A magnificent Lauri Markkanen performance guided Finland to the last 8 of EuroBasket for the first time in 55 years. Emmet Ryan was in Berlin to take in Markkamania make history.
Croatia had taunted the basketball gods before this game. By deciding not to try for the two seed, they appeared smart by avoiding Slovenia in the quarter finals but it was quite the slight to their last 16 opponent of Finland albeit unintentional. Finland came out gunning with Sasu Salin on the outside and Lauri Markkannen on the inside taking turns making open buckets.
As Finland sat their top two offensive threats, Croatia brought in a true centre for the first time in the form of Karlo Matkovic. The Finnish attack looked far more sluggish immediately and Croatia comfortably pulled back the entire 8 point deficit. As soon as he came back in, Markkanen got a tip in to restore the lead but Croatia had found some rhythm now and that made them awfully dangerous to Finland.
Markkanen had the look of sheer determination on his face as Croatia called timeout with 7.10 left in the half. He’d just nailed a three to put Finland back on top and had roused his side from its brief slumber. Markkamania wasn’t quite running wild yet but you could sense he was ready to explode if given the opportunity.
Ivica Zubac finally entered the game for the first time late in the second quarter as the LA Clippers big man switched with Matkovic. Zubac had hurt his ankle in the win over Ukraine in Milan and couldn’t even practice coming into this. Considering the impact he’d had over the course of the group phase, even though he was carrying a knock it was a surprise it took this long for his introduction. Whatever the cause, it brought some more problems for Finland as Croatia continued to bust holes in the Finnish D.
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Markannen however seemed to be in their heads and Croatians gave up three technical fouls in short order. It was a back and forth head game really and it was anybody’s guess at the half who’d come out on top.
It was beyond obvious by the middle of the third quarter that the combination of Markkanen, Salin, and Edon Maxhuni was fundamental to Finland’s chances. Every time one of them sat, they lost far too much on both ends. Even with Maxhuni sitting, you could see the extra pressure on the other two of the Susijengi’s big three when they sought out a shot.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.
Oh now Lauri was cooking. A couple of quick dunks either side of a Croatia timeout and Finland’s star was getting it done. He scored four straight buckets for Finland as, what was kind of expected, came to pass as he become the absolute focal point of the Finnish offence. He’d cleared 29 points for the day before he sat out most of the the last minute of the third but he came in to make the tip in on the buzzer to ensure they had the lead going into the final quarter to make it all five of Finland’s last five scores in the quarter.
He started the fourth the same way he’d ended the third, by putting Finland in front as he slammed home yet again. It had however turned into a clear Markkanen vs Croatia battle as none of the Susijengi’s other offensive options were delivering in crunch time. This wasn’t exactly a shock, Markkanen was averaging more than double any of his team mates going into the game and Salin was the only one with double-digit averages.
Finally, after a run of 15 straight points for Markkanen, Henri Kantonen made a three which gave Finland back the lead midway through the third. Markkanen was given a chance to catch his breath, albeit a brief one, as he went almost immediately back to the scorers’ table once he sat.
Salin showed back up right when Finland needed him as his three made it an 8 point lead with 3.32 left on the clock. When Markkanen brought it to double digits, you could sense it was done. One last 3 from Markkanen late meant it was.
An extraordinary individual performances, with 43 points and 9 rebounds, but an amazing day for Finnish basketball as it reached the quarter finals of EuroBasket for the first time since 1967.