After 2 weeks and two group stages played out, we're coming into the much anticipated knockout stage. 8 nations have their EuroBasket medal and Olympic qualification aspirations on the line. 6th is the absolute worst spot a nation wants to finish. I won't be analyzing the loser bracket situation here, but you can look at the remaining schedule to get a better feel for it. Now we go from Vilnius' 11,000 seat Siemens Arena to Kaunas' brand new 15,442 seat Zalgiris Arena for the remaining contests. Remember, for you folks in the United States, the games are free on ESPN3.com.
Wednesday 11 a.m. EST
The defending champions definitely have a favorable matchup in front of them. Slovenia has been unrecognizable from previous years. Spain has only lost once all tournament, and that was a throwaway match to Turkey over a week ago. This has been Pau Gasol's tournament so far. 20.4 ppg, 5.7 rpg, in just 25 minutes per contest is mind blowing. He's even made a terrorizing 6 of 7 3-pointers. What kind of big man does that? 59.5% shooting from inside the arc isn't exactly bad either. It's almost laughable how dominant the Laker has been. Even if Spain doesn't hoist this cup, he may still take home another MVP.
It's business as usual for Sergio Scariolo's bunch. Juan Carlos Navarro is still in La Bomba mode, Rudy Fernandez is running circles around his opponents on the court, and Spain still has the most depth than any other EuroBasket squad. Marc Gasol is continuing to improve off of his solid Grizzlies season and can almost have full claim to being known as the second best center in this competition (behind his sibling).
There are a few chunks in the armor. Point guard play hasn't been that great. Jose Calderon and Ricky Rubio have shown great defensive awareness and fairly solid distribution of the ball. But they can get the Rajon Rondo treatment and times and just continue to fail at knocking down shots.
Serge Ibaka is sadly not adjusting well to FIBA play still. You can tell he gets lost on pick-and-rolls and would beg for an NBA style. Iblocka though has performed his best against the powerhouses of Lithuania and France. So there are vulnerabilities to this dominating roster. With that said, the only way the favorites will slip from reaching their ultimate goal is with uncharacteristic cold shooting and mental lapses on both ends (it's occurred in small doses).
Stumbling Slovenians is an understatement. Having never won an Olympic, World, or EuroBasket medal, it took a final day win over Finland to make it here. Before that, they had suffered 3 straight defeats. If Slovenia wants to have a chance in this match, the Dragic brothers will have to somehow outperform Spain's backcourt. A few scuffles really could help that cause. It also means Navarro must struggle from the field, as well as having Calderon and Ricky be non-factors (which has happened in Lithuania a few times).
Erazem Lorbek will get roughed up. Pau and Marc Gasol and possibly even Serge Ibaka won't let Slovenia's leader breathe on either end. Mirza Begic must continue to be a saving grace for coach Bozidar Maljkovic and hand the newcomer as many minutes as he can handle. The guy's shooting 62.2% from the field, while Lorbek has struggled with constant double teams his entire campaign. Slovenia must constantly have 2 of Lorbek, Begic, and Uros Slokar on the court together at all times to counter Spain's expected twin towers approach.
If by rare chance the frontline battle is close going into halftime, Slovenia have made things interesting. But the Slovenians need to catch fire from the perimeter. Saso Ozbolt, other than his 21-point game against Georgia, has been beyond worthless. Samo Udrih (Yes, Beno's brother) really needs to take all of his minutes. Zoran Dragic's first senior tournament has been memorable in all the right ways. It's been a lot better than big brother Goran Dragic, whose 4-of-27 3-pointer shooting has most Slovenian children weeping at night. That's going to have to change pronto.
What in the hell has happened to Matjaz Smodis? Maybe the ultimate Slovenian disappointment, Matjaz needs to be taken out to the back of the arena and be shot. Jaka Lakovic is getting up there in age, but he's starting to right the ship ever so slowly. Keep an eye on him against La Bomba and possibly Rudy. Maybe if Slovenia was up against ANYONE else, I'd say they could pull an upset and keep their medal hopes alive. However, I don't think the Spaniards could possibly play bad enough to allow Slovenia a sliver of a chance.
Wednesday 2 p.m. EST
So odd to see FYROM as the higher-seeded country as this is still an upstart basketball nation. Bo McCalebb and Pero Antic continue to make myself and most of Europe (and the majority of basketball minds) look idiotic for doubting them. Bo's 20.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg, and 3.9 apg even have NBA guys keeping their eyes on the Louisiana man. It's also pissed off a lot of teams that have suffered at the hands of the naturalized player. Of course, complaining is a result of not being able to alleviate a problem you can't deal with on your own.
