A first-time champ is on the way!
Everything is ready for the big day here at EuroBasket 2007! Spain and Russia are set to fight for the EuroBasket title on Sunday. Spain has never won this tournament despite taking part in five finals betwen 1935 and 2003, the last one against Lithuania. Well, Russia has never won it either as a country, but the Soviet Union lifted the EuroBasket as many as 14 times, last in 1985, when a 20-year-old, injury-free Arvydas Sabonis joined forces with Vladimir Tkachenko in an incredible, almost unbeatable team. Here in Madrid, what a showdown we saw between Andrei Kirilenko of Russia and Ramunas Siskauskas of Lithuania, past and future in Euroleague powerhouse CSKA Moscow. At some point, the game turned into a one-on-one showdown like rarely seen in European basketball. Siskauskas scored more, but Kirilenko and Russia won the semifinal and its first Olympics trip since 2000. EuroBasket 2007 will still send one more team to the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, because Spain wwas already qualified as current world champions. Since Spain has reached the final, Sunday's bronze-medal game between Lithuania and Greece will decide the other automatic Olympic berth for Europe. The loser of that game plus three other teams will go to a pre-Olympic tournament next summer, where 12 teams from around the world will compete for the remaining three Olympics berths. All of which means that Sunday's seventh-place game - France vs. Slovenia - will be more important than the fifth-place one - Germany vs. Croatia. Those latter two teams have already made the pre-Olympic tournament, but for France and Slovenia, it will be do or die. So expect a Sunday full of effort like we have seen until now, four great games and just one rethorical question: are YOU going to miss it!?!?! This is what happened Saturday, keep reading...
The first semifinal was amazing, one of the best basketball games I have seen this season. The atmosphere was just as colourful as in any Final Four, with green, red and blue fans all over the place, with a huge majority of Spanish fans. I would say it is the best basketball atmopshere ever seen in Spain, but those who were in Palau Sant Jordi when FC Barcelona won the Euroleague title in 2003 know that the noise level that day was way off any chart. Saturday's game was very physical from the very beginning, with Nikos Hatzivrettas and Demos Dikoudis driving Rudy Fernandez and Felipe Reyes crazy. It worked, but Juan Carlos Navarro came off the bench and showed all his talent. Alternative defenses and three-pointers kept Spain ahead for the best part of the first half, to the delight of a Spanish journalists who jumped with each basket. Theo Papaloukas picked up three quick fouls and went back to the bench without being noticed. In fact, Greece entered the foul bonus with 7 minutes to go in the first quarter and then gave a lesson on how to play aggressive, strong defense without picking up fouls. That and an outstanding Spanoulis kept Greece in the game.
Intensity was the key for Spain and once again Jose Manuel Calderon not only was the key player, but now becomes my top candidates to win the EuroBasket MVP if Spain wins it all. Tenis superstar Rafa Nadal was in the VIP stands, jumping up and down with every Spanish positive action. Nadal is a great friend of Pau Gasol, who once again showed he is unguardable when he plays for his national team (with his best friends, that is). Navarro buried a triple and ran all the way back shouting to the dance, as if he was in a trance. Greece, as usual, never gave up, as three-pointers by Panos Vasilopoulos - what a game he had! - and Nikos Zisis made it a three-point difference in the final minute. Just when everyone had the Slovenian incident in mind, Carlos Jimenez, Navarro and Garbajosa drew respective fouls and were ice cold at the foul line, where Spain buried 27 of 28 free throws on the night. Shooting like that, Spain made it to its sixth EuroBasket final and has the chance to win its first title. The Golden Boys keep breaking records and rewriting Spanish basketball history.
The buzz here in Madrid gets bigger and bigger as days go by and so do the security measures at the Sports Palace. No further actions were taken on Day 1 other than checking my accreditation. I had to take my computer out of the bag yesterday, and I was asked about the bag content today, which is ridiculous when it was scanned first. Tomorrow is the final, but if I see security guards taking out white gloves, I will be watching on TV. Anyway, I got here in time for the Croatia vs. France here were around 400 empty seats in the media area, so I just sat down anywhere randomly, with the hard luck that its owner came just 2 minutes after me. There were dozens of fans asking for tickets outside. It is ironic, because just as expected, the arena was quite empty for the opening two games, in which Croatia and France sealed respective tickets to the pre-Olympic tournament. Another spot is up for grabs, as France goes against Slovenia tomorrow. In other words, either Tony Parker or Matjaz Smodis will run out of chances to reach the Olympics next summer.
