Mitnick: Eurobasket ’15 Quarterfinals Preview

MitnickThe quarterfinals are set for this year’s Eurobasket, as eight teams will play for two automatic bids to next summer’s Olympic Games in Rio.

Of the eight remaining teams, seven will be preparing next summer for a chance to play in the Olympic games, as the 3rd through 7th place teams earn bids for next summer’s Olympic Qualifying tournament, in which 18 teams will be fighting  for the three remaining bids for Rio.

Here is a look at the quarterfinal matchups that will take place on Tuesday and Wednesday in Lille, France.

Greece vs. Spain

Possibly the top two teams in this competition, Greece and Spain will face off in what could almost be considered a championship level match up. Both teams came into this competition not only looking for an Olympic bid, but hungry to regain the title of European Champions that was bestowed upon France in 2013.

Spain has had an up and down tournament so far, missing 6 of their top players from last years World Cup, with Marc Gasol, Juan Carlos Navarro, Ricky Rubio, Serge Ibaka and Jose Calderon all absent this summer. Nonetheless, Spain has led the tournament in scoring at 88 PPG behind the brilliance of Pau Gasol, who has been playing through pain, ignoring team doctors’ requests to sit. However, you wouldn’t know it based on his play, with Gasol leading Eurobasket with 23.8 PPG and 2.2 BLK along with 7.8 RPG, including a ridiculous 30 point performance with six 3 pointers against Poland in the 1/8th finals.

Spain did not dominate in their typical fashion in the group stage, losing their opener to Serbia, losing to Italy behind the brilliance of Marco Belinelli and Danilo Gallinari, and narrowly beating Germany in what was Dirk Nowitzki’s final NT game of his career. Spain has only won the games they were heavily favored to win until now, and will need Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic, as well as his former Real Madrid teammates Sergio Llull, Sergio Rodriguez and Rudy Fernandez, to step up if they are going to pull off what now seems like an upset against the Greeks.

Greece, on the other hand, has been playing like a well-oiled machine in this tournament, going undefeated to this point. Their only real challenges have been a 2-point win over Croatia, and a 2-point win over the Netherlands in what was a meaningless game for the Greeks, since they had already clinched 1st place and the Dutch were fighting to get into the Top 16.

Greece’s calling card has been their defense, where they are 2nd in point allowed at 66.7 PPG, due to their incredible depth and physical style of play. With 10 players averaging double figures in minutes, you will never catch a Greek player slacking on defense, as they know there is someone sitting down ready to come in and replace them, and the Greek basketball culture has absolutely no patience for any player that can be labeled as soft.

Vassilis Spanoulis has been exceptional in this tournament, averaging 10.8 points and 5.6 assists, and his pick-and-roll play with center Kosta Koufos has been exceptional so far in this tournament. The threat of Spanoulis has opened up the floor for their plethora of 3-point shooters, where Greece has made 36.7% from beyond the arc in this tournament.

The real x-factor for Greece will be “Greek Freak” Giannis Antetokounmpo, whose all-around game and elite athleticism could be that extra piece to help Greece regain its former glory as European Champions.

With Gasol ailing and Spain without many of their top stars, it is hard to picture them outlasting Greece in what should be a 40-minute grind.

Prediction: Greece 72, Spain 70

France vs. Latvia

The hosts and reigning champion French squad remains undefeated in this tournament after wiping the floor with Turkey in the 1/8th finals, and has arguably played the best basketball to date in this tournament. They are the top defensive team, giving up 64.7 PPG, the top rebounding team with 41 RPG, and the 4th best scoring team with 80.5 PPG in the 24 team competition.

Nando De Colo’s superb play, averaging 12.2 PPG, 5.5 RPG and 3.5 APG has been a nice upgrade to their backcourt, where Tony Parker, who was great in France’s first four games, has shown some slight signs of fatigue. France will need Parker to be his typical elite caliber self to come home with the title in Lille, but De Colo’s emergence sure has been a nice help.

