Germany made hard work of it at times but with Dennis Schroeder carrying the load and Dirk Nowitzki doing his thing the Group B hosts saw off Iceland to open their EuroBasket campaign with a win, writes Emmet Ryan
The crowd was pretty hot from 20 minutes before tip and it didn’t hurt matters when Tibor Pleiss opened the scoring. Pleiss however isn’t one of the two men the thousands here in the Mercedes-Benz Arena, formerly the O2 World, had put their faith in. There were plenty of t-shirts with caricatures of Dirk Nowitzki and Dennis Schroeder. THey were outnumbered by Mavericks jerseys, naturally, but this is the shot. Germany’s greatest ever player and their best prospect they’ve had since him sharing a floor for probably the only tournament ever. That was the myth, Schroeder’s easy working through the lane to open up the floor was the reality.
Iceland, written off by everyone before this tournament, were in no mood to make up the numbers and roll over for the hosts. Threes from Haukur Palsson and Hordur Vilhjalmsson kept them right with the hosts. Save for Ragnar Nathanaelsson, this Icelandic squad is horribly out-matched for size, a point Paul Zipser reminded them off with a hard block on Vilhjalmsson midway through the first.
Iceland however had earned their place here, schooling Great Britain twice in the qualifiers. Where they lacked size and speed compared to the hosts, they compensated with organisation. It’s disciplined ball but not in some ugly way, instead it’s all about efficiency. Iceland know that they aren’t faster in rawpace than any team they are going to see here but they can be quicker. This is basketball played with the head to compensate for physical deficiencies. Early on, they were definitely outsmarting a German team that was a little too eager to make its size count.
The problem for a team relying on this kind of game to compete is that when the pressure comes it can hurt fast. Schroeder was able to casually stroll into position for a mid-range J on the fast-break and move Germany into a 7 point lead. The underdogs from the North Atlantic missed 3 of 4 free throws and then Benzing hurt them hard with a three that just beat the shot clock. Having looked like they could hand with the hosts early, Iceland were in danger of getting into a hole at the end of the first but Nowitzki went 0/2 from the line and then Palsson made a corner three to keep it close. After 10 minutes, Germany led 20-14 with Nowitzki finally opening his account to calm the crowd.
With their shooting not exactly up to much, making just 28 per cent from the field in the first frame, Iceland locked down on D early in the second and frustrated Germany. A classic Dirk swish kept the gap more than a possessio and Schroeder kept doing his Superman thing. Crossing to the right and then back inside Schroeder’s adjustment of pace frustrated Iceland although he was starting to try a little too hard to win the game on his own. Patience was what this German team badly needed. They weren’t panicking but the chance to build on their lead was being wasted because they were in too much of a rush to make this a blowout. Of course, when Schroeder could actually just go coast to coast it felt like it didn’t matter. With Dirk playing a supporting role, Germany made it a double-digit lead late in the frame. Schroeder sat having reached 11 points, 3 rebounds, and 3 assists in the half and Dirk took control down the stretch to give Germany a 41-26 lead.
It took the home team to get back on track in the second half but Pleiss roused them from their slumber and the contest started to look like the late rounds of a heavyweight fight, with the bigger Germans pawing the under-sized Icelandic side away with jabs. Schroeder still brought plenty of flair while the likes of Anton Gavel did the dirty work to keep the lead clear. Midweay through the frame however that jabbing game stopped working as an energised Iceland team cut into Germany’s lead to get within 7 points but a few wasted possessions by the underdogs cost them the chance to truly scare Germany. Gavel moved the gap back out to 9 and Johannes Voigtmann had the easiest of tasks to restore the double-digit advantage. Then came the highlight reel moment as Heiko Schaffartzik set up Niels Giffey for the alley-oop dunk.
With 10 minutes to play this one was safe with Germany ahead 59-43. It wasn’t all good news for the home side however as Robin Benzing landed awkawardly and appeared to hurt his ankle on the way down. Iceland managed to cut the gap to single digits again and midway through the fourth the home side was having to work again. Schroeder and Alex King settled matters for a while. Schroeder’s efficiency from the field had to be inspiring for his side and Hawks fans watching back in Atlanta, going 7 of 12 and being smart throughout the game in his shot selection. The only gripe with the young guard was his over-enthusiasm to do all the heavy lifting. He’s got the bodies around them to lighten the load and he’ll see that as this group progresses. As for Dirk, well Iceland tried to double team them and he just acted like he was open as he nailed an easy one from the baseline.
Iceland however simply wouldn’t go away. Jon Stafansson was a one man army for most of the game but he finally got the help he needed in the closing minutes. A three from Hlynr Baeringsson made it a two possession game and with 2 minutes to play we suddenly had a game on. Just like that third quarter rally, Iceland simply couldn’t make it close enough to really scare the Germans as multiple opportunities were wasted. The home side held on.
If Germany is going to make the next round it’s going to need to play a smarter game than this. There were enough moments to see they are more than capable of that and the talent is clearly there to bring them to the last 16. An awful lot will depend on how tonight’s clash between Italy and Turkey goes. The loser of that is going to be up against it heavily, that’s the game Germany simply has to win after this one. The important thing for now is the hosts have got the 1-0 start they needed. It wasn’t always pretty but it was enough.