Greek squad slam-dunks NBA stars

Underdogs Greece triumphed 101-95 over the United States yesterday to reach the 2006 World Basketball Championship final in Saitama, a suburb of Tokyo. Greece will face Spain, 75-74 winners over Argentina, on Sunday. Spain has been impressive throughout the tournament but risks playing the final without its top star, center Pau Gasol, who badly twisted his ankle in the closing seconds. Greece has been missing the services of guard Nikos Zisis for the past three games because of a cheekbone injury that will require surgery. The United States started the game with heavy pressure on Greece’s guards and they quickly took the lead, as they also dominated the rebounds at the offensive end. Greece was lucky to end the first quarter just six points (14-20) behind. In the first quarter, Greece had made four of its 12 field goal attempts. In the next two, it made 25 of 33, as it took a 45-41 halftime lead and a 77-65 lead after 30 minutes. The United States tried to stage a comeback in the last quarter but came up short, only managing to cut the lead twice, to four points. Greece played simply, using the pick-and-roll (an exchange of passes between the guards outside and the taller players in the paint) very often, with the US players, all NBA stars, unable to defend it. This time Greece was not able to make more steals or force more turnovers out of its fast opponents. However, after the initial wobble, which allowed the US to build a 12-point lead (33-21) early in the second quarter, it dominated the match and, more importantly, shot almost flawlessly, a tribute to a team not known for its good shooters, but also a sign of the US team’s weakness in defense. Greece, which normally scores in the 60s or the 70s, this time exceeded 100 points, something which it has not achieved for years in international competitions and then only against very inferior opposition. Greece’s chances were not fancied in this tournament because, many experts said, it had no NBA players in its roster. Its win proved that it doesn’t take an NBA player for a team to become competitive. Indeed, Greece’s game, with no dominant player and a great team effort both on defense and on offense, is the very opposite of the NBA, whose players prefer to go one-on-one against their opponents and rarely share the ball. Despite talk of adapting to the international game, the NBA superstars carried over their game into this tournament. Surprisingly, US coach Mike Krzyzewski, one of the best coaches at US college level, where they teach the fundamentals of the game, went along with that. In the final period, especially, he used all three of his superstars – Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade – who each wanted a ball by himself while leaving out forward Antawn Jamison and center Brad Miller, who may not be as flashy but could be more useful. He also left out center Dwight Howard, a raw talent but who intimidated Greece’s defense early on by grabbing the offensive rebounds and scoring three slam dunks. In the end, coach Panayiotis Yiannakis’s saying that «basketball is much more than dribbling and scoring» was proved right. NBA-bound Vassilis Spanoulis was Greece’s top scorer (22 points), but many other Greek players were impressive, including guard Theodoros Papaloukas (12 assists) and center Sophocles Schortsanitis.