Italy rained threes early and stamped on Finland’s neck to book their place in the quarter finals in a performance that was far more comprehensive than the final scoreline suggests. Emmet Ryan on how Nik Melli made life miserable for Lauri Markkanen as Italy played a grown up game to progress
It wasn’t Helsinki but the Finns had still brought a crowd. The few hundred travelling fans had been getting loud early, beating their drums to mess with Italy’s warm-up well over an hour before opening tip. As has been the norm all tournament, Henrik Dettmann opted against starting the man the world was watching. Lauri Markkanen, the Chicago Bulls lottery draft pick, has silenced a lot of his doubters at this tournament already but would have to wait for his opportunity to help Finland secure a best ever finish at EuroBasket.
Italy had all the offence in the early going with Marco Belinelli and Gigi Datome picking apart the Finnish defence before Nicolo Melli nailed one from deep to force an early timeout from Dettmann. Markkanen came right in. Gigi really didn’t seem to care as he continued to toy with the Finnish defence. Melli treated Markkanen as a personal assignment and stuck to him like glue in his first shift. All the while Italy continued to pile on the points. Melli drove right round Markkanen to finish at the rim. Markkanen and Melli sat at the same time, the Fenerbahce big man having given the youngster a bruising first outing on the night.
This was an assault from deep. The thing about Italy is, they’ve got shooters. They can be incredibly streaky but when they are making them, there’s not a whole lot you can do about it. Ariel Filloy finally ended their perfect start from deep but the previous 6 found their target. At the end of the first it was Italy up 30-17 and Finland were in shock.
The second didn’t start off quite as hot for Italy from the field but Finland were just giving them all the time they wanted at the line. Petteri Koponen was unlucky to get called on a Belinelli three shot but his reaction spoke lots about where Finland were mentally in the game.
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Markkanen returned with Melli all up in his business. This time he found a seam, going right up against Melli to finish at the rim. It wasn’t much but any glimmer of hope from their hero meant a lot to the Susijengi at this stage. It was but a brief blip. Italy’s offence was back on the move and Finland’s D was in ribbons.
Once more the kid sat, once more Melli took a break. The pounding continued. Melli had never let up and Datome wanted another piece or 12. This was a team of grown men playing grown men ball and brutally ripping apart a Finnish side that came here with much hope. Away from Helsinki, they had run into an ambush and looked more than beaten at the break. Markkamania was not running wild in Istanbul. Gigi was in his home from home, his city as he calls it, and talking over. At the break Italy led 48-29.
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Markkanen started the third, Dettman didn’t have any real alternative. Sometimes Cindereralla doesn’t go to the ball. Sometimes Cinderella is on the wrong end of a stiletto through the forehead. Italy were cruising and Finland had nothing in response. The rearrival of Markkanen didn’t change a thing. Once more, the kid sat.
Gigi made his second block of the night. Finland weren’t going to be given anything easy. This was a ruthless beatdown and a message for the rest of the competition. Italy had learned from their iffy displays in Tel Aviv and were ready to throw some hurting bombs.
The Lithuanian fans poured in to watch the remnants of Finland try to mount some sort of a fightback. The Susijengi had not been silenced but their cheers grew quieter. They were cheering as much as a reminder to their side that they were still there, that they wanted to see them fight.
Koponen gave them a falling three to roar for and Mikko Koivisto made one right back. A pair of back to back threes without giving up anything in between as good a run as Finland had sustained all day. With 10 to play Italy were up 58-42 and Finnish thoughts were already turning to the World Cup qualifiers.
Back to the front came the kid. While his game wasn’t getting it done tonight, you couldn’t fault his bottle. Finland were making some headwau into the lead but it was as much putting a decent gloss on matters as anything else. Italy could never maintain the rate of punishment they had set early but they had plenty of room to work with. Now they were taking it easy and running down the clock.
Markannen finally got a break when Melli, who had been suffocating him so long, picked up his fourth foul of the night. There was a little more pep in the Finnish cheers now. Their side was giving them the fight they wanted to see, albeit in a futile effort.
A dunk by Markkanen took out some of his night’s frustrations. The kid got his moment and his cheer. He’ll be back and stronger. Italy are only thinking about the week ahead. Italy got what they came for.
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