GobertFrance1What has truly made this team special, is the emergence of the young French big men, Rudy Gobert and Joffrey Lauvergne. Both big men have been monsters in the paint so far in this tournament, with Lauvergne averaging 58.3% 2PT and Gobert with a ridiculous 68.8% 2PT. The duo is a big reason why France has been the best defensive team in the tournament, as very few teams have the type of front court size that can deal with both of them, as well as Boris Diaw.

Gobert’s length and presence in the paint has been a major advantage in this tournament, and this summer it has become glaringly obvious that he is going to be a notable NBA player for the next decade or so, with the upside to be an All-Star at some point.

As if that weren’t enough, France has a pair of top defensive, versatile wings in Nicolas Batum and Mickael Gelabale who have done a great job defending the perimeter and providing transition scoring opportunities in this tournament. Magic guard Evan Fournier has been lighting it up from outside, shooting 46.7% 3PT, and he has the ability to break a game open with his offensive skills being surrounded by such a deep and unselfish team.

Latvia has done very well for themselves to get to this point, but will be lucky to be able to avoid being the 8th placed team in this tournament as they are likely the weakest remaining team. The Latvians’ length and defensive intensity (4th ranked defense) have gotten them this far, and the play of Janis Strelnieks , Dairis Bertans, and Janis Timma helped them get to this point. With Latvia within reach of an Olympic bid, or a qualifier bid, one may wonder how Kristaps Porzingis feels about his (and probably the Knicks’) decision to sit on the sideline in order to prepare for his NBA debut, instead of fighting alongside his countrymen.

Latvia should be very proud for getting to this point, but most likely they will be focusing on trying to win the consolation games.

Prediction: France 85, Latvia 68

Czech Republic vs. Serbia

The Czech squad pulled off a fantastic upset against one of this tournaments dark-horse contenders, Croatia, to make it to the quarterfinals. Coached by CEZ Nymburk’s Israeli coach Ronen Ginzburg and my club Bnei Herzliya’s strength coach, Roni Gottlieb, the Czech squad obliterated Croatia 80-59, and now will have to pull off yet another upset against last season World Cup runner-ups if they are to be considered a true Cinderella.

SaturanskyThe Czech Republic has been led by a pair of former Wizards draft picks Jan Vesely and Tomas Satoransky. Jan Vesely  has been one of the best big men in this competition, averaging 16.8 PPG (5th), and 9 RPG (2nd) and 60% 2PT, showing the elite athleticism that made him a lottery pick before he made his return to Europe. With one more year on his contract with Fenerbahce Ulker in Turkey, it is very likely that this matured version of Vesely will be making his NBA return in ’16-’17.

Wizards draft and stash PG Tomas Satoransky has shown huge development in his ability to run an offense, leading the tournament with 8.8 APG and showing that at 6’7” his ability to see above his defender is a huge advantage. He should see his role increased with Barcelona this season, and it is very likely that he will join John Wall and Bradley Beal in the Wizards’ backcourt a year from now, to add yet another piece to their promising young core.

Serbia managed to remain undefeated, despite playing in what was clearly the toughest group in this competition. They cruised past Spain in crunch time in their opener, and their only real challenge was against Germany, where Nemanja Bjelica pulled off an impressive buzzer-beater. The Serbian’s do an incredible job moving the ball, playing inside out, leading this tournament in assists with 25.2 per game.

Milos Teodosic has answered the call, running this team very efficiently averaging 7.3 APG with only 2 TO, while shooting 60.9% from 2PT. He is clearly very hungry to take home the title, and if Serbia manages to accomplish that, he may very well thrust his name back into the conversation as the best point guard in Europe.

Nemanja Bjelica has been fantastic with his versatile play, continuing on his brilliant MVP season in Euroleague this past year. The new Timberwolves forward has been averaging 14.8 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 2.8 AST while shooting a blistering 71.8% 2PT and 37.5% 3PT. His fantastic play so far at Eurobasket has got to have T’Wolves brass very optimistic about the type of versatility he can bring, and it looks like he could be a nice piece for a team that could be on the rise in the next few years.

