Berlin Wall of Tears: How Greece added another EuroBasket to their string of misfortune

Giorgos Kyriakidis
Staff Writer
2022-09-15 16:10

Having a back-to-back NBA MVP, one of EuroLeague's best coaches, and some of the top players in Europe wasn't enough for Greece to make the semis in this EuroBasket.

Credit: FIBA

"At the reception after dinner, our keys had expired because we could leave tomorrow. Let's renew our keys."

Greece had just snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in their EuroBasket Round of 16 game against the Czech Republic, and coach Dimitris Itoudis gave voice to the harsh reality that any team faces in a knockout tournament. Less than 48 hours after that statement, Itoudis saw his side get the wrong end of the stick. 

Germany was the team that put an end to Greece's six-game winning streak in the 41st EuroBasket, beating the blue-and-white squad in a spectacular fashion. In fact, they didn't just beat them; they outplayed them in any way imaginable, especially in the second half. 

Player of the Game
Dennis  Schroder
Dennis Schroder
Points 26
Accuracy 8-15
Rebounds 3
Assists 8

The sluggish entry into the game allowed the Germans to find the rhythm and start with 7/8 from the perimeter, while the third quarter was the one that essentially put the final nail in the coffin. 

Dennis Schroeder, Franz Wagner, and Maodo Lo scored 64 of Germany's 107 points and sent Greece to the airport gate and, as Itoudis would say, to an early check-out from their Berlin hotel and the EuroBasket.

Although the team boasted one of the best players on the planet, one of EuroLeague's most acclaimed coaches, and some All-EuroLeague level firepower, Greece didn't make the semis in another major tournament. 

One mustn't forget that the two-time continental champs (1987, 2005) have invariably failed to get past the quarter-finals in the last four EuroBaskets. In 2011, it was France who was proven superior.

In 2015, Pau Gasol's dominance was undisputed, even though Greece still had a roster that could go all the way (Vassilis Spanoulis, Giannis Bourousis, Nikos Zisis, Nick Calathes, plus 21-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo). Two years later, after pulling off an upset win over Lithuania in the Round of 16, the Greeks met their nemesis in Alexey Shved's Russia.

This time, it was Dennis Schroeder's Germany who celebrated their first success against Greece after 21 years and 13 straight losses. More than 5.000 Greek fans were in the stands, trying to render null and void any home-court advantage that the German side could take advantage of. 

Low profile, big expectations

Although neither Itoudis nor any other player had clearly defined Greece's goal in this tournament, everyone -from the Greek Basketball Federation President, Vangelis Liolios) down to the last member of the staff- knew that the roster was strong enough to fight for a place on the podium. 

"Our own medal is that people trusted and believed in this team," Itoudis said after his team fell to Germany.

The hype surrounding the latest version of the Greek NT was bigger and louder than any of its predecessors had come to enjoy. 

You could see it everywhere: in the sold-out prep and official home games (against Spain, Turkey, and Belgium); in the way opponent teams and fans (Spain, Serbia, Italy) were preparing themselves to watch Giannis live; in the commercials that the Greek federation and its sponsors prepared for the domestic TV audience; in the unprecedented media interest that the team generated inside and outside the country's borders.

In other words, the expectations were huge. When Italy eliminated Serbia, players were asked whether that development could increase Greece's chances of winning a medal. It's been 13 years since the Balkan country made its way to the podium (in Katowice), and the early elimination came as another disappointment that further prolonged the frustration. 

As most Greek players went through the Mercedes Benz Arena mixed zone with their heads down, Giannoulis Larentzakis could barely hold back his tears. The 29-year-old guard had just concluded a great two-way performance which will vanish into thin air because of the game's outcome. 

While still on the court, Kostas Antetokounmpo, a player whose presence in this EuroBasket ended up being a mere footnote, had the same reaction. If it hadn't been for his elder brother Thanasis to offer some words of consolation, the former ASVEL big man could have even missed the charter flight back home. 

Thanasis Antetokounmpo himself couldn't prevent himself from appearing tearful on camera when he took his turn explaining what had just gone south for Greece.

"I will not look for excuses, they (Germany) just made everything," the Bucks forward said.

"Kostas Papanikolaou, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Giannoulis Larentzakis, Michalis Lountzis, Giorgos Papagiannis and all the guys are building something nice. It's not the end, it's just the beginning," he added.

