By Chris Sheridan
VILNIUS, Lithuania — Once upon a time in mid-February of this year, Timofey Mozgov was the only thing holding up the blockbuster trade that sent Carmelo Anthony from the Denver Nuggets to the New York Knicks. Once the Knicks relented and agreed to give up the 7-footer, the deal went forward.
But Mozgov went backward, spending most of the rest of the season on the end of Denver’s bench.
“It was hard. What I take from last season was the waiting game, how to keep working, and not to put your head down. It’s the most important thing I learned.”
There were legitimate reasons why the Knicks wanted to hang onto the Russian giant, and those reasons were on display Saturday night at EuroBasket as Mozgov scored 19 points on 7-for-8 shooting and blocked three shots to lead his home country to an impressive 83-67 victory over Greece to remain undefeated in this Olympic qualifier.
“It was not easy,” Mozgov said. ”It was hard. I just tried to concentrate on the game, run, and do something under the basket, that’s it.”
Greece used several different defenders to try to contain Mozgov (although Greek coach Ilias Zouros inexplicably benched one of them, Ioannis Bourousis for the entire second half). Mozgov dominated the paint and scored his final points on a short jump hook with 3:36 remaining as part of a 10-0 run that included a pair of 3-pointers by Sergei Monia (his only points of the game) that put Russia ahead by 15.
Russia now moves on to a game Monday against undefeated Macedonia to determine the first-place finisher in Group F.
And if Mozgov plays with the level of confidence he displayed Saturday night, the Russians should be able to dispatch the surprise team of the tournament.
But for Mozgov, getting his confidence back was not an easy task.
“I’ll tell you the truth,” Russia coach David Blatt said. “The last two seasons in the summer we worked very hard with Timofey, and he has given us a tremendous performance in EuroBasket and the World Championship, and he justifiably became a very attractive candidate for the NBA as a result.
“The fact he didn’t play a lot this year (in the NBA) brought him back to me at square one. I didn’t have the same Timofey that I had last year when I started the summer, and we had to work very hard to get him to where he was. Now he’s back, as you saw. A little bit later than I would have liked, but right now he’s the same high-level guy that we sent to the league last year. And I’m hoping, No. 1, that he’ll be that player for the rest of the tournament, and I’m hoping, No. 2, when he goes back to the league he’ll get a chance to play and he won’t come to me next year where he was at the beginning of this summer.”
Was it a mental thing? A cranial malaise caused night after night of sitting for 48 minutes?
“I don’t think it’s mental,” Blatt replied. ”Honestly, I think if you don’t play, you go backwards. It’s like a train. If you’re on the train, you’re moving forward. If not, it’s just going by you and it’s hard to jump on.
“You cannot become a better basketball player sitting on the bench and waving a towel. You just can’t,” Blatt said.
Mozgov will not be waving a towel in this tournament, but he might just be waving a Russian flag if his team can make it to the semifinals and win, which would earn them a berth in the 2012 London Olympics.
Within a week, we’ll know whether he’s that much of an impact player.
“I can’t say now how much better I am in the last year,” Mozgov said. ”We’ll see by the end of this tournament.”