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EuroBasket - Round 2 Preview

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After 60 games in 6 days, 5 games for each of 24 teams, the EuroBasket field has been sliced in half. Seems like a lot of work just to get rid of twelve teams, doesn't it? Well be thankful the field was expanded this year. In years past, the first cut eliminated just four out of 16 teams.

After a day off on Tuesday, the action starts up again on Wednesday. They officially call it Round 2, but Round 1B might be more appropriate. Your record against the opponents who are advancing is carried forward into this round, so the round starts with standings already in place. This is all very bad news for our friends Chris Kaman and Dirk Nowitzki and their German freunde, as they begin the second round as the only 0-2 team in the newly created Group E (formed by taking the top three teams in Groups A and B). Their position is difficult certainly, but it only makes their task clear: they pretty much have to beat both Lithuania and Turkey. (I'm assuming that Spain is the least likely to lose.) To make matters even worse for the Germans, they open against Spain in the first game on Wednesday, so they may very soon by 0-3. The one possible advantage of playing Spain early in the round is that Pau Gasol may still be recovering from a tender ankle (see below). Even so, 2-3 with wins over Turkey and Lithuania would get Germany through to the Final Eight. They can certainly play with those teams, but unless both Nowitzki and Kaman have big games, they are probably in trouble, especially starting in a hole as they are.

In their final Group B game, Germany needed two late threes from Heiko Schaffartzik to edge winless Latvia. Of course, the outcome of the game didn't matter at all, with the German's spot in the next round already secured and a win or loss against Latvia being meaningless in the second round. As such, Nowitzki played just 18 minutes and Kaman just 19. Kaman put up 10 points and 7 rebounds in his 19 minutes, and enters the second round as the leading rebounder in the entire field.

The tournament has essentially been reduced to an NBA half and a EuroLeague half. There are a dozen teams left, and by my count there are 22 players who competed in the NBA last year. Of those 22, 17 are in Group E and only 5 in Group F. There are two teams in Group F (Macedonia and Finland) without a single NBA player. And as if the disparity weren't already enough, there are also three lottery picks in Group E scheduled to make their NBA debuts as soon as the lockout is resolved. 

This NBA-EuroLeague split is not necessarily enough by itself to say that Group E is superior. As it happens, Serbia and Lithuania are in Group E with just one NBA player each, and they are very good teams. The simple fact is that the best team in the tournament (Spain), the host (Lithuania) and the deepest team (France) are all in Group E, while the three weakest remaining teams by reputation (Finland, Georgia and Macedonia) are in Group F. On paper, it certainly appears that a worthy final 8 team from Group E will miss out while either Finland or Georgia or Madedonia moves on. But such are the caprices of these tournaments.

Finland is definitely the feel good story of the tournament so far. They had to win the pre-Tournament just to make it into the field of 24, but weren't expected to do much with the big boys. In their very first EuroBasket game, they gave Croatia a tough fight before losing by 5, and proved that they belonged in the field. Although they only managed to win two of their five Round 1 games, close losses against Croatia and Macedonia and just as importantly, a blowout 28 point victory over Bosnia and Herzegovina gave them the point differential to advance. The Finns don't have many names you'd recognize; Hanno Mottola played at Utah and then a couple of seasons for the Hawks a decade ago, and at 35 he's still a factor. But their best player is point guard Petteri Koponen, who was drafted by the Blazers and this summer was traded to the Mavericks, though he has yet to make his NBA debut. Koponen led the Finns in scoring in the Round 1 at 14 points per game. On the final day of the first round, Finland did their part by beating Montenegro, and then had to watch and hope that both Croatia and Bosnia would lose. They did, and Finland moves on.

The other interesting story from the final day of the first round was Turkey. After losing to Poland Sunday, they were in danger of failing to advance. But Poland couldn't capitalize on their position, losing to Great Britain in the early game Monday. Turkey then turned around and beat Spain, who were playing without Pau Gasol. Gasol tweaked his ankle on Sunday, but is expected to be OK for the second round. It's a measure of Spain's confidence in this tournament that they were willing to rest Gasol, knowing that a loss to Turkey would carry forward and count against them in the Round 2 standings. At any rate, Turkey takes the win into the second round, after riding a roller coaster the last few days - from undefeated in the group and on the verge of beating Lithuania, to possibly eliminated, and then into the second round.