By: Rob Scott / @robscott33
“They’re letting us do whatever it is we want, all we got to do is execute the small pieces, Godammit!”
That was GB coach Chris Finch’s reprimand to his team after Spain had cruised into a 16-point lead in the third quarter of their EuroBasket 2009 first round group game. The players listened and acted on Finch’s words, as GB nearly caused one of the biggest upsets in European basketball history, taking a four point lead into the final five minutes, all without Luol Deng, absent due to injury. Two years later, and this team has the ability to follow through on its potential, but the need to carry out the simple things is greater than ever. Narrow losses in warmups to Serbia and Australia were as encouraging as defeats can ever be, but a shambolic performance in the final friendly, losing 74-51 to Latvia, has cast doubts on whether this team has the attention to detail needed to convert potential into achievement.
For a programme only six years old, to qualify for two consecutive EuroBaskets is impressive, and last summer’s campaign saw them finish ahead of Macedonia, Ukraine and Bosnia-Herzegovina, all of whom are in the other side of the draw. Being placed in a group with Lithuania, Spain and Turkey has not been kind, but what has been obvious from trawling the internet for views from around Europe is that GB don’t get any love from the established nations - if we had been drawn in the weaker side and progressed to the second round, no doubt the retort from Eastern and Southern Europe would have been ‘they were lucky, they would never have beaten the real teams‘. Well, now is our chance. Beat any one of Spain, Turkey or Lithuania, and the lack of respect will vanish forever.
Leading the charge will, of course, be Luol Deng, although Pops Mensah-Bonsu’s absence is unfortunately looking just as damaging as Deng’s was two years ago in Poland. However, Joel Freeland has grown into one of the most efficient and effective big men in Europe, and watching the warmup games, is possibly GB’s most important offensive weapon. When things were going well for the team in the friendlies, Freeland was scoring in the post, demanding a double team and for two glorious spells against Australia, hooking up with Devon van Oostrum on a pick and roll tandem that looked like it could be the equal of any in Europe. Freeland must average 18-22 points per game if Britain are to register any wins, let alone against the group’s ‘Big Three’ . His ability to go to work down low and attract heavy defensive attention is likely to be crucial to getting the guards the open shots they need in order to contribute.
The most exciting prospect on the team is van Oostrum, playing in Caja Laboral’s youth system and putting up absurd numbers last season in his first year as a pro (OK it was in the Spanish 5th division, but he only turned 18 this year). Near the top of all the ’93-born prospect rankings, he has a bright future ahead of him even if this tournament may come slightly too soon. He can penetrate and find the perfect pass and is the only player on the team who has this ability at the elite level, which explains why Finch hasn’t considered it a gamble to take such a young and untested player at such a crucial position. But if you’ve been reading this site, you know a bit about the young man already.
The backcourt is the team’s weakness, and while Nate Reinking (Mersey Tigers, BBL) and Mike Lenzly are both crafty lefty combo guards who have played credibly before at this level, their main job is to limit turnovers, hit open threes and space the floor so Luol Deng can create. The warmup season has showed the team’s vulnerability to zone defense, and expect to see a lot of fullcourt press dropping back into the 2-3 by GB opponents right from the opening tip. The frontcourt is a lot deeper and will be relied on to score the majority of the team’s points.
On offense, the team runs a more NBA-style system, with Deng seeing some time at point forward and initiating the offense at the high post, in a similar vein to Emir Preldzic and Hedo Turkoglu for Turkey. The Bulls forward has licence to push the ball up the floor by himself, and getting out in transition is going to be absolutely central to the team’s chances, as points become a lot harder to create in halfcourt sets.
Down low, Dan Clark (Estudiantes, ACB) and Robert Archibald (CAI Zaragoza, ACB) can both operate on the low block, and Clark has 3 point range. On the wing, Andrew Sullivan (Mersey Tigers, BBL) will backup Deng and maybe play some smallball four if foul trouble dictates, but offensively, it’s likely to be Deng, Freeland and everyone else playing as a sum greater than its parts. That should be enough to beat Portgual and an under-strength Poland, but the other three games are a whole different level.
Defensively, it’s a mixed bag, the team has excellent on-the-ball defenders, Deng most notably, but team-wise, they veer between lockdown and sloppy. Having said all that, they seem to be able to get stops when they’re most needed, and facing Turkey, a team similarly frontcourt heavy, seems like as promising a matchup as any contender, especially if they are still in the poor physical condition Hedo says they are (he seems to be talking about the whole team, not just himself).
This team has the talent to cause a major upset, but what hasn’t yet been demonstrated is if it has the mental toughness and concentration to pull off 40 minutes of elite level basketball. Play like they did for 43.5 minutes against Australia, they’re in business. Play like they did against Latvia and 0-5 will be the least of their worries. Group A is a world of new experiences - the fans are staying in a tent city, and the arena will have a cycling track covered in a big ass flag. Hopefully six days after the games begin, the most surreal and amazing sight in Panevezys will be the GB team bus on its way to Vilnius for the second round. It’s improbable, but not impossible.
If they execute the small pieces.