It was the Kristaps and Bogdan show for large chunks of this one as Latvia and Serbia delivered a thoroughly exciting game in Group D. With plenty of Boban Smash and some nice cameos from the Bertans brothers, this one was destined to be a cracker from early on. Emmet Ryan reports on a game which had to have a winner but showed that both of these sides have to be considered serious contenders for the medal rounds.
The arena was still far from full but the strong support for Latvia was obvious well before tip. The run to the quarter finals last time was a good result, if a touch unexpected, but this was a team with real hope. The best of that 2015 edition was here along with a certain 7’3″ big man that plies his trade in New York City. Opening tip is won. Cheer. Kristaps Porzingis with the easy jumper over Ognjen Kuzmic. Cheer. Bogdan Bogdanovic misses a free throw. Cheer. In a game that could well end up deciding who tops the group, the Latvian fans were expecting victory.
It took Serbia over three minutes to score from the field, via Milan Macvan, but Latvia weren’t exactly making it rain either. Despite both sides pushing hard down the floor, solid opportunities were tough to come by. Kristaps put up an ugly floater almost out of frustration before Kuzmic took him down hard. That was his second and meant it was Boban time. The giant of the Detroit Piston, Boban Marjanovic, had been in Boban smash mode all summer and was going to bring a really physical presence to this one. He couldn’t do anything about Kristaps first shot over him however and Latvia were starting to cook. Porzingis got a finger tip to deny Boban and then Dairis Bertans made it a 14-7 lead to force a timeout from Serbia.
The pounding kept coming. Bogdanovic was doing what he could to keep pace but Latvia had far more options to score and were creating space so much better. Marjanovic wasn’t getting his steady diet of touches inside and Latvia were bringing far too much heat for Serbia’s other options. Finally Boban’s size started to pay off with Porzingis sitting, with Latvia’s scoring drying up and the big guy rocking up the other end to create space. Having fallen into a 12 point hole, Serbia started to get some service from Vladimir Lucic to eat into Latvia’s lead. Martijns Meiers clearly had one job out there, to foul Marjanovic 5 times, and got 2 of them in early. Kristaps returned to give Latvia a late flurry but Bogdanovic nailed a 3 on the buzzer to leave his side trailing just 24-21.
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Bogdanovic moved to double digits for his personal tally early in the second as he raced around the court, looking to take control of affairs. Yeah, Kristaps wasn’t having that, it was time for Porzingod mode. A big old swat on Vladimir Stimac was followed by a long three and then Macvan got shut down before heading back on O to nail a dunk.
For all of Kristaps’ fury, Serbia kept their heads and didn’t let his one man rush deter them. Sasha Djordevic knew he had a deeper bench than Latvia and he was rotating hard early. Serbia swallowed up the gap in short order as Boban, Bogdan, and Lucic presented diverse options that tired the Latvian D. Already you could see that fatigue hitting, the early push taking the wind out of the Baltic side.
Boban was now making hay, coming in fresh and showed it with a vicious dunk over Porzingis. He had weathered the early blows and was coming out swinging. Ainars Bagatskis went to Davis Bertans, who he had been using sparingly, to stop this game from getting out of hand before the half. The San Antonio Spurs man delivered early with a three and brought some calm back to Latvia’s game. At the half this was a close one with Latvia having the best of the late exchanges to lead 47-45.
Serbia’s depth really started to pay dividends when the game got back under way with Marko Guduric and Stefan Jovic presenting plenty of problems for Latvia. Those issues got deeper when Porzingis picked up a pair of fouls in quick succession to be on 4 with around 17 minutes to play. Latvia were suffering through an 8-0 run from the Serbs and the problems weren’t going away anytime soon. Davis took up the mantle once more but there was Bogdan, ready to turn the screw.
The questions over Serbia going into this were simple. How would they handle the losses and how would Bogdan perform as the leader of this outfit in the absence of Milos Teodosic. Through two and a half quarters of their tournament opener the answers were clear: rotate like crazy and really, really, well.
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The numbers were tidy for Bogdan, with him racking up points for fun, but it was his ability to play the guy out there that stood out. If this was going to be his team, that was alright with him. Around a Serbian side with tremendous pride, they needed a battlefield general and that’s what he gave them. Serbia’s point guard rotation is, by Serbian standards*, wafer thin so Bogdan took on the creative duties where it suited, played hard on D, and kept on showing up with shots when he saw them.
*Around 16-20 nations in this competiton would kill for their point guard rotation
Davis meanwhile was embracing his role as the accidental leader. Bertans has shown sparks of brilliance in the NBA this past season but never enough to force himself into the playoff rotation as a serious contributor. The young Latvian however is a sponge for knowledge. Year in, year out, he’s made clear physical imrpovements in his game. His passing vision here was a few levels above what he had seen with him during his last European season with Baskonia. He wanted this kind of pace and he wanted to be the one setting it.
For all Serbia’s pressure, they couldn’t shake Latvia as the frame came to a close. They were finally ahead, 65-60, but with 10 minutes to play the job wasn’t done.
Porzingis was back in to start the final frame, so was Boban. Kristaps couldn’t take any risks out there and Marjanovic knew it, sticking to the New York Knicks man on both ends. He didn’t have to say a word to goad Porzingis, he knew he could take those chances to get physical, he could hang off the Latvian and wait for a mistake. All the while slowing the game and creating space for those around him. Davis came up again. Latvia had brought in their first option but it was Bertans who was keeping them in this. The other Bertans brother then came up with a three before Davis blocked Boban.
It was exactly what they needed as Latvia ground back in front on the back of a Porzingis three. This one was in the melting pot and once more Serbia went to their depth. Jovic and Guduric spearheaded a 7-0 run. It would prove enough to snuff out an impressive Latvian challenge.
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