Tall Blacks x 2019 FIBA World Cup: The Reckoning vs Greece

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The result wasn’t the important thing as the Tall Blacks faced Greece in their final first round game at this basketball World Cup. It was a game where the winner would advance and the loser would fall into the classification rounds but when you’re the heavy underdog coming up against the NBA MVP then you don’t have the luxury of knowing that a positive performance would equate to a positive result. That positive performance was within their control. The result, not so much. The Tall Blacks could play great against this Greek team and still lose. In fact… they did. 

There’s been a little bit made about the Tall Blacks’ proud history of making the knockout rounds at the World Cup but I don’t really see why that’s relevant. Proud history for sure, but making the knockouts tends to be dependent on the format of the competition if we’re being honest. Like back in 2014 we finished fourth out of six teams with a 2-3 record and made it through by a tiebreaker. This World Cup has four-team groups instead of six-team groups which means the seeding is more influential which means that the modestly ranked Tall Blacks ended up with a very tough group.

There’s a fair debate that we’ve actually performed better this time around. In 2014 we lost to Turkey, the Dominican Republic, and USA before beating Ukraine and Finland and then lost 76-71 to Lithuania in the round of sixteen. Montenegro are a better team than either Ukraine or Finland, neither of them had a Nikola Vucevic level player. Brazil and Greece are better than Turkey or the Dominican Republic and we pushed both close. Not to mention that the depth in international basketball now is greater than ever before with 18 of 32 teams boasting a current NBA player (or multiple) and plenty others with NBA experience in their ranks. New Zealand obviously does not have either… unless you count Summer League or Preseason.

Greece were the most fancied team in our group thanks to the unique challenge of guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo and his excellent Euroballing mates. They might have lost to Brazil but they shouldn’t have and all that really did was it made this one a must-win for them too and gave Greece no choice but to start playing towards their potential. Giannis, until now, had been quiet. Against New Zealand it was clear that he’d have to take things into his own hands and sure enough his fingerprints were all over that ball from the outset. Those pesky Brazilians went and woke the dragon.

And this guy, mate. The Greek Freek. He’s the NBA MVP so you already know this but his skillset is incredible. The way he moves for the size that he is… there’s nothing else like it. Gliding past defenders, setting a tone, and then with his ability to either finish at the rim or his vision and passing capabilities he opens up the entire halfcourt to his bidding. Sucking in defenders. Blitzing past anyone who keeps it too timid. Scoring through contact if they don’t. Kicking it out to open shooters when the help steps over. All the options are available and honestly there’s nothing you can do about it if you’re a team like New Zealand. The Toronto Raptors moved Kawhi Leonard onto him in the NBA Eastern Conference Finals but we don’t have a Kawhi on this team, as you may be aware. So Giannis had six assists and shot 15 free throws on his way to an influential 24p/10r/6a/2s performance. I wrote in the Montenegro piece that the Tall Blacks wouldn’t be able to contain him but they could at least dare him to bring his best if he wanted to win it. Which he did, and he did.

The Tall Blacks probably let it slip when they were outscored 17-5 over the final four minutes of the opening quarter. Early days but it was a lead that Greece would never lose, largely thanks to Giannis’ ability to continually dictate things on the drive and equally importantly through their shooting from range. Yet again the Tall Blacks muscled up with commendable rebounding numbers and their shooting numbers were actually slightly better than Greece’s… but Ioannis Papapetrou and Nick Calathes kept on hitting the tough ones and the Tall Blacks just couldn’t get on a roll despite staying relatively close the entire rest of the way. There was no third quarter slump here. The TBs finished that quarter down by just five points. But then a couple minutes later it was a double digit lead and what can you do? Greece won it 103-97 and advance to the second round.

This wasn’t unexpected. Greece are great and they strung together their best forty minute performance of the tournament so far in order to beat us. That’s as much as you can ask from the Tall Blacks on an occasion like this – we didn’t win but we made them bloody earn it. Greece vs USA is going to be incredibly fun now… while New Zealand get a go at Japan and Turkey in the classifications which is no easy task there either. We split a couple games with Japan in warmups (the thought of Rui Hachimura won’t seem so tricky coming directly after Giannis Antetokounmpo and the literal man himself especially won’t seem so tricky since he’s not gonna play the rest of the tournament in order to stay ready for the NBA season) while Turkey kinda famously took the USA to overtime a couple days ago and beat us a few years ago. This World Cup isn’t over yet… and while automatic Olympic qualification is gone thanks to Australia advancing, there’s still next year’s qualifying tournament to build towards.

