A switch to a smaller line-up proved crucial as Greece overcame Belgium to reach the quarter finals, writes Emmet Ryan
Belgium and Greece enterted the cavernous Stade Pierre Mauroy for the second of Saturday’s last 16 games. The new format adds a touch of extra drama to proceedings, with the losers this weekend effectively out of the Olympics unless they get a wild card to the qualifying tournaments. The Lions hung with Greece early in a low scoring but disciplined set of early exchanges. All international eyes were on number 34 for the favourites, Giannis Antetokounmpo, The Greek Freak’s motor has been priased his motor at this competition but he is still very much a developing talent and even with his NBA experience, getting used to FIBA ball is going to take a while. Size was Greece;s big advantage her, alongside the Freak there was Kostas Koufos and Giorgios Printezis on the floor to bully the smaller Belgians.
One of the concerns with this game being played in a football stadium was players adjusting to the vertical dimension, the roof is a whole lot higher here but we weren’t talking NCAA Final Four level of adjustment here. It’s the tupe of change players can adapt to over the course of a few games, it’s this opening round where they really had to watch out. Antetokounmpo finally made a three have missed a couple of open ones to push Greece in front. Vassilis Spanoulis was looking for the Milwaukee Bucks man from the start and finally it paid off. Establishing that outside threat was vital to Greece. Belgium have the outside game to live with most teams but Greece had the power to hurt them in the paint. At the end of the first it was Greece with the narrowest of leads, 16-15.
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Greece opened the second frame with intent and a Nikos Zisis three pushed the lead to 8 early. Belgium stoppd the bleeding quickly enough but Greece had showed that when they wanted to, they had another level that could hurt the Lions. Depth was a big advantage for the Greeks, Antetokounmpo, Spanoulis, Koufos, and Nick Calathes all got significant breaks early while they had the likes of Kostas Papanikolaou to call on from the bench and even he was used sparingly. Another Zisis three gave his side some breathing room again.
While Greece looked to have an extra gear, they didn’t push it too often in the first half and it took another score from the Freak to wake them up. Matt Lojeski, who has no shortage of experience playing with and against some of this Greece side due to his experience with Olympiacos, cut the gap to 1 again as Belgium showed they weren’t going away. The Lions already had a win over Lithuania from the group stage under their belts and didn’t look intimidated by their more star studded opponents. At the half Greece led 34-31.
Greece looked a touch too relaxed to start the second half. They were keeping ahead but didn’t look remotely ready to break away from the Lions. For all Greece’s casual play, Belgium were offering nothing on offence and soon fell into an 8 point hole.Greece had opted for a slightly smaller line up with Kostas SLoukas joining Calathes and Spanoulis on the floor. Yannis Bouroussis joined Antetokounmpo on the inside midway through the frame but Greece were committed to matching up Belgium’s smaller style. Spanoulis gave Greece their first double digit lead of the game as Eddy Casteels was forced to call in his charges.
Bouroussis showed Greece could still hurt them with their size as he swatted away a Jonathan Tabu effort from a standig position. By the end of the quarter this one looked in the bag as a Bouroussis lay-up left Greece up 57-42. From there it was plain enough sailing for Greece as the lead grew to 20 in short order. The fight was gone from the Lions. They knew the journey was over. They made it to the knockout rounds, a step in the right direction, but they never looked like hanging around for long.