Realizing that his mother Veronica might be watching him, Thanasis Antetokounmpo asked her not to worry. 

"Mom, I'm not crying. Don't be sad," he pleaded.

A week ago, when Greece had just finalized their first-place finish in their group, Thanasis didn't hide his optimism about the current version of Greece, emphasizing the camaraderie and companionship that its members share.

"I'm happy to be playing on this team," he said. "The main difference from other teams we've had is that all the guys are more or less the same age, and we've become familiar with each other. We are friends, and we have a special chemistry," the 30-year-olf forward told BasketNews.

"Physically, maybe not, but spiritually we're on the same page," Ioannis Papapetrou concurred. 

"We fight for each other by showing positive energy and supporting each other. We have great chemistry off the court, we hang around with each other. That can help us give our best when the crucial games come."

In retrospect, it's not hard to understand that the amicable atmosphere in the locker room didn't make any difference. A team has to squeeze out all the energy and talent of its players in order to achieve its goals.

The saying "everything must change so that everything can stay the same" has become an ironic historical expression but fits like a glove in Greece's case.

Giannis and the Berlin wall

In this vein, Itoudis' team might present the EuroBasket's second-best offensive production with an average of 92.3 points per game, but Germany scored 107 against them in the quarter-finals. Giannis Antetokounmpo is responsible for more than 30% of that production, as the 'Greek Freak' finished the tournament, averaging 29.3 points per contest.

Itoudis and his coaching staff, including Bucks assistant coach Josh Oppenheimer, received a lot of praise for putting Giannis in a position he could be most effective. That had been the case for the better part of the EuroBasket. However, when the knockout contests against the Czech Republic and Germany came, the two-time NBA MVP had to resort to hero-ball in order to make things work for Greece. 

Despite taking four 3-point attempts per game, Giannis made only 20% (5/25), which is even lower than his 22% in the past NBA playoffs. Overall, he scored 1.3 points per field goal, raising his national team's firepower to 130.2 points per 100 possessions when he was on the court. 

As expected, Giannis had a huge influence on the game. His usage came up to 38.7%, which is the highest engagement rate among all EuroBasket players. By comparison, Luka Doncic had 34.8%, while Lauri Markkanen had 35.2% and Nikola Jokic only 30.1%. 

While Greece's offensive plays mainly revolved around the 28-year-old superstar, Giannis did a lot of work on defense as well. Itoudis had to rely heavily on him since his two main big men, Giorgos Papagiannis and Kostas Antetokounmpo, were dealing with serious injuries and weren't allocated the playing time they were supposed to, according to the initial plan.

However, Itoudis took the risk of including both of them in the 12-man squad that made the trip to Milan and Berlin since the players' pool from which to choose was very small.

Kostas Gontikas had left training camp with a fracture; Dimitris Kaklamanakis, who joined the squad for the World Cup Qualifiers game vs. Belgium, didn't even play in that outing; Veteran Giannis Bourousis, who appeared in the 2019 World Cup, has retired, while Kosta Koufos, who last joined the team in 2015, is currently at the lowest point of his career. 

Thus, Giannis often had to consume a lot of energy chasing the opponents' guards, either by the coach's decision (as happened in the matches vs. the Czech Republic and Germany) or following the switches after screens. Being a great help defender led to him averaging 1.5 steals and 0.8 blocks per contest whilst allowing 103.7 points per 100 possessions when he was active. 

With his overall presence at the EuroBasket, Giannis proved that he can now respond more than adequately to FIBA Basketball requirements. His numbers can testify to that.

Even though several coaches, like Ronen Ginzburg and Gordon Herbert, tried to deploy all sorts of mechanics and tricks to cut him off, at the end of the day, he was able to put up great performances and remind everyone of the dominant player he's grown into in the NBA. 

Much has been said and written about opponent coaches building a wall around Greece's star player.

And although the Toronto Raptors had famously been the first team to effectively implement that tactic when facing Giannis in the 2019 NBA playoffs, European teams picked up and used it to their advantage.

It paid dividends for Brazil and the Czech Republic in 2019, when Antetokounmpo was pinned down to low numbers, but it seems that's no longer the case. 

In the EuroBasket, Giannis was able to influence the game in any way possible, and even if three or four players were ready to guard him or intercept his passes, he still managed to score over 25 points against each and every team. 

