Eurobasket 2009: Quarterfinal Preview (Part I)
We have reached the quarterfinals at Eurobasket 2009. Six qualifying spots for the 2010 Worlds are on the line, not to mention three medals. The four winners of quarterfinal games qualify for the Worlds, while the four quarterfinal losers will be placed in a loser's bracket. *Two more qualifiers will be determined from the loser's bracket. *(Possibly three teams depending on how Turkey fares.)
There are two games on Thursday and two on Friday in Katowice, Poland. The headliner is France vs. Spain (3 pm ET), which will be played Thursday, along with Russia-Serbia (12:15 pm ET). Greece-Turkey and Croatia-Slovenia are the Friday matchups - lots of close geographical matchups. (Note: France-Spain winner will play the Greece-Turkey winner in the semis). Let's start by focusing on the big France-Spain game.
Quarterfinals: France (5-0) vs. Spain (3-2)
After sleepwalking through the start of the tourney, Spain has turned up the heat the last two games, looking like the España we expected, while the undefeated French squad has been steady from the start, buoyed by its exceptional defense. Spain underachieved for the first four games and only earned the #4 seed, so France has to face them two rounds earlier than they would have liked. For Spain, it's a role reversal from the 2004 Olympics, when they went 5-0 in group play but had to play a talented but underachieving Team USA in the quarterfinals and lost.
This matchup will have a strong NBA flavor to it with Pau Gasol (Lakers), Marc Gasol (Grizzlies) and Rudy Fernandez (Blazers), plus 2009 draftees Ricky Rubio (Timberwolves), Victor Claver (Blazers) and Sergio Llull (Rockets) suiting up for Spain. France will counter with Tony Parker (Spurs), Boris Diaw (Bobcats), Nic Batum (Blazers) and Ian Mahinmi (Spurs), plus 2009 draftee Nando De Colo (Spurs). (Don't expect to see much of Claver or Mahinmi, though.)
The defensive game plan vs. France is pretty straight-forward: force the French into jump shot after jump shot. Make Les Bleus beat you from 15 feet & out. Team France should expect plenty of zone and sagging man. The one-foot-in-the-paint rule vs. France would be heavily emphasized if I were an opposing coach.
France's 3pt numbers aren't too bad right now, 36%, but those numbers were beefed up by an improbable two-game stretch in which they shot 20-for-38 from downtown. You take those two games out, France is shooting 26% behind the arc--more in line with what they shoot historically. Lack of outside shooting has been the main thing holding France back from consistently competing for medals the last few years.
Keep Parker out of the lane, make him a jump shooter. Nando De Colo is France's only reliable perimeter threat, and he's not even that dangerous. It's no surprise France can go thru extended lulls on the offensive end in the half-court because of their lack of floor-spreaders.
Expect Spain to feature some zone alignments and sagging man. They have mixed in zones liberally the last few years, even some 3x2 looks. Either way, Pau Gasol will laying back in front the rim for most of game, little reason for him to come out. Over the last few years, Spain has probably played the best zone in int'l competition, besides Russia.
Spain has looked to up the pace the last few games with aggressive ball pressure. But there is very little reason to pressure France, it's better to give them a cushion and sit back. It's probably better to keep France in a half-court type of game.
No doubt Pau Gasol is option numero uno for Team Espana. Pau has not failed to impress, averaging 17 ppg on 63% FG, 8 rpg, & 2 bpg. Pau's only weakness right now is his 50% FT shooting. Don't forget that his free throws woes in the '07 Gold Medal game hurt the Spaniards.
Spain's main perimeter objective is to get the ball in Juan Navarro's hands. Navarro is coming off an electric performance vs. Poland, in which he drained 7-of-9 3pters. They'll run Juan off countless screens to get him open for his jumpers or so he can curl for his patented floater. Navarro will be put in iso and ball-screen action where he's dangerous with quick dribble pull-ups. Rudy Fernandez will be used in a similar fashion to Navarro.
After missing the first game with a leg injury, Rudy has shot the ball very well--putting up 13 ppg on a sterling eFG% of 60%. But Rudy still has a tendency to get out of control sometimes. Rudy has teamed with Rubio to cause havoc defensively when Spain has looked to extend pressure.
Ricky Rubio seems to be having a pedestrian tourney with 5 ppg & 4.5 apg, not to mention poor shooting. But one must realize that Rubio is being asked to be more of a caretaker rather than a dynamic playmaker on this team. So many options to keep happy.
Spain likes to use a double high-post formation where one of the bigs gets the ball up high and the other big peels-n-seals into a post-up to set up hi-lo action.
Felipe Reyes will also get touches in the interior and he is a very capable scorer with crafty moves. Might see a double dose of Gasol, with Pau & Marc on the floor together for limited stretches.
Marc Gasol has been solid off the bench with 7 ppg & 6.7 rpg in only 19 mins/game. Marc uses quick spins well on the blocks, especially going to the baseline.
