Giannis Antetkounmpo showed his grit as he fought through incessant D from a battling Czech Republic side to finally guide Greece to the quarter finals
At halftime every Greek journalist was either dead silent or nervously muttering. Everyone knew this wouldn’t be a pushover but the same group that had been chatty throughout the group stage had good cause to feel uneasy.
The big surprise was in how Greece opted to start. Georgios Papagiannis had come of the bench in spells since the start of the tournament and had yet to look his full self yet here he was, at the 5 with Giannis Antetokounmpo playing the 4. A pair of early buckets from Papagiannis made it look like a smart call and it wasn’t as if Giannis wasn’t still the focal point of the offence still.
The Greek line-up of those two bigs along with two comfortable ball handlers in Tyler Dorsey and Nick Calathes as well as the do-everything Kostas Papanikolaou was a new enough look in this tournament and presented a far more explosive style to get things under way as Greece raced into an early lead.
Then things got an awful lot slower as the Czechs settled and worked their way into a brief lead. This had already been one of the wilder days in EuroBasket history. Italy had stunned pre-tournament favourites Serbia, Finland had made the quarter finals for the first time since 1967, and all three previous games had ended on the same 94-86 scoreline.
Giannis had not been his usual self to start. Maybe he was still baffled after being hugged by Gianmarco Pozecco in between games. Whatever the case the Czechs were living with Greece comfortably and looked far more up to the pace of the game than one of the favourites to win it all.
Back to back threes from Kostas Sloukas and Ioannis Papapetrou settled some nerves as Greece opened the second without the Milwaukee Bucks superstar. The other Antetokounmpo that saw early action however was not having a good night as he picked up 3 fouls including a technical early to send him to the bench for an extended spell.BallinEurope is ramping up its YouTube game this season. Subscribe to our channel now for player exclusives, analysis videos, and much more.
The Czechs weren’t intimidated, with or without Giannis on the floor. Jan Vesely was in can’t miss mode and whatever pain Tomas Satoransky had from his hand injury, it didn’t seem to bother him in this one. By the end of the first 20 minutes, it was the underdogs on top 45-41. We had something cooking here.
Here we were, early in the third, and Antetokounmpo was 1 of 5 from the field. The Czechs just swarmed him and there seemed to be no fall back plan when that happened. Finally, a drive through three bodies got him his second bucket of the night.
Those MVP chants weren’t as frequent as they had been all throughout the week in Milan. The Greece fans in the stands were worried the two time NBA MVP wouldn’t save them. He got his third soon after. Czech Republic immediately called timeout, the last thing they needed was the Greek Freak building up any kind of momentum.BallinEurope has a book, a real life actual book called I Like it Loud, and you can buy it on Amazon now. It’s here as a book and here in Kindle form.
The fouls started coming as the effort to slow down Giannis intensified but now he was getting to the line and taking care of business. You can keep the king down for so long but he’s a smart enough baller to find a way to make you pay over the full 40 minutes even if it takes him a while. The drive, the lay-up, the foul drawn. As Antetokounmpo tied things up at 60-60 the Greek fans started to come to life again. Now we had the MVP chants as the bonus put the favourites back on top.
Yet the Czechs refused to stay down. Satoransky had 11 assists through three quarters and Jaromir Bochak made his third from deep of the night as they kept on coming. With 10 minutes to play, the unfancied team was up 67-63.
The all out effort to deny Giannis any room in the paint continued as the Czechs dared the other Greeks to create but fatigue looked to be kicking in, finally, in the fourth quarter. The Greek defence could smell it and closed down.
A Sloukas three and another bucket from Giannis and Greece had their first lead by more than a possession in forever. Out of the timeout and the big block by Giannis. Greece could sense this was there for the taking. Czech Republic, which had shown the resilience of a honey badger, was wilting.
They held on, although a late bucket by the Czechs ensured this one didn’t end 94-86, it was 94-88. As they left the arena, the Greece team walked through the mixed zone and few stopped to talk to anyone. Serious faces, they knew they’d survived a tough one. The thing about survival is, you live to fight another day.