Talent’s there, but consistency is needed

Today, Greece clashes with Russia in the quarterfinals of Eurobasket 2005. In its present form, it should lose. Even with a defeat, not all will be lost. Greece can still aim for at least sixth place and qualification for next year’s World Championship in Japan. But it will mark another lost opportunity for a team whose avowed goal is to win a medal. Since it won the European Championship at home (1987) and came second to a superior Yugoslavia (in 1989), the international competition record of the men’s team has been a story of missed opportunities (and no more medals). A series of top-five placings, interrupted in the late 1990s before resuming in 2003, did not silence complaints that the team never plays up to its potential. We have often had a glimpse at that potential, most recently in the first half of the opening game against France. Greece destroyed a team with three NBA players as starters, limiting them to 14 points and making NBA champion Tony Parker look like an amateur as he was consistently outplayed by Dimitris Diamantidis. The problem is inconsistency. If this did not surface as much in the game against France, it was certainly a factor in the defeat against Slovenia. It also made the game against a decidedly inferior Bosnia a struggle until the players switched gear in the final quarter. Against Israel on Tuesday, it turned what started as a walk in the park into a nail-biter, with deliverance coming in the final minute, when forward Michalis Kakiouzis drilled a three-pointer and followed that with an easy lay-up on the fast break to provide an eight-point cushion. Even in the first half, when defense worked perfectly, limiting Israel to 14 points, there were problems. The offense could produce no more than 25 points, as the team too often ignored the towering inside presence of center Lazaros Papadopoulos. The offensive tactics called for passing the ball around until an unmarked player was found. In most cases, this player was far from the basket. However, the players’ outside shooting was dismal on the day – as was their free-throw shooting – and this resulted in too many missed opportunities. Even when Greece started to feed Papadopoulos inside in the third quarter, the defense relaxed, allowing the Israelis to score from three-point range. They had 27 points in that quarter alone. In the end, it was all smiles. The task was done, we were told, against a team, of course inferior in talent but smart, determined, etc. Guard Theodoros Papaloucas even defended the lapses in concentration, saying every team in the tournament had suffered from those. This is not convincing talk. If Greece wants to beat Russia, it has to elevate its game to another level. It cannot merely depend on Russia’s own notorious inconsistency: On a good day, that fast and athletic team can destroy any opponent. This Greek team has tremendous depth. At any given moment, any player can step up and carry the game, as guard Nikos Zissis did against Israel with his 23 points. But everyone has to step up at the same time: They cannot afford to have the starting guard duo of Diamantidis and Nikos Hadzivrettas score a combined two points, or see players such as Papaloucas and forwards Dimos Dikoudis and Antonis Fotsis disappear for long stretches. For once, Greece has to live up to its potential. If it does, nobody in this tournament – except, perhaps, Lithuania – can stand in its way.