Skourtopoulos’ Greece get just desserts at FIBA World Cup
In the aftermath of Greece’s elimination from the 2019 FIBA World Cup, AGONAsport’s Peter Katsiris reflects on what derailed Greece’s hopes for the gold medal.
As the 2019 FIBA World Cup approaches its finale, Greece’s absence from the latter stages of the tournament is a bit of a headscratcher for Greek basketball fans.
With Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning NBA MVP and arguably the best player in the tournament, leading the way on one of the most talented rosters the Ethniki has seen in years, it’s certainly a disappointment that Greece hasn’t left China with a medal.
Thirteen years after an epic run at the 2006 FIBA World Championship that resulted in a silver medal, the Ethniki have tied their worst-ever finish as a world tournament with an 11th place finish in China.
While the tournament got off to a great start for Greek fans with a rout of Montenegro, a bit of complacency might have filtered into the Greek camp ahead of a showdown with Brazil a couple days later.
A disastrous third quarter in their match against the Brazilians seems to have been the turning point as the Ethniki stumbled to their first defeat of the tournament against the South Americans.
That loss setup a do-or-die mission against New Zealand on the final day of action in the first round. Although fears of a loss against New Zealand were ultimately extinguished, the Ethniki didn’t look at all comfortable as Thanasis Skourtopoulos’ men hobbled into the second round to face the likes of the United States and the Czech Republic.
A lopsided defeat to the United States was certainly a let-down for Greek fans, who were salivating at the prospect of a rematch with Team USA; however, that defeat didn’t ultimately matter as Greece still had a lifeline heading into their showdown with the Czech Republic.
Needing to top the Czechs by 12 points or more in their final second-round tilt, the Ethniki managed to reach the magic number on a couple occasions but could never hang on. Perhaps the closest Greece came to securing a place in the knockouts was when Greece secured a 12-point lead with just over six-and-a-half minutes left in the game, but a controversial fifth foul call on Antetokounmpo essentially spelled the end for the former European Champions.
A side that has been known to underperform in recent years, has been billed as one of the sides to beat in China and more importantly one of the favourites to end the United States’ run of back-to-back tournament wins.
It was perhaps all the hype surrounding the Ethniki finally being able to recruit Antetokounmpo to dawn the colours of his native Greece once again that did a disservice to the Ethniki’s lack of a solid plan heading into the final tournament.
A near-perfect qualifying campaign in which the Ethniki suffered just one defeat on the road to China was perhaps another factor that added to Greece’s hype heading into the final tournament. While Skourtopoulos’ selections and tactics were impressive in qualifying, there were still some nervy moments for the Ethniki. It must also be said that the FIBA-EuroLeague conflict over scheduling also ensured that most teams, including Greece, were forced to call upon players that had little-to-none international experience – a decisive advantage for a country like Greece that has the depth of mid-tier players.
So perhaps it was the false pretenses in which Greece arrived at the final tournament that did Greece’s coaching staff a disservice, but even then there were some glaring weaknesses in the numerous friendlies Greece played ahead of their tip-off in China.
An inability to convert shots, whether from the field or from the foul line was already obvious in Greece’ friendlies, and if not then certainly by the time the tournament got underway.
Greece’s shooting woes, which might have been hidden by Antetokounmpo’s ability to takeover games by driving to the basket with his trademark euro-step move, had nowhere to hide once teams began to contain the Greek Freak.
Add that to the fact the Ethniki’s coaching staff never found a way to unleash Antetokounmpo on the offensive end and you’re staring at a team that can’t shoot and can’t use its best player to cover those deficiencies.
Despite having two of the best point guards in the EuroLeague in their ranks, Greece never managed to find a way for the likes of Nick Calathes and Kostas Sloukas to combine well with Antetokounmpo or even Greece’s other weapons on the offensive end.
Yes, there were injuries to Sloukas and even Giannis Athinaiou that hampered Greece’s preparations and even the final roster selection, but there was never really the right option of player in the mix that would allow Greece to build around Antetokounmpo. Although one might argue that it’s difficult for a team to find the right chemistry in such a short time frame regardless of the talent at its disposal, there was never a clear vision in Greece’s game-planning that suggested the team would live up to the hype. Combine the lack of preparation to the lack of execution and Greece’s showing at China is deserved, yet totally underachieving.