In the second semifinal, Lithuania missed 4 shots and committed 3 turnovers in the opening 5 minutes, as Aleksey Savrasenko dominated inside. That day off Russia had seemed to be a major issue in such a short competition as the medal round. Lithuania was lost at both ends and Russia took advantage of it in the beginning with high rhythm, intensity and an outstanding J.R. Holden, who is playing better than ever with coach David Blatt. Ironically, Lithuania improved a bit with Sarunas Jasikevicius on the bench, but Russia kept rolling, as a tip-in by Andrei Kirilenko made it a 19-point game, 33-14. Only then Lithuania found its rhythm. Ramunas Siskauskas dunked it, Viktor Khryapa missed a dunk in the other end that allowed Rimantas Kaukenas to bury a corner triple. Coach Blatt quickly called timeout but the damage was done, as all Lithuanian fans helped their team regain its momentum. Suddenly a 1-12 run got Lietuva within 39-33 and Saras was his usual self, shouting and facing Savrasenko in a tense discussion on court. Russia had started to struggle on defense for the first time maybe in the entire tournament and Lithuania the made the most of it. By the time Linas Kleiza hit a three-pointer, Lithuania was back, 50-47.
It was Siskauskas who buried a triple off a screen and added a jumper to tie the game, 52-52. What a player he has become! He takes just the exact shots his team needs and is now ready to help CSKA in many ways. Russia desperately needed a go-to guy and Kirilenko emerged like the superstar he is. He downed a triple from the right wing, added a three-point play, had a huge block on Linas Kleiza and soon scored in the other end. By the time Viktor Khryapa helped him, Russia had restored a double-digit lead, 65-54, late in the third quarter. Siskauskas kept pacing Lithuania in arguably his best game ever. He dunked in traffic at the end of the third quarter and then buried a triple in front of Kirilenko. Kirilenko was unstoppable in the paint but Siskauskas fired in another three-pointer, and another one in an outstanding exhibition. Holden stepped up for Russia with 7 consecutive points, including a huge seven-meter bomb. Game over. We will have a new, first-ever EuroBasket champion. A new European basketball order.
In the consolation games to reach next summer's pre-Olympic qualifying tournament, Croatia took care of business against France, as Marko Popovic fired in 5-of-6 three-pointers to lead 5 players in double figures with 15 points, while Niksa Prkacin bounced back from a horrendous game with 14 points in just 11 minutes. Nobody enjoyed in the stands more than the legendary Mirko Novosel, a Euroleague-winning coach with Cibona, who saw that his national team can still fight to reach the 2008 Olympic Games. "It was hard to be mentally tough after the hard loss we had yesterday. It was very important for us because we want to be in the Olympics. Our main goal was playing hard," Davor Kus said after the game. Kus is about to join Euroleague powerhouse Unicaja and he can't wait. "I am very happy about joining Unicaja. It has great fans and Malaga is a basketball city. I am looking forward to playing in the Spanish League, too." Germany and Slovenia were up next and we all had the feeling that we had already seen that game just yesterday. German coach Dirk Bauermann spoke on press conference about how Slovenia played the best basketball in the opening week of the tournament and had two tough losses despite entering the final minutes with important leads. All Slovenian fans have experienced the bitter side of basketball, but with its defensive level and a star like Smodis, their team may well reach high very soon.
One of the biggest stories of the day was that Demond Greene is back in track and ready for a good Euroleague season. If you are wondering why, Greene had a horrific injury midway through the ULEB Cup season. You can look for it in YouTube, but I strongly recommend NOT to have a look because it is just one of the worst fractures ever seen. Well, not only has Greene recovered in record time, but he had 16 points in Germany's come-from-behind win against Slovenia. Once again and for the second time in less than 24 hours, Slovenia blew a nine-point lead in the final minutes to lose yet another key game. Slovenia missed 3 free throws, committed a 24-second violation plus another turnover, as well as having a defensive mismatch that left Dirk Nowitzki in the low post against Jaka Lakovic. Nowitzki scored most of his 13 first-half points when Smodis was on the bench, but he delivered in crunch time with that jumper over Lakovic and 3 of 4 free throws in the final 11.3 seconds. I spoke to Greene after the game and told him that it is unbelievable the way that he recovered. "Thank you, I really appreciate that," he told me. "It was hard, of course. Being back on the court and seeing the way I played today just feels great."
Javier Gancedo, Euroleague.net
Sunday, September 16, 2007