Great Britain pulled away from Luxembourg to win 95-72 in their Eurobasket 2017 qualifying game, but it wasn’t as easy as the final score suggests.
In some ways this was a no-win proposition for the British hoops community’s often-fragile morale. Anything less than a comfortable win over a Luxembourg team made up of amateurs and soldiers on partial leave from duty, and hard questions would be raised. Blow them out, and it would be hard to read too much into anything.
In some ways, what they ended up with was a bit of both. One of the visitors’ solider-athletes Alex Laurent poured in 21 first half points; had his three on the buzzer not rimmed out, Luxembourg would have hit the locker rooms with a one point lead. The tenacious young forward finished with 30 points and a few new admirers.
As it was, GB eventually pulled away in the second half, and it always looked probable that their shotmaking would be the difference. Luxembourg tired and turnovers turned into easy points at the other end. Dunks were thrown down, by Eric Boateng and Gareth Murray, rising off the baseline to finish a Teddy Okereafor lob. The worryingly small crowd went home happy.
But it is tough to say that everything was a success. The familiar lack of complete focus, selective effort and questionable chemistry raised its head. Reading between the lines, it appears that the players and coaching staff know that there’s a lot of work left to be done. Hungary on Saturday will be an entirely different proposition.
If a hard-working, moderately athletic modern combo forward like Alex Laurent can put up 30, Adam Hanga, owner of 32 himself in the first meeting, would not exactly have been discouraged.
GB big man Kieron Achara was a former teammate of Hanga’s at Manresa in the Spanish ACB league, and counts the Laboral Kutxa wing and Spurs’ draft pick as a good friend. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he was in the NBA very soon” Achara told ELA after the game, echoing the thoughts of many.
The veteran Scot had an emphatic answer for what the focus should be for Saturday’s rematch on the same floor as tonight’s game: “One hundred percent defense. Hanga destroyed us in the pick and roll so we have to make sure we stay in front, help from the bigs and make sure we get stops at that end.”
Prunty talks defense
GB coach Joe Prunty carried on in that vein in the post-game press conference. ELA asked him what the team’s identity should be, and whether it found it yet:
“We’re a defensive first team. We want to play with pace offensively… I don’t think we’re searching for identity as much as we just have to impose our will on every possession. At times maybe we get too comfortable and we just go with the flow of the game instead of imposing our will.”
Drawing on his years of NBA media experience, Prunty is often skilled at saying little whilst at all times speaking with such politeness and courtesy that it’s tough to confront him. But that was an honest and accurate summary of the gap between this team’s better moments and large parts of tonight’s game, at least in the first half.
When you have such a clear height advantage inside, it must be tempting to try and score easy buckets in the post, but Luxembourg fronted Dan Clark and Gabe Olaseni then sent help from different spots, making scoring difficult. Prunty has kept faith with Alex Young and Gareth Murray in his starting lineup, but as relatively limited offensive players they allowed the visitors to overload the strong side and recover if the ball reversed.
GB imposed their will, to use the coach’s phrase, when they pushed the pace, spaced the floor and penetrated, as the team’s athletic and dangerous shooters filled up on open threes. Just as in the weekend’s victory over Macedonia, lineups with Okereafor, Lawrence and Gordon are beginning to look like the kind of ball-sharing, uptempo combination the opposing coaches would need to worry about.
GB doesn’t have a small forward to stop Hanga, so why not at least make him chase around three quick-on-the-trigger guards at the other end?
Going with the flow
Tonight, when they got lulled into going with the flow of trying to force the ball inside, the resulting frustration spilled over to the other end. For a team that is looking to base itself on defense, there are far too many passengers on that side of the ball. Gordon has been a key part of the offense over these two wins but he visibly took plays off at the defensive end. Kyle Johnson improved the team’s balance no end.
A team without plus defenders can cover up errors with a relentless commitment to rotation but this hasn’t ever appeared over this summer campaign. As Achara honestly summed up afterwards: “For the game against Hungary we need to be focussed for 40 minutes, that’s the big thing for us this summer.”
Not just this summer.