slovenian crowd into raptures just as the Serbians were rallying. Serbia never really threatened after that moment, and the Slovenians held on for an impressive win. Their shooting was the key, as well as their willingness to drive – they shot 56 percent from the field compared to 44 percent from the Serbians. And they went to the line 22 times, while the Serbians shot only 8 foul shots. Serbia ended up with only one guy in double-figures, shooting guard Milos Teodosic (14 points and 6 assists), while Slovenia had 17 from Nachbar, Dragic’s 16 as well as 16 from Lakovic, and 14 from Erazem Lorbek.
The second game started as badly as we feared, as the Spanish raced to a 12-0 lead, despite Jorge Garbajosa being sidelined through injury. Rudy returned, and provided a spark in the second quarter, hitting back-to-back 3s. It was a strange atmosphere to play in though, as most Slovenians had left after their game, so the arena was half-full at best, and all singing was conducted between 300-400 Spanish and us 50 British.
After the initial shock, Britain held their own. This was achieved in spite of (rather than “because of”) Pops Mensah-Bonsu, whose reckless dribbling led to numerous turnovers. The halftime score was 44-35 to the Spanish, who must’ve been advising Juan Carlos Navarro to stop shooting teardrops!! He has been missing them over-and-over in this tournament, and needs to be told to cut it out.
Unfortunately for Britain, our only 7-footer picked up an injury last night, and the referees decided that every possession required a whistle. As yesterday, the British offence was resembling Cleveland-without-LeBron, stagnant beyond belief, but somehow we were staying in-touch and, when Rubio threw the ball over Pau’s head when all that was required was a simple lob, the Brits seemed to sense that the Spanish were vulnerable. The referees were very fussy, calling every single possible foul, but this proved to be a momentum-changer as Felipe Reyes fell over off-the-ball and the referees called him for a technical, stating their disbelief in his flop.
But the British were harboring a real problem in that, every time the Spanish turned the ball over, they immediately returned the favor. But at the end of the third quarter, we found ourselves only 10 points down. The game had the feel of a (for example) Clippers/Lakers game, where a little team bloodies the big team’s nose. And we then went on a 12-0 run. Suddenly the Spanish were rattled, trailing for the first time in the game. Ricky missed an open 3, but Pau cleaned up on the boards, as he did on the next possession too. We really had no weapons with which to stop Pau, and he finished the game with 27 points and 11 boards, an exceptional stat line at this level.
The British were still putting on the pressure, but two consecutive 24-second violations (due to a higher intensity in the Spanish defence) broke our backs, and then Pau drilled an unlikley three-pointer, inspiring the Spanish bench to jump around on the court!
At 73-74 with 2:30 remaining, I commented to my friend that we wouldn’t be able to finish the job, and so it proved. Our comeback had been inspired by a succession of big shots, and suddenly they weren’t falling. Spain put Rubio back in, and the last few plays involved him and Pau exclusively. A huge discrepancy was the amount of foul shots – Spain went to the line 40 times, while Britain was there just 13 times, but the defeat wasn’t a result of bad calls. We gave a good account of ourselves and scared the world champions, and earned the respect of other nations along the way.
Aside from seeing Rudy’s calf/quad being stretched out by the trainers at the last time-out (he didn’t return), other noteworthy stats were Ricky’s 5-point, 6-assist, 1-turnover outing, and Pops’ 4 turnovers. Victor Claver contunued to inspire and frustrate, with his 12 points tempered by 3 sloppy turnovers.
Until now, the Spanish have acted in an extremely complacent manner, and surely these first two games will awaken them somewhat. But at this moment the Slovenians appear to be inspired by the amount of supporters they have here, and it will be interesting to see if they can continue riding the crest of that wave. If they were to beat Spain in the early game tomorrow, the Spanish could be left hoping for a favorable result in the GB/Serbia game!
As it is, I expect the Spanish will have finally realized that the fact that a Deng-less Britain came so close to beating them must be embarrassing. I’d expect them to finally wake up and burst Slovenia’s bubble tomorrow, and then Britain and Serbia can battle for third in the group. That Spanish complacency has proven dangerous so far, however, and they will certainly need to start showing that they’re serious from now, or they risk going hom earlu!