Eurobasket 2013 Day 2: Surprise Contenders

Mike Fratello's led his underdog Ukraine team to a surprise 2-0 record. - Greg M. Cooper-US PRESSWIRE

Finland, Latvia, Ukraine?! These three teams only have one NBA player between them, yet all of them are currently sitting atop their respective groups....read on for more info and analysis!

Yo! I'm spending a lot of time watching the 2013 Eurobasket, so I thought I'd share some insights with you. Since there's no specific team to follow here at WTLC, I'm going to do a daily look back at what's going on. Consider it the readers digest version of the real thing, with a bit of WTLC flavor sprinkled in.

Big Upset

Belgium 77, Germany 73 (OT)

I know that Slovenia had a bigger upset, but I didn't watch it live and FIBA hasn't uploaded it yet, so I can't provide analysis.

And just when you thought things couldn't get any messier in Group A, they did. The big news from this game is the smoke and mirrors that Germany put up in their game against France. I was expecting to see Heiko Schaffartzik to act as a real distributor for this team, but I mostly saw him pull up for threes. In fact, I was more impressed with Per Gunther, the team's backup point, in that department.

Overall, Germany's offense was hard to watch. They took way too many pull-up threes, and they had a really hard time getting anything going near the basket. They didn't come up with a real solution for the problem, instead relying on Robin Benzing isolation plays and Tibor Pleiss offensive rebounds. Whenever they did run a play, they could never get Belgium to switch or pressure so finding an open man was really difficult. Moreover, they don't have an athletic player or reliable big that can score consistently in on their own, so nobody could draw pressure.

On the other hand, Belgium's offense was really fun to watch. I couldn't sum it up any better than their coach did during a timeout, stating, "We go for the penetration and the creation! Okay team?" Belgium's team is awful familiar with each other, and they'll often use all 5 players on a single play. There was a lot of driving and kicking going on, but they also love to snipe the other team by running a lot of action on one side of the floor and leaving somebody else open on the weak side. The strategy worked to a T. They were also able to get a number of uncontested layups in the lane, due to Germany's lean lineup.

The only problem was that Belgium couldn't execute. I'm fairly sure I counted 5 missed layups in the first half, and when I stopped counting in the second half, I saw a few more. I know that these attempts are tough, but these guys were literally fumbling it from point blank range. Germany was making their share of mistakes too, with at least three 3 pointers taken with a foot on the line, and some needless turnovers.

In no place was this lack of execution better exemplified than at the end of game. After a stunning display of threes from Jonathan Tabu and Lucca Steiger (who made his threes after missing all of his previous attempts), we were treated to a foul show in overtime. With 22 seconds left and Germany down by 3, Guy Muya fouled Heiko Schaffartzik. Schaffartzik, a 91% shooter, went 1 of 2. This prompted Germany to foul Sam Van Rossom, an 85% shooter. He missed one. Then, Belgium fouled Schaffartzik again. He also missed one. Then Germany had the good fortune of fouling a 60% shooting big, Sacha Massot. He missed one. Thus, with Germany down by 2, they had a final chance to win it at 8 seconds left. Belgium immediately fouls Schaffartzik again. He misses two. Pleiss rebounds it, and misses a prime chance at winning the game. Belgium wins by default, because no one was able to close this game.

By the way, if you're wondering how Tibor Pleiss is doing, he's performing well. He's Germany's sole big so they have to rely upon him for a lot of rebounding and post work. He's not really trusted to isolate a back to the basket situation on his own, but when he does get the ball, he can finish. His averages are 10.5 points, 8 boards, 1 assist, 2.5 turnovers, 1 steal, and 1 block through two games.

Best Game

Croatia 77-Georgia 76

Words can't even describe how incredible this game was. It began as you might think it would, with the slightly more talented Croatians winning out by nailing some key shots. But Georgia was sparked into the game via some great play from Ricky Hickman, and this game went down to the absolute wire.

In the fourth quarter, both teams had their horse to ride. Georgia was riding the horse known as George Tsinsadze. He was nailing down some deep and difficult threes, while providing some key pressure that led to a few steals. Croatia was riding the horse known as Dontaye Draper. Draper had only gotten some spot minutes up until his entry in the fourth, but he managed to make an immediate impact by nailing some tough shots of his own.


