The shot clock malfunctioned, the referees’ whistles didn’t, and for a good ten minutes of real time at the start of last night’s vital Eurobasket qualifying game, Great Britain led 2-1. It was the first and only time they were ahead. Bosnia dominated early and rode a late wobble to win 80-67.
Bosnia started racking up points by just making the simple play, finding the open shooter. Their 10-1 run to take control of the game was just the first salvo. GB’s help defense was both hesitant and overcommitted, a suicidal combination. Gareth Murray was particularly at fault, the game simply moves too fast for him at this level. Guarding the perimeter with one foot in the paint is impossible, especially when you are all of 2.00m with limited footspeed.
It seems cruel to pick on a guy who plays in the British Basketball League, and is surely putting in all of his effort to keep up, but professional sports is an unforgiving world. He wasn’t the only culprit, Myles Hesson too often followed the ball into the paint, but it left the kind of wide open shots that Mitrovic and Sutalo weren’t going to miss. GB looked like a team that were poorly prepared to make the rotations on time, but as ELA colleague George Rowland tweeted ‘you can hear the cogs turning’ - if they’re thinking about it, it’s already too late.
All of that happened before the star of the occasion had entered the contest. There were several large pockets of Bosnian supporters in the stands, who first made themselves heard over the arena PA as it cranked the speakers all the way up to three or four for the Bosnian anthem.
They were all waiting for Mirza Teletovic to make his entrance. The visitors had softened GB up, now they sent in their pack leader for the kill. It didn’t take long. Playing more with a sense of self-assured enjoyment, rather than killer instinct, he got straight into it and scored 13 points in his first eight minutes on the floor. Not just bombing from deep, but swishing a turnaround baseline fadeaway straight from the Kobe mixtape.
All Bosnia had to do was move the ball and wait for the missed rotation; either help off the perimeter or a big stepping up on the drive with no baseline help. By contrast, Britain couldn’t move the ball quickly enough to get good looks, mainly because the off-ball screens weren’t freeing anyone and Bosnia could switch without redress.
The Bosnian offense wasn’t overly troubled in getting the shot they wanted, but with Teletovic on the floor, sometimes they didn’t need to bother. Whether pulling up from deep behind the arc or taking Sullivan and Achara off the dribble, there was no answer. But it would be wrong to say that Teletovic decided the game, as Bosnia looked comfortable enough when he rested, if a little less sparkling.
That said, the lead was pushed to 20 a lot quicker than it might have been without him. The deep three falling out of bounds, the nonchalant coast to coast drive, it was lovingly reminiscent of the Baskonia days, especially with Dusko Ivanovic prowling the sideline, a drill-seargent in holiday casual-wear. Aside from the Mirza-fest, Stipanovic and Kikanovic dutifully picked and rolled to couple of layups. The lead ballooned to 23 on a Sutalo lay-in, before GB went on a mini-run, 6-0 to cut the deficit to 67-50 going into the final period.
British weather, stormy for a minute
Bosnia didn’t so much weather a storm in the fourth as much as a traditional British rain shower. Coach Prunty made some adjustments, going with a three-guard lineup featuring van Oostrum, Johnson, Mockford with Achara and Clark. Spreading the floor worked a lot better than the cross-screens-to-nowhere offense of the first half. A driving layup from Johnson, three from Achara, a couple of jumpers from Mockford and Johnson again brought GB back within seven.
The bigger adjustment was hedging hard on ball screens, which did leave the weakside wide open, but this time Mitrovic and Teletovic couldn’t bury open threes. Any defensive scheme with these personnel was likely to leave openings, so was Prunty’s late change of strategy a good one, or just lucky not to be punished? Changing it up was the right thing to do, but it’s a shame for GB that it took so long.
Liking the fight isn’t enough
The brief period when GB dominated will probably lead the usual rueful headshakes and the ‘if onlys’. Prunty told ELA after the game that GB ‘need to play for longer stretches’. This much is painfully obvious. He said that he ‘liked the fight’ as his team battled back, but to extrapolate a team’s best spell of the game and expect a mere change in mentality to enable it to last 40 minutes is naive.
GB played better when Hesson and Murray’s defensive inabilities didn’t cost them, and Bosnia missed the shots that the defense risked giving them. In the end, as a downhearted Prunty acknowledged, a layup from an out of bounds play for Gordic gave Bosnia a nine-point cushion, and calmed by Teletovic’s leadership and control, they saw out the game in relative comfort.
Dan Clark offered a frustrated and more realistic assessment, saying that “I think sometimes we try to play hero ball.” Hesson missed on drives that just weren’t quite quick enough to beat the defense to the rim, and van Oostrum has developed a horrible shoot first mentality when playing for the national team. Although, in defense of the playmaker, the big men around him couldn’t be less suited to his strengths. Opposing bigs are always going to go under the screen with him, and with nobody rolling to the rim, he has no option but to try and make the pull-up jumper.
Speaking through Mitrovic as his translater, Coach Ivanovic told reporters that he was unhappy with the way his team let a commanding lead shrink to seven points. We didn’t need to wait for the English version to pick up the word for ‘concentration’ in his native tongue. He was unhappy with the way Nemanja Gordic lost focus, and praised Muhamed Pasalic for coming in and steadying the ship. Some severe practices to follow before the next game in Tuzla.
In truth, Bosnia did what they needed to do. Britain can protest about funding cuts and absent players, but the twelve players assembled still look far from cohesive, and time has all but run out.