As usual, France covers for a sometime ragged offense with a consistently great defense. France has held its opponents to 40% from the floor, 2nd best in tourney. The French can switch off on defense thanks to their athletic wings & bigs. Their help & recovery is tight and they can get out to the shorter 3pt. line easily. The bigs hold up well in ball-screen action, showing or switching.
France likes to move the pick-n-rolls to the sides in an attempt to discourage the defense to load up the defense on Parker. Tony Parker is the engineer of the French attack, trying to get to the rim where he can finish as well as any guard in the world or can draw fouls. Parker is currently leading France in scoring with 18 ppg (seven FT attempts per game).
Boris Diaw has been his usual inconsistent self, looking sharp one game then completely disappearing the next. Diaw was a no-show in the last game vs. Greece, so he's on schedule for a quality game. Nic Batum has been a solid presence on both ends of the floor with 10 ppg & 5 rpg. Batum loves to drive the baseline on offense and has been a terrific help defender so far.
Alain Koffi and Ali Traore have given France a nice lift off the bench in this tourney. Both active 6-10 athletes are valuable on defense and can occasionally score near the rim. But Ronny Turiaf has dealt with foul trouble throughout the tourney (no surprise) and Pau could have Ronny on the bench quickly.
We mentioned France's erratic jump shooting above--well, that lack of touch transfers over to the FT line. France is only hitting 62% of its free throws.
Think France matches up well on the perimeter, and Batum's size could give Navarro trouble. But I have serious questions about how the French big men defend on the block. They're giving up some size to the Gasol Bros. and they have a tendency to pick up fouls. Though, putting Pau on the foul line might not be a bad idea.
Have to go with the Spaniards in this one. France will need to prove they can knock down a good rate of perimeter jumpers to have a chance. If France can find a way to keep the Spanish defense honest, then they can make things interesting.
Quarterfinals: Russia (3-2) vs. Serbia (3-2)
The other quarterfinal game on Thursday pits the reigning Eurobasket champ (Russia) vs. the basketball power (Serbia) trying to regain its place in the upper echelon of the int'l basketball scene.
Not surprised Russia's defense has been good, just couldn't imagine the defense would be nearly as good as it was in their '07 Euro run. They have been scary good again on that end of the floor. Russia did a superb job protecting the painted area in '07, and have continued the same this year, holding opponents to 41% on 2-pt. FGs (#1 in tourney). They also currently lead the tourney in overall def. FG pct. at 38%.
Russian Coach David Blatt is a master tactician, who loves to mix up his defensive looks. Russia will play man, but mix in traditional zone looks, and even mix in hybrid-type looks that are hard to decipher. Same kinda stuff that worked magic in '07.
Serbia has probably played slightly better than expected thanks to a young, versatile roster. Serbia likes to spread out the playing time across the roster--10 guys playing at least 13 mins/game.
Russian 7-footer Timo Mozgov is coming off a monster 25-point, 11-rebound performance vs. Macedonia, where 10 of his 11 rebs came on the offensive glass. Mozgov has had some impressive games, but is only averaging 13 ppg & 5 rpg because he's been limited to 24 mins/game thanks to constant foul trouble. Mozgov is a finishing machine off of rolls or put-backs and provides an anchor to the great Russia defense.
Russia's Kelly McCarty has done an admirable job filling some of the void left by Khryapa & Kirilenko on the wings. Kelly has been a reliable shooter from the standstill or off-the-dribble and leads the offense with 14 ppg. Tremendous asset roaming defensively and an above-average rebounder for a SF.
SF Sergey Monya has teamed with McCarty to provide Russia with a stellar defensive tandem on the wings. Monya might be the best help defender in the tourney and can knock down an open shot.
Russia has been ably quarterbacked by the PG tandem of Sergey Bykov & Anton Ponkrashov. Bykov will try to force passes that are not there, but uses his speed to get in the lane effectively. Ponkrashov has come on strong the last few games and is a crafty passer.
OK City's Nenad Krstic (13 ppg, 5 rpg) has been the Serbs' focal point on offense either in the post or facing up. Nenad has gotten solid support up front from multi-skilled forward Novica Velickovic (10 ppg, 5 rebs, 42% on 3pts). Velickovic can hit the jumper, put the ball on deck, post up, and is a effective help defender.
PG Milos Teodosic has been one of the finer PGs in the tourney, averaging 13 ppg & 6 apg. Combo guard Milenko Tepic helps Teodosic out with ball-handling duties and has a savvy floor game. Serbia will try to get Uros Tripkovic open off of screens so as to unleash his deadly accurate jumper.
The Krstic-Mozgov matchup could be interesting. Mozgov has an athletic advantage over Krstic, but Krstic can drag Mozgov away from the basket area. Pretty even matchup that could turn into a choppy defensive affair. Winner of this game gets the winner of the Slovenia-Croatia matchup.