In terms of strategy, this was an interesting game to watch. Croatia started out by using their trap-heavy defense, and it worked in getting them some free buckets, but it really did nothing to stop Georgia from getting easy points inside. Later in the game, they focused more on protecting the paint, and it forced Tsinsadze's incredible streak of shooting to keep Georgia in the game. Meanwhile, on offense, Croatia started really pounding it inside during the third quarter, trying to get Ante Tomic going. But Tomic couldn't get to the position he wanted to, so he used Georgia's tight interior defense against them and acted as a facilitator. The tactic worked like a charm, and Croatia managed to keep their offense going while the threes weren't falling.

The ironic part about the whole thing is that after a 1-3 shooting night, Ante Tomic hit the game winning shot with mere seconds to go. This was a play after Tsinsadze sent him to the line, and two plays after Tsinsadze had stolen a pass from him. Just goes to show that if you're a great passer, good things will eventually come.

Ultimately, I feel like Georgia lost is because their team is just a bit too thin. Manuchar Markoishvili had a bad game, and they only had three players score in the fourth quarter. Moreover, they had defended the post so well all day, but failed to lock it down when it mattered most. Still, just a little bit more air on a final shot by Tsinsadze could have changed all that....

Other Games

Lithuania 75, Macedonia 67

Box ScoreHighlights

This game was a re-match of the 2011 Quarterfinals, where an underdog Macedonia managed to upset Lithuania in front of their home crowd. The two teams have met once since then, in the 2012 Olympic Qualifying tournament, where Lithuania cruised to victory. This game, however, represented Macedonia's best shot at beating Lithuania, as they looked incredibly weak following a loss to Serbia.

But disaster had struck Macedonia before this game even started. Bo McCalebb, the heart and soul of this team, had knocked knees with Tyrese Rice, Jr. in a previous match against Montenegro. He managed to recover during that game, but here, he was a shadow of himself. Early on he was playing with a knee brace. He was able to mask his limited mobility by avoiding handling the ball, but as the game wore on, it was apparent that the man was injured. He didn't have the same speed or quickness, and he was a lot more clumsy. He lost the ball a few times on offense. Defensively, I saw him fall on the floor while trying to keep up with Mantis Kalnietis a couple of times. Later in the game, he took the brace off his knee and was able to perform a bit better, but he was still just a step below his normal self. It was apparent that the injury got worse as the game wore on. By the end of the game, he was standing on the perimeter offensively, and giving minimal effort defensively. Kalnietis was able to seal the game on a jumper while McCalebb did his best Derek Fisher impersonation.

Still, you have to hand it to Macedonia for keeping it at close as they did. If they had taken McCalebb out towards the end of the game, I'd say that they would have had a real shot at winning it. But this three point shooting team was really able to adjust their strategy midway through the game. Early on, they were playing their usual style, spreading the floor with shooters and setting up a lot of threes. But their percentages were horrible without McCalebb creating space, so they re-focused on pounding the ball inside with their guards.

Lithuania, on the other hand, focused on pounding the ball inside from very early on. They don't have the pick and roll masterminds that they used to, but the strategy worked well against the smaller Macedonia. Jonas Valanciunas was able to sky over Antic for a few key buckets, while Lavrinovis, Maciulis, Motiejunas, and Darjus Lavrinovic were able to do the rest. All in all, Lithuania took only 8 threes in the game, totally unprecedented in the history of the team.

Going forward, neither of these teams looks very strong. Macedonia has the obvious injury to McCalebb, which leaves them on a Bosnia level in terms of talent and ball movement. Lithuania still has problems with their guard speed (they were getting torched early on), and their once well-rehearsed offense devolved into running endless pick and rolls. Wouldn't be surprised if Latvia and Montenegro were able to sneak out of the group instead of these two teams.

Latvia 73, Montenegro 72

Box ScoreHighlights

You'd think that Nikola Vucevic would lead the way against the undersized Latvians, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Tyrese Rice led the charge for Montenegro instead, registering a BoMcCalebb-like 24 points. The game was a case of size versus speed, with Montenegro grabbing offensive boards and Latvia playing some really efficient offense to make up for their deficiency. The game came down to the wire, with Latvia overcoming a late 8 point deficit with some great drive and kick plays.