Raduljica-SerbiaThe biggest x-factor so far has been Center Miroslav Raduljica, the mammoth in the paint who has been averaging 14.2 points in a mere 17.3 minutes per game. His presence in the paint gives Serbia a big body to wear down its opponents, and his presence offensively has been able to mitigate the absence of longtime big man Nenad Krstic. Along with Raduljica’s impressive contribution, the Serbians have gotten nice production from their young backcourt players Nemanja Nedovic and  Bogdan Bogdanovic, both of whom will need to produce if Serbia is to take this to the finish.

Despite facing off against a feisty Czech Republic squad, Serbia came into Eurobasket on a mission and it doesn’t seem like they are ready to stop just yet. It should be a great game, but look for Serbia to move on to the semifinals.

Prediction: Serbia 82, Czech Republic 76

Italy vs. Lithuania

The Italians have been the most fun team to watch in this competition, playing an explosive brand of offense behind the trio of Danillo Gallinari, Marco Belinelli and Allesandro Gentile. They pulled off impressive wins in the group stage against Spain and Germany, and absolutely destroyed Israel in the second half of the 1/8th finals to get to this point.

Gallinari-ItalyDanilo Gallinari has shown that he is not only fully healthy, but has played at a level that is basically like a kick in the nuts to every Knick fan. Averaging 18.5 PPG, 6.8 RPG while shooting 69.7% 2PT, 36.8% 3PT and 89.8% FT, Gallo has been among the best performers in Eurobasket, and looks poised to make waves for Denver if he can stay healthy this season.

Belinelli has been shooting the lights out, knocking off Spain with a 7/7 3PT in the second half, and has been shooting 41.3% on 9.2 3PT attempts a game on his way to 16.8 PPG.  Along with Gentile, who is looking very NBA ready in this tournament (17.8 PPG, 5 RPG, 3.8 APG), the wing play of the Italians has been special in this tournament and makes them almost impossible to beat when they are hot.

Andrea Bargnani has been solid providing shooting with 12.7 PPG in 54.7% 3PT, but he has done little to dispute his reputation as being soft. He has routinely been pushed around by opposing big men, and it won’t be easier for him against Lithuania to play with a minor calf injury against Lithuania’s star center Jonas Valanciunas. Making it especially difficult will be the absence of Luigi Datome, who suffered a muscle injury against Iceland and is out for the tournament.

The Lithuanians have been having an exceptional tournament, and would be undefeated if not for a debatable buzzer tip in by Belgium’s Matt Lojeski. Jonas Valanciunas has been an absolute beast, averaging 15.4 PPG, 8 RPG, and 1.4 BLK. His presence in the middle gives Lithuania a chance against any opponent, and especially against an Italian squad that is weak in the middle, he will need to have a big time performance for his team to advance.

Mantas Kalnietis has answered the call at the point, putting in the best NT performance of any Lithuanian guard since the retirement of Sarunas Jasikevicus, averaging 7.3 APG so far. At 6’5” his size for a PG has helped big time, and is very suitable for a Lithuanian team whose character is built on having size at that position.

Jonas Maciulis, who won a Euroleague championship with Real Madrid this season, has also been impressive so far, averaging 14.7 PPG and 6.7 RPG and shooting 58.8% from 3PT. He will need to keep spacing the floor and knocking down shots if Lithuania is going to come home from Lille with an Olympic bid.

This matchup could go either way, with Lithuania having a huge advantage in the paint, and Italy having a plethora of shooters and scorers. Gallinari has been on a mission, and it’s tough to see the Italians letting this slip out of their hands.

Prediction: Italy 90, Lithuania 87

(RELATED: The Top 5 Performers at Eurobasket (aside from Pau Gasol)

AJ Mitnick is an American living in Israel and working as an assistant coach in the Israeli Basketball Winner League. Mitnick is the assistant coach of Bnei Herzliya, following three seasons with Maccabi Rishon-Lezion. Follow him on Twitter.

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