No more Todor Gecevski in this competition is unfortunate. He was basically their 3rd best scorer. Still, this side continues to write new history. Not much pressure exists for a very dangerous team. Guys like Chekovski and especially Predrag Samardziski will need to up their production levels. Vlado Ilievski is still a walking nightmare with his 26.5% shooting. If he can come through for a change, it'll mean more open looks for Bo. The wild cards on this roster will be the Stojanovski twins who will have their hands full dealing with top notch Lithuanian guards and forwards.
Losing to Russia on the last day of Group F at the last second really did screw FYROM over though. Instead of Serbia, they get the hosts who will have their fans severely out-screaming the decently sized and boisterous FYROMian fanbase that has shown up thus far. Bo and Ilievski need to somehow find a way to outplay the likes of Sarunas Jasikevicius, Mantas Kalnietis, and Rimantas Kaukenas. If they manage to pull that off, we've got a game on our hands.
Jonas Valanciunas fever has not only hit Toronto Raptor fans, but all of Lithuania as well. The 2007 and 2010 bronze medalists are seeking that gold that's alluded them since 2003. The country's hopes are being demonstrated through Valanciunas' energy it seems like. Slowly but surely, Jonas' touches and crunch time in matches have increased. Petravicius being done for the tourney is the main reason. That and Robertas Javktokas isn't as demanding of the ball as Jonas. Jonas' averages are 10.4 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 1 apg, and 1.1 blocks per contest. However, Valanciunas has posted 15 ppg in the past 3 matches against the talented frontcourts of Serbia, France, and Germany. Not bad for a 19-year-old.
Lithuania doesn't have a legitimate SF, but neither does FYROM. So that won't be a worry on this day, but it's easily an issue if the podium is a goal. Simas Jasaitis, Darius Songaila, and Paulius Jankunas all have played the 3 spot, but neither truly embody the position. They'll all have their chances to defend the streaky Pero Antic.
Coach Kemzura has so much depth on his bench that it's very challenging to please everyone and continue to romp past opponents simultaneously. There are still offensive set problems at their most questionable position, point guard. Lithuania only seems to run the pick-and-roll efficiently when Jasikevicius is on the parquet. Yes, Kaukenas has put up some decent offensive numbers, but the offense looks stagnant under his leadership. Kalnietis has done better.
Lithuanian fans must be worried with the first round loss to Spain, and then the second round defeat at the hands of France. But FYROM, you would figure, isn't nearly as talented or athletically gifted as those sides. It all comes down to no letdowns and 40 minutes of smart execution. It's win or go home time, and you can quickly figure out within the first few minutes of these matches which team has the testicular fortitude to handle the high pressured stage.
Thursday 11 a.m. EST
Who knew a need for revenge could last for 6 years in basketball, yet that's what France is seeking. Yeah France beat Greece in 2009, but that was the second group stage. The Greeks pulled off a miracle comeback in the Semifinals in 2005. You can definitely say Greece robbed the 2005 title from the French who haven't sniffed a medal since that bronze. Tony Parker, Boris Diaw, Mickael Gelabale, and Florent Pietrus (Mickael was there too but his injury left him out of Lithuania) were all a part of that squad who have shown up in this summer's roster.
They may not absolutely need Gelabale for this Quarterfinal, but Gelabale (without dreads) was another superb athlete who was ON FIRE from the 3-point line. 60% shooting doesn't get replaced easily, and neither does his 52% from 2-range as a forward. He's out with a bad ankle for possibly the remainder of the tourney, and that means Pietrus and Charles Kahudi will have to step it up. The French still managed to beat hosts Lithuania without him. Then rested Parker and Joakim Noah for the shellacking they received from Spain for their only tournament loss at this point. The French wanted Greece. They wouldn't have tanked the final match if they didn't want the Greeks.
As it's been the case for years now, Parker is the leader and he's statistically having his best senior tournament ever. 22.1 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 4.7 apg, and 1.4 steals per contest is beyond impressive. Tony still can't drill the open 3-pointer, but it's not like he ever did that with the Spurs. He's had a lot of French help though. Noah and Nicolas Batum are the energy and hustle on both ends of the court that have set the tempo for how Coach Collet's squad will perform in every game.
The second group stage has also awakened Nando De Colo (21 points in the win over Lithuania) and unleashed Kevin Seraphin. The young Wizard has taken over a lot of time from a struggling Boris Diaw. Seraphin has been able to put double digits against Serbia and Spain. Whether it's gravity catching up or him just coasting, Diaw only seems to be showing successful offense as a center in the post.
