Basketball

Hot-shooting Greeks upset USA

by Ed Odeven

SAITAMA — There’s jubilation in Athens. There’s disappointment in America.

News photo Greece’s Sofoklis Schortsanitis drives to the basket as LeBron James of the
U.S. guards during their World Basketball Championship semifinal clash in Saitama on
Friday.
KYODO PHOTO

There’s a new appreciation for Greece’s spirited brand of basketball. And after a performance this spectacular, little kids from Tokyo to Topeka will dream of becoming the next Theodoros Papaloukas. After all, his career now rivals that of any storybook fantasy (but more on that later).

The Greece National Team beat the United States at its own game Friday night, playing a fast-paced, remarkable offensive game that dazzled the crowd with equal doses of flash and fervor and ended this way: Greece 101, USA 95.

“Everybody talked that it would be like a dream beating them,” said Greece’s Dimos Dikoudis, “but we believed in ourselves.”

“It was a big win for us,” Dikoudis declared.

Greece’s stunning semifinal triumph at Saitama Super Arena catapults the team to Sunday’s FIBA World Championship final against Spain, which beat Argentina 75-74 also on Friday. Tipoff is 7:30 p.m.

Team USA, the world’s top-ranked team, plays Saturday against Argentina at 7:30 p.m. for the bronze medal.

“It’s not the end of the world for us,” said USA forward Carmelo Anthony, who scored 27 points, in a less-than-convincing tone of voice. “We win together, we lose together and that’s the way we’ve got to go out.

“Yes, we are disappointed we lost,” he added, “but we still have to go out there and take care of business.”

Greece used a decisive 15-4 third-quarter run, which was capped by a Konstas Tsartsaris 3-pointer, to take a 65-51 edge at the 5:45 mark. Seconds earlier, Dimitrios Diamantidis drained a 3 over LeBron James, showing brashness and veteran guile — it was a clearout play he called for.

Team USA sliced the lead to 10 on three occasions before the quarter concluded, the last of which came on a Dwyane Wade free throw with 55 seconds remaining. He missed the first foul shot, a continuation of the team’s poor free-throw shooting.

The U.S. finished 20-for-34 from the line. The third quarter ended with Vasilis Spanoulis, who had a team-high 22 points, beating the buzzer on a layup. That put the U.S. in a 77-65 hole — the first time it has trailed entering the fourth quarter during this tournament — as the final period commenced.

Wade’s layup-and-one play cut it to 77-68, but the Greeks answered right back. Mihalis Kakiouzis hit a 3-ball as the lead increased to 12. Team USA clawed back into the game as it traded baskets with its opponent. Kirk Hinrich’s 3-pointer from the left baseline made the score 91-86 with 2:41 left. But Greece had too much resiliency and too much productivity when it mattered.

Case in point: Spanoulis’ 3 pushed the lead to 94-86 with 1:59 left. But the Americans made it interesting in crunch time. Hinrich, who had 12 points, nailed a 3 with 36 seconds left and James (17 points) scored a layup second later, trimming the deficit to four points both times. That was as close as they’d get.

Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski, who has built Duke University into a college powerhouse, said: “Obviously, the Greek team and their coaching staff did an amazing job today, it’s not surprising.

“I’ve known their coach most of my basketball life and his team played like he played and we knew that they have great heart and great togetherness. I thought out kids played with great heart also.

“We lost to a team that played a great game, but I’ll take responsibility for the loss.”

The Greeks entered this game without a 100-point output in seven previous tourney games. On Friday, they used a high-octane offense to spark them to victory.

“You know something, when one team spends a lot of energy defensively, it’s difficult to have the same speed offensively,” Greece coach Panagiotis Yannakis said, explaining his strategy against a team that entered the tourney with a 105.9-points-per-game average. “We know that the U.S. is a little bit more athletic. I think we did a great job … because we made the USA go more pressure to the ball and gave us more opportunities to drive easy to the basket.”

This was, it turned out, a brilliant strategy against a U.S. team without a major defensive presence in the paint. The first quarter ended with the U.S. squad leading 20-14. The lead reached 33-21 on a Joe Johnson 3-pointer, but the Greeks used a 9-0 run to pull within 33-30 with 3:51 left in the half. It was part of a 22-5 run that continued with Sofoklis “Baby Shaq” Schortsanitis’ taking over as Greece’s primary offensive weapon.

Schortsanitis’ jam cut the Americans’ lead to 36-35. He scored on Greece’s next three possessions, all shots in the lane as the U.S. defense failed to find an answer for his imposing presence.

Greece led 45-41 at the break. Papaloukas, more than anyone, controlled the game. He had 12 assists, eight points and five rebounds off the bench. He entered the game with 21 assists in the team’s previous seven tournament wins, but has had a magical touch on the basketball court in recent months no matter how many minutes he plays or where the game’s played.

To wit: The 29-year-old, who plays for CSKA-Moscow of the Russian League, was named the MVP of EuroBasket 2005 and the 2005 Euroleague final four’s MVP. Now his team is one win away from the World Championship, and he’s a big reason for that.

“They thread passes,” Coach K said. “(Papaloukas) was brilliant in the first half. Some of the plays that he made . . . (were) just terrific.”

Greece shot 63 percent from the field (27-for-38), while the U.S. found the bottom of the net on 50 percent of its time (33-for-66). The Greeks savored this victory — the players all formed a circle at halfcourt several minutes after the game ended and danced — while their coach rejoiced publicly in the postgame press conference.

“The players made something incredible,” Yannakis said. “It was a great win for my players,” he added. “We had faith. We believe a lot. We don’t lose our concentration when teams try to force us into mistakes. This was the key. . . . The last three knockout games we made less mistakes than we ever did.”

IN THE PAINT: Chiba Lotte Marines manager Bobby Valentine and ex-University of Southern California basketball coach George Raveling were spotted in the crowd. . . . Coach Mike Krzyzewski opted to start Joe Johnson at starting guard in place of Dwyane Wade, who shot 1-for-11 from the field in the quarterfinal game against Germany. U.S. center Brad Miller, the team’s biggest player at 214 cm (and a muscular 118 kg) didn’t play.