Rice was very nearly able to repeat his heroics of yesterday, as he grabbed an And 1 that put Montenegro up by 1 with ten seconds to go, but Latvia were able to draw the pressure and nail a wide open two on the penultimate play. Then, Montenegro had a very real chance to win it, but Rice's final layup rimmed out, after which a tip-in rimmed out as well. The final sequence was eerily reminiscent of their win against Macedonia yesterday.

Slovenia 78, Spain 69

Box ScoreHighlights

I'm sad that I didn't get to watch this game (and still haven't been able to, thanks to FIBA's not uploading yesterday's games), but it looks like Slovenia took control. The game was super ugly in the early going, with Spain shooting in the 30s and Slovenia shooting 28.6%. Slovenia was also 13 boards behind Spain, yet only 8 points behind. Somehow, in the Second half, Slovenia was able to kick their offense into high gear and score 53 points in 20 minutes, while Spain's offense ran at a standard pace.

But with Spain playing nearly their entire roster in this game and only giving heavy minutes to Gasol, it's apparent that they're waiting for later rounds. It also seems that a key to Spain's dominance will be their ability to control the pace, over anything else. Also, this isn't the end of the world for Spain. They lost to Turkey in 2011, and Turkey, Serbia, and Lithuania in 2009. They ended up easily winning both tournaments.

Czech Republic 69, Poland 68

Box ScoreHighlights

If I didn't know better, I'd say that Jan Vesely is the real deal. I didn't get to catch any of this one (mostly because I kept assuming that the Czech Republic would fall behind, and because Belgium and Germany were close). But looking at the box score, it looks like Marcin Gortat and Macej Lampe were held to 8 of 27 shooting, while Vesely shot 52%, scored 23, and grabbed 14 rebounds. So he carried a good portion of his team, while Lampe and Gortat weighed down their team. Wow. Tomas Satoransky and Lobos Barton also did their part, though, and even Jiri Welsch had 7 assists.

Ukraine 74-Israel 67

Box ScoreHighlights

Israel is a team that's in absolute shambles right now. Simply out, their offense is so terrible that not even 21 forced turnovers and a zone defense could get it going. The groin injury to their only post threat, Alexander Tyus, hasn't helped things out either. At the end of the day, a team can't survive without a post presence AND a three point shot. Meanwhile, Sergii Gladyr now has a reputation for hitting clutch threes, as he basically sealed the game for Ukraine both today and yesterday. And down low for Ukraine, Viacheslav Kravstov and Kyryl Natyazhko were able to have a field day against Israel's front line.

Greece 80, Russia 71

Box ScoreHighlights

This game really comes down to two factors. For one, Russia takes too many threes without being able to hit them regularly. (Kind of like the Timberwolves.) Secondly, Russia can't defend the paint. Greece had three bigs (Stratos Perperoglu, Loukas Mavrokefalidis, and Kostas Kaimakoglu) who were able to score well above their averages at ridiculously efficient percentages (they shot a combined 13-20). Also, this game must've been pretty sloppy, as both teams finished with 17 turnovers.

Finland 81, Sweden 60

Box ScoreHighlights

Looks like Petteri Koponen and co were able to cruise their way past their Nordic neighbors. They were a lot more successful inside than they were against Turkey yesterday, and that allowed them to play their trademark high-powered offense. Sweden was killed by a terrible second quarter in which they succumbed to Finland's pressure, turned the ball over 7 times, and scored only four points. Yikes!

Serbia 77, Bosnia 67

Box ScoreHighlights

The score indicates that this match was closer than it really was, as Bosnia had a late run. But again, Bosnia finished with a low assist total, so it's no surprise that they lost. Krstic and Nedovic weren't as dominant as they were against Lithuania, but Serbia had a strong performance from their point guard, Stefan Markovic.

Italy 90, Turkey 75

Box ScoreHighlights

With a fast offense and superior firepower, Italy was able to thwart the flawed Turkish team. Gigi Datome, who looked like a star in his last outing, went scoreless. But Pietro Arradori and Alessandro Gentile were able to make up for him, leading Italy to shoot 54.5% from the field. Turkey shot similarly well, but they couldn't force any turnovers and shot poorly from the free throw line.

