With just two days (and one game per team) remaining in 2011 EuroBasket round two, BallinEurope takes a brief look at some issues and trends going down in the tournament – plus links and YouTubes, of course. Read on for quips, quotes and clips.
• Importance of remaining games. Of six games left to play, four are critical to shaping the knockout round while two feature battles of undefeated teams fighting for group supremacy and the no. 1 seed. Both Spain-France tonight and FYR Macedonia-Russia tomorrow determine the group’s top two finishers, while the Slovenia-Finland (definitely) and Turkey-Serbia (most likely) games will lock in the no. 4 teams from the groups.
• Valanciunas vs. Kanter. In terms of prospect-watching, these are the guys observers have their eyes on. In general, Toronto Raptors fans should be fairly stoked – even a tad miffed that the Lithuanian lad won’t be joining their club for the 2011-12 season (should it happen) – about Valanciunas’ progress.
After a rocky and/or blink-and-you’ll-miss-it start in games one through three of the tournament – playing a total of 22 minutes, including a DNP against Turkey and a five-turnover match against Poland – Valanciunas put in a performance that quite possibly we’ll someday remember as his breakout game against Spain. The sole bright spot of that game for Lithuania, the 19-year-old got lots more court time in substituting for the injured Marijonas Petravicius and looked like an old hand in matching up against The Gasol Boys while stymieing them with the ball as well. And since the Turkey game, Valanciunas has owned the paint, going a big 18-of-27 shooting, highlighted by his 8-of-19, 18-point performance against Serbia.
Kanter, on the other hand, still disappointingly falls into the “work in progress” category, especially after comparing him to Valanciunas’ and his common opponents. While Team Turkey is happy to let their youngest player dominate the key when applying a bombs-away strategy against squads like Poland, Portugal and Great Britain, Kanter has been outplayed and constantly out of position against NBA-heavy squads France and Spain. Valanciunas definitely won the head-to-head battle against Kanter in game three of pool play, as Kanter demonstrated his footwork on defense is not developed enough to handle a speedy big man like The Big V.
Sure, Kanter heartened Turkey (and Utah Jazz) fans with his cool effort against Chris Kaman and Germany in going 5-of-5 for 11 points in 19 minutes, but he sat to watch the game’s final eight minutes against one of the less physical teams in the tournament. Utahans, you’ll have to wait a bit longer for your guy to blossom, it seems – though BiE believes you needn’t be quite as critical as this guy. Raptor Nation, you’ll have to wait, too … but rest assured, you’re getting a good one in Valanciunas.
• Vive la France! Going into the Lithuania game, BallinEurope’s UK guy Sam Chadwick wrote BiE to ask theoretically, “If anyone can defend Tony Parker, it’s Sarunas Jaskevicus, right?” After the game, we can say, “well, yes and no.” While Saras may have the smarts to play Parker, the grizzled old veteran is about a step too slow for Parker, who’s about a half-step too slow for, say, the speedy PGs of Spain.
But while Parker is driving this team, the Lithuania game showed that France can play ball with a truly deep squad and that Les Bleus are no one-man effort. Team France is in an enviable position of being able to stock a lineup full of top-level specialists playing at top form. While the Spur was good for 19 points (his second-lowest game total in the tournament), Nando de Colo was better with 21 to accompany five steals after serving as a fill-in in the first six games. Joakim Noah has seemingly never been happier defending and grabbing boards: His 13 rebounds against Lietuva increased his EuroBasket average to an even 8.0 per game, including 2.6 per off the offensive glass.
Naturally, much will be revealed in the Spain-France game tonight – in fact, BiE’s got Spain winning – but you’ve got to like Les Bleus as a top-four side right now at least.
• Speaking of the France-Spain contest, these two countries have quite the rivalry going in recent years. Back in 2005, Parker and Team France humiliated Spain the third-place game of this tournament, 88-68. Spain returned the favor in EuroBasket 2009, knocking out Parker’s guys in the quarterfinals by nearly the same score at 86-66. In the 2010 FIBA World Championship, France presented Spain with a bit of a speed bump, taking out the Spaniards on day one, 72-66. And of course, though friendly games don’t matter, Les Bleus certainly haven’t forgotten the thrashing Les Rojos handed them in August.
Better yet, with the way these teams are playing, we may see this matchup again – in the finals.
• With their approximately 3,743 draft picks stashed in Europe, San Antonio Spurs fans had a number of reasons to watch this EuroBasket – even beyond Tony Parker. Project Spurs provides a glimpse of Team Georgia’s Viktor Sanikidze, selected by the team in 2004 and perhaps the least likely European to ever join the NBA club at this point…
• While the marquee game is Spain vs. France, most likely the only crucial game vis-à-vis the knockout round tonight is Turkey vs. Serbia. Assuming a Lithuania win against Germany in the late game, the Turkey-Serbia throwdown will determine the no. 4 spot in Group E.
You want a clash of styles? How about Serbia’s second-high scoring team (83.0 ppg) vs. the big Turkey defense (fifth-best among remaining teams at 67.7 ppg allowed)? Team Serbia will have its hands full in attempting to slow down Omer Asik, who has seemingly found his rhythm after inconsistent play in the first round: He’s gone for 11 boards in each of the last two games, including seven offensive in both. However, Turkey has been dogged by general inconsistency and horrible three-point shooting from most of the backcourt (Ender Arslan, Kerem Tunceri and Cenk Aykol have combined for a 7-of-47 – just under 13% – “success” rate); clearly Asik won’t be enough, particularly should Nenad Krstic be keeping him good and busy underneath the rim.
In case you’ve forgotten, this game also represents a virtual rematch of the 2010 FIBA World Championship showdown. After an incredibly hard-fought, evenly-matched battle, Turkey emerged with the right to take on Team USA for the title after a second-half comeback and last-second heroics by Tunceri – heroics that probably should have been whistled dead before they happened.
Think Serbia wants revenge, badly? Think Milos Teodosic, whose brilliant 11-assist performance in that semifinal match will set out to torture Kunceri et al is this one? O, yes.
• How about that FYR Macedonia? Not only is Team Macedonia thrilling in EuroBasket 2011 with its stirring run as dark horse, they’re also causing broken hearts and heart attacks along the way. After taking care of Slovenia last night, that team is now forced to control its destiny against Finland tomorrow – a game in which all the pressure is on the traditional basketball power.
So how is FYR Macedonia doing it? A steady diet of Bo McCalebb (maybe this tournament’s most alpha of alpha dogs with Luol Deng’s Britain out holds a stat line of team-leading 21.3 points, 4.1 assists and 2.4 steals per game), of course, but also an ingenious plan built around the naturalized citizen’s game. McCalebb, Pero Antic and Vlado Illievski have combined to take 57% of all the team’s shots and nearly 88% (73-of-83) of all Macedonian assists.
Macedonia has been playing a disproportionate amount of one-on-one challenges and shot-creation with the ball, a neo-American approach that is frustrating seemingly better defenses (Greece, BiE’s looking at you…), while dividing up rebounding chores among a stable of workhorses. Plus, FYR Macedonia’s turning the ball over just 10.4 times per game, best among remaining teams.
Tomorrow’s game will determine the top seed in Group F and, though this side is perfect 5-0 in September (last losing to Montenegro in the EuroBasket opener in overtime on August 31), BiE nevertheless has Russia penciled in. While this would most likely set FYR Macedonia up with Lithuania in the knockout stage, not even the hosts should take such a game for granted right now.