A few other thoughts from the Greece game…

Corey Webster was absolutely scintillating. He was incredible. This was the best singular game I’ve seen him play for like two years, he almost single-handedly kept us chugging along in that first half as he scored 21 points in the opening two quarters. Corey finished up with 31 points on 11/18 shooting (7/12 from deep) to go with 3 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals. A little bit of foul trouble in there plus Greece did what Brazil did and managed to adjust to him in the second half. The Tall Blacks were able to bring guys like Isaac Fotu and Tom Abercrombie into the mix in response but they couldn’t overhaul the deficit.

But yeah, Corey Webster put his name in bold font with these last three games. After the first round, he leads all scorers. Every single one of them. 75 points in three games, ahead of Bogdan Bogdanovic with 72 for Serbia (a legit NBA scorer, that dude), Guna Ra of South Korea with 68 points, and Patty Mills the Aussie (and another legit NBA bloke) with 60 points. By the way Isaac Fotu is tied for tenth as well with 52 combined points. Corey Webster has also made more triples than anyone else, shooting 18/32 from deep at 56%.

The fouls will be a talking point amongst the team. Tom Abercrombie mentioned on the radio that he thought the refs were a little too lenient in Giannis’ favour. But I mean that’s just Giannis. His whole game is about how he drives to the hoop and with that fluidity of motion that he has he draws fouls and it’s not about how hard or soft they are. New Zealand committed 32 fouls compared to 24 fouls. We also had 12 turnovers compared to 9. These aren’t huge margins but they’re definitive ones and every Tall Black who played more than seven minutes getting at least three fouls which played havoc with rotations and rhythm.

Tom Abercrombie in the first two games combined:

51 MIN | 9 PTS (3/13 FG, 1/5 3PT, 2/3 FT) | 12 REB | 2 AST | 2 TO

Tom Abercrombie against Greece:

34 MIN | 18 PTS (6/12 FG, 3/7 3PT, 3/4 FT) | 6 REB | 1 AST | 0 TO

It’s tough to figure why Abercrombie seems to have settled into this kinda plateau the last few years and his Breakers form seems to rise and dip for random reasons – one year he’s missing triples, the next he’s shooting better from three than his free throws – but you really wish he’d just be more aggressive. He’d been an offensive non-factor in the first two games so beauty to see him remind everyone what he’s capable of here. More of that, please.

Bench scoring has been a problem for the Tall Blacks this World Cup. A large problem. There’s been a lot of pressure on Corey Webster to carry the scoring while Tai Webster has gotten better each game (he made a three here! It was an accidental bank shot but okay, they all count) and Isaac Fotu has been an undercover beast in the post – seriously that hook shot of his is flawless, what a weapon – but Rob Loe and TA have been up and down and the bench just isn’t offering that punch. Ethan Rusbatch didn’t play much here but he’s usually good for a triple or two. Shea Ili can get to the free throw line. But teams like Brazil and Greece are able to keep up a full game of pressure by rolling through their complete rotations without ever sacrificing the ability to put the ball in the basket. One of a couple areas in this game (guarding Giannis being another) where I can’t help but wonder if a fit and available Reuben Te Rangi might have swung things. Probably in the Brazil game more than this one, to be fair.

Finn Delany has been the main guy who’s gone missing on that bench. Things would look considerably different if he was throwing down 8-10ppg but instead he’s only taken eight shots and scored four points in these three games combined. Got through a lot of defensive work in both the Brazil and Greece games but after the twelve months he’s had it just felt like he might have been more of a factor here. Ain’t over yet though.

Rob Loe missed all four of his free throws, had four turnovers, and he fouled out late with just five points. It’s a bit of a cheeky underground belief out there that Rob Loe is a barometer player, an analytics darling, and considering he struggled here and we lost… yeah, checks out.

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