A defense made in America

SAITAMA, Japan – As Greece and France, the two most defensive-minded teams at this World Championship, prepare to clash in one of tomorrow’s quarterfinals, Lefteris Kakioussis, the assistant coach of the Greek basketball team, believes that good defense can be a crowd-pleaser. «The national team can bring people to the arena to see its defensive performance,» says the 38-year-old Kakioussis, who, like head coach Panayiotis Yiannakis, has played guard for the national team. Both were part of the team that played at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the first time Greek basketball qualified for the Olympics, and earned fifth place there. As a player Kakioussis compensated for his lack of height (he is 1.78 meters, or 5’10» tall) with a relentless defense and great speed on the break, qualities now possessed by Greece’s much taller guards: Vassilis Spanoulis (1.92m or 6’3»), Nikos Hatzivrettas and Dimitris Diamantidis (both 1.96m or 6’5») and Theodoros Papaloukas (2m or 6’7»). Greece has managed to hold opponents to 70.3 points per game, and everyone in the Greek camp would like to see the team apply its defensive pressure to the US team, which Greece will meet in the semifinal, if it beats France. Interestingly enough, it will use a system created in the USA. «Our defense is a match-up defense with either full-court or half-court pressure, a system devised by Rick Pitino at the University of Kentucky. We have applied this system because our players are both talented and clever,» Kakioussis says. «We will try to wreak havoc with our opponents’ offensive pattern and make them face a situation they have never got into before. The pressure is on the ball’s circulation. The only risk we take is leaving people open for three-pointers from the corner, but accuracy in these shots does not exceed 30 percent. We would be very excited to apply our defense with the Americans. Another reason we adopted it is because we do not have exceptional long-range shooters and we want to have the easy transition basket,» Kakioussis adds. Greece’s opponents have actually scored 49 three-pointers in 135 attempts for a 36.4 percent accuracy. On the other hand, Greeks score an average of 12.8 points from steals, 15.8 points from opponents’ turnovers and 6.3 points on the break. Greece’s 95-64 victory over China in the previous game, by far the easiest of its six successive victories, despite an awful start, highlighted the fact that Greece’s condition is peaking at the right time. «On departing from Japan, I want us to leave behind a memorable impression for our kind of basketball,» said Yiannakis, who refused to be drawn into the question of whether a medal is the goal. To get there, it must first get past a hungry-for-revenge France. In last year’s memorable semifinal at the European championship, the French led 62-55 just 40 seconds from the end, only for Greece to make a memorable comeback, helped by a couple of awful French mistakes, and win 67-66. This time, the French will be missing their best player, NBA star Tony Parker, out with a broken wrist. Greece will be missing injured guard Nikos Zisis, who began that comeback with three free throws and provided the assist for the winning shot. However, Parker’s relative importance to his team is greater. French coach Claude Bergeaud yesterday told the Greek reporters, only half in jest, that he had found a way to beat Greece. «I will lock Yiannakis in his hotel room,» he said.

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