Excellent players, but no shooters

Since a thin line separates success from failure, the main issue for any team facing Giannis was to make him shoot from distance or choose a kick-out pass to one of his teammates other than Tyler Dorsey or Kostas Sloukas. 

"Theoretically, every time they have five players on the floor, they have only two or three dangerous outside shooters. For example, Calathes is not very dangerous. Dorsey is dangerous. Position 3? So so. Position 4? Not dangerous. So you take risks," Ronen Ginzburg analyzed.

"Greece has excellent players around Giannis. Maybe their weakness is outside shooting," he added. 

With Tyler Dorsey being a part of the offensive equation, the expectation was that one of Greece's chronic problems would be finally cured. But after hitting 11 out of 19 3-point shots in the first couple of games (vs. Croatia and Italy), the 26-year-old guard was reduced to only 6/23 from the perimeter in the five contests that followed, including 3/12 in the two knockout fixtures. 

Credit FIBA

Greece went 9/29 against Germany, but their biggest issue was on the defensive end. After a competitive first half, in which Greece was leading 61-57, Dimitris Itoudis saw his players collapse. Greece missed its first 12 field goals in the third quarter when Germany went off to a 20-1 run and outrebounded their opponents 20-5.

One can make a case for lack of mental readiness and preparation. In all previous Greece's games, the score went high, but against Germany, they chose to rely on their offensive talent, ignoring all the elements of their basketball DNA that can keep the score lower.

Asked by the Greek public TV reporter about how France beat Turkey and Italy down the stretch, Evan Fournier said: "In France, we call it 'Greek style'. It shows that we have a lot of heart and we never quit."

Obviously and despite not being a member of the French NT who lost to Greece in the 2005 EuroBasket semi-final, Fournier can't forget how the Greeks essentially stole the victory with a big three-point shot by Dimitris Diamantidis, before winning their second trophy.

That Greek squad didn't have many good shooters (apart from Nikos Zisis and Antonis Fotsis) to space the floor but rather leaned on its defensive-minded approach to overcome any shortcomings.

Moreover, the team coached by European basketball legend Panagiotis Giannakis didn't have just one but several leaders on the court. 

Can Greece do any better?

The emerging question that comes to mind after another EuroBasket that can be considered a wasted opportunity for Greece is whether the current roster can produce better results. It's not a question regarding only Giannis' supporting cast but also the team's superstar himself. 

Greece's leading man has grown accustomed to playing with the ball in his hands and needs to have some shooters around him, in every position - even at '5'. That's definitely hard to find at the club level, let alone at the national team.

Since Bourousis retired, the country's basketball hasn't found a center that can pose a perimeter threat.

Calathes has been a below-average shooter throughout his career, while Papanikolaou and Papapetrou can do many things on the court yet are anything but reliable shooters. Sloukas, another ball-handler albeit a superior shooter, can hardly play alongside both Calathes and Giannis. 

This leaves us with the Giannis issue. Judging by his overall contribution, the 2021 NBA champ couldn't have played any better. Giannis is the world's most dominant player in the paint, but he's not a traditional big man using post moves or dwelling near the basket.

He rather runs the offense face-up, shoots from mid and long-range, and likes to take advantage of his unworldly athleticism, no matter how many defenders will be there to stop him. 

In contrast to other EuroBasket and NBA superstars, like Nikola Jokic and Luka Doncic, Giannis is a below-average shooter from deep and doesn't possess a similar court vision. His mental preparation has improved a lot, as he managed to overcome some wrong decisions and offensive blackouts he suffered during certain parts of the games. 

Nevertheless, a safe conclusion would be that the 'operation Giannis' may have succeeded admirably, but the patient called Greece still died.

Creating a completely functional team with Giannis as a centerpiece remains a puzzle that Itoudis will have to put together as soon as possible. Greece cannot set up a Bucks-like squad, despite Oppenheimer joining their coaching staff and Mike Budenholzer providing some piece of advice during prep games. 

The players' statements indicate that the team has a future and personnel to guarantee it. Nick Calathes, for instance, said he would be willing to play until the Paris Olympic Games in 2024.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, as Itoudis told BasketNews, isn't going to give up on the NT ahead of the upcoming tournaments. 

With the qualification for the 2023 World Cup being an imperative and no Giannis or Dorsey available, Itoudis (or the coach that will succeed him, for that matter) will have a lot of work to do in the following months. 

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