Commentary

Day 2: China nearly upsets Spain; Croatia rolls

Originally Published: August 12, 2008
By Chris Sheridan | ESPN.com

Gasol and YaoGarrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty ImagesPau Gasol and Spain avoided a big upset at the hands of Yao Ming and host China on Tuesday.
BEIJING -- Anything is possible in international basketball, and what seemed like an utter impossibility came very, very close to happening.

China almost pulled off what would have been one of the biggest basketball upsets ever, controlling the first three-plus quarters against the defending world champions from Spain before blowing a 13-point fourth-quarter lead and losing 85-75 in overtime Tuesday.

"We thought it would be an easy game for us, and obviously that was a misunderstanding," Spain coach Aito Garcia Reneses said. "Any international team can beat any other international team. We really need to acknowledge this, and you can never be complacent about yourself."

Complacency, faulty execution and half-hearted defense got the better of the Spanish team for the better part of the game. Until Marc Gasol scored over Yao Ming to tie the game at 72 with 19.7 seconds left. And until Pau Gasol converted a 3-point play midway through overtime, drawing Yao's fifth and final foul in the process, then made an alley-oop dunk off a pass from Ricky Rubio with 1:27 remaining to put Spain in control for good.

"I think Ricky made all the difference in the world," said Kobe Bryant, who watched the game from the locker room. "His defensive presence was spectacular. The guards from China couldn't get the ball past half court, and that changed the face of the game."

There's no telling how many Chinese fans were tuning in around this country of 1.3 billion, but all of them must have had their hearts in their throats when the Chinese team couldn't finish off what would have been an absolutely monumental accomplishment.

Zhu Fangyu hit China's 10th and final 3-pointer with 8:46 remaining to give China a 64-51 lead in a game in which Yao (11 points, nine rebounds) was surprisingly ineffective. Instead, it was guard Liu Wei (19 points, four 3-pointers), Zhu (15 points, three steals) and former NBA player Wang Zhizhi (15 points) who did most of the damage.

But Rudy Fernandez hit a driving layup over Yao to complete a 10-0 run that pulled Spain to just three points behind at 64-61. China scored the next four points, but Spain answered with a 6-0 run. Shortly after, Juan Carlos Navarro sank a 3-pointer from the corner off a nifty cross-court inbounds pass from Jose Calderon to tie the score at 70. Wang hit a long jumper with his toe touching the 3-point line to make it 72-70 with 109 left, and after Navarro missed a 3 and Marc Gasol missed a tip, Yao bobbled an offensive rebound out of bounds.

After Marc Gasol scored to tie the game at 72, the long-armed Rubio reached in against Liu and deflected the ball, and Spain gained possession when it bounced out of bounds off Liu's leg. On the final shot in regulation, Rubio was off-target on a floater from six feet away.

"We were lucky," Spain's Rudy Fernandez said.

Said Yao: "It hurt, but we drop it and move forward."

Garcia Reneses was so confident his team would win that he did not even start Calderon and Navarro, his two best guards.

"We must have equilibrium on our team. It is not necessary to begin every game with the same players," said Garcia Reneses, who had observers scratching their heads in Spain's opener when he started Marc Gasol instead of his brother, Pau.


Croatia 85, Russia 78

The big differences here were motivation, preparation and execution.

[+] EnlargeAndrei Kirilenko
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty ImagesAndrei Kirilenko and Russia fell to 1-1 with a loss to Croatia.

As they did against Australia two days earlier, the Croatians were exceptional jumping out to and defending their lead. They scored 17 of the final 27 points of the first half to go ahead by six, and the Russians couldn't catch them.

"This game was a big challenge for us after we lost to them last summer in Madrid. We wanted to show we could play with them, and my team was very, very motivated," Croatia coach Jasmin Repesa said. "We showed that we can play with every team here."

Russia pulled to 82-76 with 1:07 left, but Croatia got an offensive rebound off a missed 3-pointer by Zoran Planinic. With the score 85-79, Russia's last chance ended when Andrei Kirilenko dribbled the ball off his foot and out of bounds with 24 seconds remaining -- his fifth turnover.

Marko Popovic scored 22 and Planinic 20 (on 7-for-9 shooting), and Croatia outrebounded the taller Russians 34-29 (20-11 in the first half) and made 25 of 29 free throws. Kirilenko led Russia with 18 points. J.R. Holden had another poor offensive game, shooting 2-for-10.

"We need to be more gritty," Russia coach David Blatt said. "What it took today was a bar fight, not a pool game. We missed that fact."

Croatia, which has been playing meaningful games since mid-July because it had to qualify for the Olympics at a tournament in Athens, will play Argentina on Thursday and Lithuania on Saturday before finishing the preliminary round against Iran. With the way the Croatians are playing, they could win Group A.

"They've been through the fire already this summer with tough games, and that showed today," Blatt said.

Said Croatia guard Marko Banic: "We played some tough games in Athens, we've worked on our mistakes and we've practiced a lot, so it's definitely a big advantage for us."


Greece 87, Germany 64

It was a totally different Greek team from the one that got steamrolled by Spain in its opener.

Vassilis Spanoulis scored 23 points, Theo Papaloukas had 15 and Dimitrios Diamantidis had 12 for Greece, which made Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Kaman nonfactors in the game.

Greek coach Panagiotis Yannakis started Andreas Glyniadakis at center instead of Sofaklis Schortsianitis, and Glyniadakis' physicality had Kaman at a loss right from the start.

Greece outscored Germany 23-10 in the second quarter and shot 15-of-23 in the half. The Greeks' defensive intensity was evident on Germany's first possession of the second half, when Kaman went up to try a windmill dunk and Diamantidis shoulder-bumped him to the floor.

Spanoulis had a nifty behind-the-back pass to Panagiotis Vasilopoulos for a windmill dunk to make it 54-40, and Papaloukas followed with a 3-pointer after three quick swing passes. A 3-point play by Spanoulis, a steal and a follow shot by Spanoulis later made it 66-45, and the Greeks piled on in the fourth quarter with several alley-oop dunks.


Argentina 85, Australia 68

After getting upset by Lithuania in its first game, the Argentina came out focused in this one and opened a 23-5 lead on a 3-pointer by Manu Ginobili with 2:44 left in the first quarter.

Luis Scola scored 13 of his 17 points by halftime, when Argentina led 39-29, and a pair of 7-0 runs in the third quarter had Argentina ahead by 17 entering the fourth.

Ginobili led Argentina with 21 points, and Carlos Delfino scored 14. Speedster Patty Mills scored 22 points for Australia.


Lithuania 99, Iran 67

Linas Kleiza, the hero of Sunday's victory over Argentina, shot 8-for-11 and grabbed a team-high eight rebounds for Lithuania, and Sarunas Jasikevicius had 20 points and three of the team's 20 steals.

Iran led 20-15 at the end of the first quarter, but Lithuania came back strong and was ahead by 20 by the midpoint of the third quarter. 7-foot-2 Iranian center Hamed Ehadadi had 21 points, 9 rebounds and 4 blocks but committed 8 turnovers.

Chris Sheridan is an ESPN.com Insider. He has covered the U.S. senior national team since the 1996 Olympics. To e-mail Chris, click here.