Spain and France are the two dominant teams in European basketball, and many fans treated Thursday’s EuroBasket semifinal as the unofficial championship game. The game certainly lived up to the billing, with Pau Gasol pouring in 40 points in an 80-75 overtime victory for Spain.
Serbia and Lithuania still might have something to say about that. While Friday’s game doesn’t have the same NBA star power, the winner gets the same two rewards – a berth in Sunday’s championship game and, just as importantly, a guaranteed spot in the 2016 Summer Olympics.
For Lithuania, the road to the semifinals has been something out of a Disney sports movie. They’ve won four straight nail-biters to get to this point, two by fewer than four points and the other two in overtime.
In the Round of 16, they needed 34 points from Real Madrid’s Jonas Maciulis, including five in the last 11 seconds, to hold off Georgia in an 85-81 win. In the quarterfinal game against Italy, though, Maciulis missed a layup with the score tied at 79 in the final seconds of regulation. That gave Italy a chance to set up a buzzer-beater for Marco Belinelli, but he couldn’t hit it, and the game went into overtime.
In the extra session, the Italians had no answer for Jonas Valanciunas, who had six points as Lithuania pulled away for a 95-85 win. The Toronto Raptors star finished the game with 26 points and 15 rebounds.
For Serbia, things have been a lot easier. They went 5-0 in the group stage, including an 80-70 win over Spain, a 68-66 victory over Dirk Nowitzki and Germany, and a 101-82 blowout of the same Italian team that took Lithuania to overtime.
That gave them an easy matchup in the Round of 16, and they shot 59 percent from the floor in a comfortable 94-81 win over Finland. The outclassed Finns hung around for quite awhile, only trailing 61-59 with three minutes left in the third quarter, but Serbia hit its next 12 shots to put the game away. Miroslav Raduljica finished with 27 points on 11-of-12 shooting, while Nemanja Bjelica, who’s joining the Timberwolves this season, had 19 points and 14 rebounds.
Serbia pulled away late again in its quarterfinal against the Czech Republic, outscoring the Czechs 22-12 in the fourth quarter to earn an 89-75 victory. Bjelica had another double-double, putting up 14 points and 10 rebounds, and Milos Teodosic added 12 points and 14 assists, but it was Serbia’s post players who took over the game. Raduljica and Zoran Erceg combined for 36 points on 12-of-16 shooting, including three three-pointers for Erceg, considered one of the best stretch 4s in Europe.
In the semifinal, Lithuania will have to find a way to stop Serbia in the paint. The Serbs are shooting 66 percent on two-pointers in seven games, helping them average 88 points in 40-minute games. Lithuania shoots better from behind the arc, but doesn’t take as many as Serbia, which uses the outside shot to spread the floor and open up the post.
The other advantage that Serbia owns is depth. Aleksandar Djordjevic’s rotation goes 11 players deep, with Raduljica and Erceg providing a second-unit post combination that no one in the tournament has been able to match. The starting group has one of the tournament’s best point guards in Teodosic and its own post presence in Bjelica, but Djordjevic will go with his five hottest players down the stretch, making it that much tougher to stop Serbia’s late runs.
For Lithuania, the best chance will be a huge game from Valanciunas, the only established NBA player on the floor. He leads the team at 17.2 points and 9.2 rebounds per game, but his 58 percent shooting percentage will probably need to jump up 10-15 points if he’s going to match the Serbian post game.
Maciulis will also have to have a big game from his stretch 4 spot. He’s normally a small forward for Real Madrid, but with the Lithuanians missing several frontcourt players, he’s had to play at both the 3 and the 4 during the tournament. He’s 13-of-21 on three-pointers in his seven games, and if he starts hitting from the outside, it’ll give Valanciunas more room to operate.
Still, Serbia is the overwhelming favorite, and won’t be an easy opponent for Spain if they win.