By Chris Sheridan
KAUNAS, Lithuania — You never quite know what will come out of David Blatt’s mouth, but it is always interesting, often controversial (such as what he said last summer about the Soviet Union rightfully winning the 1972 gold medal game against the United States at the Munich Olympics in 1972), and sometimes right on point.
Emphasis on sometimes.
Two examples from his post-game comments after Thursday night’s 77-67 victory over Serbia put Blatt’s Russian team into the semifinals of EuroBasket.
_ “Viktor Khryapa was the best player in the game for us tonight.” Now, no offense to Khryapa for his 11-point, five-rebound, four-assist performance in 34 minutes. He was a major, major factor. But maybe Blatt didn’t get a better look at the boxscore, which showed Andrei Kirilenko with a line of 14 points (10 in the fourth quarter), 11 rebounds, six assists, four steals and two blocks.
_ On Kirilenko: “Have you ever been a horse trainer? Andrei is like a beautiful, wild horse. He’s best when he’s roaming around and running free. We ask him to play within the system, but honestly his best moments are when he’s doing what his heart and his instincts are telling him to do. Most of his great plays, they come not from the structure, but from the mind and the beautiful kind of talent he has. The lucky thing is that’s he’s not a selfish man, he is not a greedy player, he plays for the team.”
Blatt’s team remained the only unbeaten squad in this Olympic qualifier, moving on to a semifinal match against France on Friday night that will determine one of the two Olympic berths to be awarded at this tournament.
And while France undoubtedly has the better talent and athleticism at every position, Blatt has a knack for game-planning and exploiting matchups that cannot be overlooked. And that’s why it says here that the Russia-France semifinal should be an instant classic that could go either way. (Gun to my head pick: Russia, with Sergei Monia hitting the game-winner).
Against Serbia, the tactic Blatt focused on was ball pressure against Serbia guard Milos Teodosic, who he knew would be forced to log heavy minutes and would be gassed as a result. That pressure helped force Teodosic into nine turnovers, negating the team-leading 20 points he put on the board for a Serbian team that made it to the semifinals of the World Championship a year ago and came within a whisker of defeating Turkey and making it to the gold medal game.
It’ll be a different challenge to try to force Tony Parker into such a frazzled game, and France has plenty of other NBA players whose raw talent easily exceeds that of their Russian counterparts.
But Blatt is as wily of a coach as there is in the business, a superior tactician to France’s Vincent Collet, and Russia cannot be dismissed simply on the basis of name recognition.
They would not be undefeated if they weren’t doing a whole host of things correctly, and they’ve pulled off the improbable before when they defeated Spain on Spain’s home court in Madrid four years ago to win that version of EuroBasket.
“Victory is sweet, but the joy is short because we play tomorrow in the semifinal, and there is very little time to prepare, and very little time, if any, to celebrate. And we will not,” Blatt said. “Our record speaks for itself, and tonight’s victory is significant, but tomorrow’s game is more important.”
Count on Blatt having his team ready to exploit what is probably France’s biggest historical weakness — its confidence level in the fourth quarter of close games. And be prepared for a final 10 minutes that should be riveting. This was only a four-point game with 6 minutes left, but Kirilenko put it away in an eyeblink with a sequence that included two foul shots, a steal leading to a breakaway layup by Aleksey Shved (maybe the best player in this tournament that you’ve probably never hard of), an offensive rebound following two missed free throws by Khryapa, and a jumper from the corner that made it a 10-point game in the space of just 41 seconds.
When Kirilenko drew Nenad Krstic’s fifth and final foul by boxing him out for an offensive rebound with 2:01 left, Kirilenko’s two free throws made it a seven-point game and gave the Russians all the cushion they needed to finish off the Serbs.
You can dislike Blatt for what he said about the 1972 gold medal game last summer in Istanbul, but you have to respect him for what he’s done with his Russian team here in Lithuania.
They are the only ones who are 9-0, and they are not the ones who will be under the most pressure Friday. That is why they are only a 1 1/2-point underdog against a team with Parker, Joakim Noah, Nicolas Batum, Boris Diaw and Nando deColo on the roster (Mickael Gelabale may be available, too, if his sprained ankle is sufficiently healed.
Given Russia’s record and their coach’s history, that line should probably be pick ‘em. And given he fact that Spain should have a relatively easy time defeating Macedonia in the other semifinal (my pick is Spain by 13), the Russia-France match will be the one to watch.