Commentary

American coach Blatt leads Russia to big upset at EuroBasket

Originally Published: September 15, 2007
By Chris Sheridan | ESPN.com

MADRID, Spain -- Russia is going to the Olympics, an accomplishment all Americans should be proud of.

The reason for the latter is that the Russians were led there by one of us, a coach you've probably never heard of unless you grew up around Boston in the late '70s or were a fan of the Princeton Tigers in the early '80s.

He is David Blatt, a 47-year-old with a basketball résumé that reads like a geography textbook. A native of Framingham, Mass., and a student of Pete Carril's back when he was a literature major at Princeton (and a teammate of current Madison Square Garden president Steve Mills), Blatt pulled off the biggest upset of EuroBasket '07 Saturday night by guiding the Russian national team to an 86-74 victory over previously undefeated Lithuania to earn a berth in Beijing.

Finals Forecast

MADRID, Spain -- It'll be Spain vs. Russia for the gold medal and Lithuania vs. Greece for the lone remaining berth in Beijing when EuroBasket '07 wraps up Sunday.

Here are previews and predictions for the two games:

SPAIN vs. RUSSIA

The reigning world champions might have done the United States a favor by outlasting the pesky Greeks, whose smashmouth style of basketball might not get imported into Beijing next summer if they don't win the third-place game (although they'll still have a chance to qualify next summer in a pre-Olympic tournament in which they likely would enter as the favorites).

Spain got huge games from guards Juan Carlos Navarro (23 points, 5-of-6 shooting on 3s) and Jose Calderon (18 points, 4-of-8 on 3s), along with 23 points from Pau Gasol, to outlast the feisty, physical Greek squad that defeated the U.S. last summer in Japan.

"I thought it was a great game, competitive as can be. Very revealing as far as the physicality of the game, very interesting calls by the officials -- the calls made and the calls not made," Team USA director Jerry Colangelo told ESPN.com.

The Spanish team wants dearly to win this thing in front of its home fans, whereas Russia's goal was to win one of the two Olympic berths. The Russians already have gotten what they came here for, which should work to their benefit because it will allow them to play loose.

Still, they are not as deep overall or as talented in the backcourt as Spain, which is truly an elite team and has played like one throughout this tourney.

Prediction: Spain by 11.

LITHUANIA vs. GREECE

Memo to R.C. Buford in San Antonio: You are going to rue the day you decided to allow Vassilis Spanoulis to leave the NBA (after you acquired him earlier this summer from Houston for Jackie Butler and the rights to Luis Scola) and return to Panathinaikos in Greece.

Spanoulis was a force for Greece on Saturday in its semifinal match against Spain, scoring 24 points on 10-of-14 shooting with five assists to carry his team's offense on a day when Theo Papaloukas was a nonfactor and Dimitrios Diamantidis had his worst game of the tournament.

The Greeks were knocking the Spanish players all over the court (if they had a leaving-the-bench rule in FIBA, there would be seven suspended Greeks and seven suspended Spaniards on Sunday) and battling them relentlessly on defense (11 steals), but they just couldn't execute well enough down the stretch to catch Spain in the final two minutes.

But there was so much more fight in the Greeks on Saturday than there was in the Lithuanians that we can't help but think that's going to carry over into the third-place game Sunday and be one of the main deciding factors.

Prediction: Greece by 1.

-- Chris Sheridan in Madrid

The second Olympic berth from this tournament will be decided Sunday when Lithuania meets Greece in the third-place game.

On the court, the person most responsible for this victory was Andrei Kirilenko, who turned in an especially inspired performance with 29 points, eight rebounds, three steals and three blocks. Aiding Kirilenko were J.R. Holden -- a Pittsburgh native who plays professionally for CSKA Moscow and holds dual Russian and American citizenship -- who scored 18 points and thoroughly outplayed a hobbled Sarunas Jasikevicius in the point guard matchup, and Viktor Khryapa, the Chicago Bulls benchwarmer who chipped in 15 points.

But we're going to direct the credit for this one to the guy who strolled the sideline in front of the Russian bench, a guy who won titles in the Italian Premier League with Benetton Treviso, in the Israeli League with Maccabi Tel Aviv and in the EuroCup with Dynamo St. Petersburg -- and a guy who hopes to win another next season in Turkey when he begins his new job coaching Efes Pilsen.

"I'm happy for my family. They were all watching the game down in Istanbul. I have four children, and I called them on the phone and they were all yelling in Russian, Turkish, Hebrew and English," Blatt said, glowing with pride, after what surely must go down as one of the most significant accomplishments of his vagabond life.

"This is really a special moment for me, I won't lie to you. With my history and my background, to coach the Russian national team, which has one of the most storied pasts in all of basketball annals, and to be part of bringing that back to where they once were, that's pretty special."

It was no easy thing getting this Russian team to where it is now, a road that began in early July 2006 when Blatt was told he'd be out of his new job in a matter of weeks if he didn't get the Russian team through a qualification round that began poorly with losses to Belgium and Hungary in two of his first four games. But Russia made it out of that group and into the EuroBasket field, and Blatt's team has been the surprise story of this summer's EuroBasket tournament, much to the delight of the legions of Blatt supporters among the coaching fraternity back in the States who were pulling for the heir to Sergei Belov to bring a little glory back to a basketball federation that had fallen on hard times in the past decade.

"When we lost that game to Belgium, I came back to the locker room and went crazy, threw stuff all over the locker room and said, 'Now I understand why everyone calls us, me included, losers.' We acted like the Russian national team over the last 12 years.

"But from that day, we changed. We won that group, we started this summer and got everyone in line and started playing great, and in this tournament we have not quit -- not even in our loss to Spain, we did not quit. We play like winners, we play like a team, we play together and we play to have some fun -- and I think people have fun watching us."

Blatt's strategy against Lithuania was fairly straightforward: The Russians had to treat this game like a heavyweight boxing match and come out like an underdog with a puncher's chance, giving the Lithuanians -- who were coming off a tough victory over Slovenia the previous night while Russia had been enjoying a day off -- everything they had right at the start.

His team followed the plan to perfection, jumping out to a 16-1 lead and building its advantage to 19 early in the second quarter before Lithuania started coming back behind the brilliant play of Ramunas Siskauskas, who scored 30 points.

Lithuania eventually tied the score at 52-52 before Kirilenko took over, hitting a 3-pointer, grabbing a defensive rebound, converting a three-point play, hitting a jumper and passing to Khryapa for an open 3-pointer to spur a 13-2 run that put Russia back in command.

Kirilenko and Holden carried the Russians in the fourth quarter as they stayed comfortably enough ahead to allow Blatt to break into an unbridled show of emotion as the final minute ticked off the clock, hugging and embracing his players and assistant coaches as a small contingent of jubilant Russian fans whooped it up in the end zone seats.

Even two of the Lithuanian players were feeling happy for Blatt -- because it was Blatt who recruited Siskauskas to Benetton in 2004 and Jasikevicius to Maccabi in 2003.

And as an American, you couldn't help but feel a measure of national pride in a coach who had conducted himself throughout this tournament as such a dignified ambassador for the U.S., showing great grace, humor, charisma and passion.

So again, my fellow Americans, it's a day to feel good about ourselves and our newfound kinship with the Russians, who wouldn't be going where they're going -- the EuroBasket final and the Olympics -- if they didn't have one of us at the helm.

Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.