Greece on the other hand has a goal of winning one of their next two games. A unexpected victory Thursday not only would get Greece into the Semifinals, but also would guarantee the very important pre-Olympic qualifying spot. Ioannis Bourousis, Nikos Zisis, and Antonis Fotsis are the only '05 gold medalists still serving their country and definite cornerstones of this current roster's success. They've also been a part of winning silver in 2006 and bronze in 2009. This could be the end of a phenomenal period of success. Let's see if first year coach Ilias Zouros can overcome this team's ups and downs.
Other than the choke job against FYROM (31% on FGs), Zouros' crew has beaten everyone they've been expected to overthrow. Only Russia was a match they weren't predicted to win, and didn't. The Greeks now have to show the passion of past teams with significantly less talent. This is essentially a 3rd string national team it seems like with all the injuries and player exits accumulated coming into this EuroBasket. It's a testament to Zouros' re-implementation of the classic Greek system. Fantastic ball movement and open looks on offense, and stifling defense that can win championships.
The new wave of Greeks will have to all grow up fast if an upset is to brew. Nick Calathes and Kostas Koufos have already been through the line of fire and will need to hold their own against superior French talent and name power. Stellar defense and 3-point shooting will have to be accomplished from the likes of Kostas Papanikolaou, Mike Bramos, and Kostas Vasiliadis if we're to fathom a disposal of France. That's been an area of severely lacking consistency. I don't see things as a tale of two halves. Either the Greeks will have it early, or stick a fork in them.
Can the Greeks beat a French side that may be playing its best tournament of the new millennium and possibly ever? Can Greece cause some panic to a French team who has a recent history of collapsing in the knockout stage? A lot has to go right for Hellas, and a lot wrong for the French.
Thursday 11 a.m. EST
Sergey Monya now can claim two buzzer beating game-winning clutch as hell shots. Unbelievable. He's the reason why Russia is the only remaining undefeated team. The 2007 cup winners came to Lithuania with no J.R. Holden, but they're still a well-balanced force to be reckoned with. Oh, and they're still well led by a re-focused Andrei Kirilenko. AK47 has looked fantastic over the past month. Field goal shooting is a fair 47.1%, while he still causes defensive chaos as his the 2.8 steals per match prove.
David Blatt is viewed as a mercenary in the coaching world, and that's suited him just fine up to this point. He's hungrier than ever to bring Russia another title. Blatt's been able to make the most out of a roster that doesn't look very imposing on paper. Andrey Vorontsevich, Semen Antonov, Aleksey Shved, Vitaliy Fridzon, and Timofey Mozgov have all provided solid supporting assistance.
Victor Khryapa's and Sergey Bykov's 3-point shooting is a bother. Khryapa's failed miserably in the FYROM game, and he's crucial if Russia wants to boot Serbia off the podium. Russia has absolutely no issue playing in tight games, something that Serbia isn't as nonchalant about. It's no secret that Russia really can't rely too much on jump shooting. It's all about defense and attacking the paint at will. The more transition point opportunities for their superior athletes, the better. Serbia will have to find a way to slow the game down.
Is Serbia pulling the same possum act Spain pulled in EuroBasket 2009? Most likely not. The '09 silver medalists survived Turkey to end their devastating 3-game losing streak. France, Lithuania, Spain was a demoralizing stretch as the Serbs just barely reached the elite 8. However, this Serbian side is stacked with youth, talent, and the legendary Dusan Ivkovic on the bench. Russia definitely would prefer to play Serbia over Lithuania, but this won't be a cakewalk. Far from it. Especially if Russia's jumpers don't fall and the paint starts getting clogged up.
Serbia knows that of course Milos Teodosic needs to wake up, but also that it's up to Milan Macvan and Nenad Krstic to dominate the paint and post. Macvan has had his struggles though, but Nenad has been flexing his veteran experience muscles. However, Krstic is wearing down as the days go by. An optimistic sign is that Milos did just have his best game of the competition against Turkey. Super sniper Marko Keselj and Milenko Tepic will need to be at their best to spread the floor. If they are, Russia will be in an uphill fight all day. Dusko Savanovic is the X-Factor and must be assertive from his first touch.
The winner of this match will go to the better bench production. Serbia in my eyes is the favorite in that department. On any occasion, any Serb can go off for double figures. I believe Serbia has too many horses for Russia to stop or outscore. Russia's only legitimate test thus far was Greece. If Blatt's squad allows more than 75 points, I think Ivkovic's boys pull the upset.
So in seeding terms, two upsets (Serbia and Lithuania). Obviously, I want my Greek boys to whip out some needed magic and keep their medal hopes alive.