France 88, Great Britain 65

Box ScoreHighlights

Finally, a result that reminds me that all is right in this world. Team GB was able to keep up in the first half by letting Daniel Clark take advantage of the slow French bigs, but France eventually broke this game open in the third. It was a talent difference more than anything, but Britain relies too much on the three, while France was able to force Britain into 17 turnovers with their trapping.

Rising Stars

Sergii Gladyr, Ukraine: The Eurobasket's version of Robert Horry, he's hit two clutch baskets to seal both of Ukraine's games so far, while averaging 14 PPG.

Tyrese Rice, Montenegro: He had 24 points on the team's second outing, and scored on two consecutive plays to nearly lead his team to victory. He very nearly won the game on a third consecutive play, but the ball barely rimmed out. If Montenegro can advance, he could be this year's BoMcCalebb.

Lubos Barton, Czech Republic: He's been the rock of the Czech's offense, averaging 9.5 PPG at almost 50% shooting.

Jonathan Tabu, Belgium: 14 PPG through two games, and probably the only Belgian player who can truly isolate if he needs to.

Duds

Heiko Schaffartzik, Germany: After an 11 assist performance against France, he failed to impress against Belgium. Way too many difficult threes, no ball movement until the end of the game, and four turnovers.

Kyle Johnson, Great Britain: Scored 5 points on 2-8 shooting after a 22 point performance against Israel.

Cool Stuff

Viktor Sanikidze. Going grey and bald at a young age isn't something you'd wish on your worst enemy. But the way in which this man has rapidly aged is amazing. Just a few years ago, he looked like this. Pretty normal young dude, right? Now, he looks like this. He's basically a cross between your dad and the local yoga guru. Adding to his legend is the fact that he's capable of plays like this, is nicknamed "Air Georgia", and is probably the most athletic player on his team. Awesome, on every level. I'd pay a lot of money to roll up to a pickup game with this guy, pick him first over the slate of muscular 20 some year olds, and watch him dunk on some fools.

Highlights of the Day

The Amazing Play

Simply put, there's no better way to seal a game.

The Game Clincher

Okay, so this play was a lot more amazing if you saw it live, but still, it's there. Ante Tomic had been acting as a distributor all day, holding the ball in the paint and drawing the Georgian defense. So to see him finally rise up and score after a 1-3 shooting night when it mattered most was pretty amazing. Add that to the fact that the pick and roll wasn't working all day for Croatia, and you begin to understand just how out-of-place this play was.

Real Talk

After two days, we've got three huge surprises sitting at 2-0. Finland, Latvia, and Ukraine were considered by many not strong enough to exit their groups, but now all three teams stand on the verge of advancement. Of the three, I'd consider Latvia to be the safest bet, as they've got a weak group with no teams that can really take advantage of their size disadvantage. Ukraine only has to beat Great Britain to advance, so they should be able to cruise, though I don't think they'll beat France or Germany. Finland will have a tough road against Russia, Italy, and Greece, so I wouldn't expect them to advance.

All in all, the two teams that look the best right now are Serbia and Greece. Neither has had to play a close game, but both of them have had pretty weak schedules so far. Spain lost a game, but with Slovenia holding home court and them resting their players, I wouldn't read too much into it, and still consider them elite. Beyond those three, there's a bool of maybe 5-8 teams that I'd consider dark horses.

Looking at the 0-2 teams, all of them have a hard road ahead. Israel and Sweden have absolutely no chance, with tough matchups ahead. Poland, Bosnia, and Macedonia all are in the next tier, with very little chance of advancement. Poland still has to face Slovenia, Spain, and Croatia, arguably the three best teams in their group. Bosnia has talent, but they haven't come close to winning a game. And Macedonia would have a chance, but with Bo McCalebb injured, it's unlikely. Turkey has the talent to win all of their games, but everything hinges on their ability to find a reliable offense. Lastly, Russia should be able to easily recover, with matches against Sweden, Finland, and Turkey ahead.

Be sure to Czech out @WTLC on Twitter for live commentary of the games!

Also check back here for daily updates and analysis of what's going on!

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