Greece Ready To Battle Russia

22.09.2005

By Yarone Arbel

On most calendars, July 4 is marked because it is independence day in the United States.

In the offices of the Russian and Greek basketball federations, this date is marked for a different reason.

That day in 1997 was the last time Greece and Russia won quarter-final games in a EuroBasket. One will break that drought tonight as the first quarter-final of EuroBasket2005 will the two teams against each other.

Russia are a side with a lot of tradition and a team many expect to reach the podium.

Greek coach Panagiotis Yannakis isn't intimidated.

"Russia is a team with big history, but this is good for us," Yannakis said.

"My players have extra motivation against such teams."
 
Russia beat Greece in the 1997 EuroBasket bronze medal game and won 97-77.

For Greece, it was the third loss in a row in a bronze medal clash.

Russia lost in the quarter-finals at the following three EuroBaskets, falling to Italy in 1999, Spain in 2001 and France two years ago.

Russia did grab a silver medal at the FIBA World Championship 1998 in Greece.

Greece have been on a rollercoaster since 1997.

They reached the semi-finals as hosts of the FIBA World Championship 1998, but at the EuroBasket the following year they hit rock bottom and fell all the way to 16th place.

They have gradually made their way back to the top.

In 2001, Greece finished ninth and in the last EuroBasket made it all the way back to the quarter-finals before finishing fifth.

This year's event has seen a new-look Russia, spearheaded by the great Andrei Kirilenko, make it straight to the quarter-finals as winners of Group A.

Greece emerged second from Group C to Slovenia and had to play an elimination round game, which they won over Israel 67-61 after another impressive defensive performance.

Greek guard Dimitrios Diamantidis had six steals in the win over Israel, and his 6.5 assists per game are tops in the competition.

Kirilenko is ruling the competition on the defensive end, however, with averages of 3.7 steals 2.7 blocks.

JR Holden, the CSKA Moscow star who is American but now has Russian citizenship, is proving to be a valuable point guard for his adopted national team and he is optimistic about the clash with Greece.

"I'm comfortable playing against Greece because I know them very well," he said.

However Holden, who spent a season with AEK Athens before moving to the Russian capital, refuses to accept that Russia are favourites.

"The chances are 50-50," he said. "Greece is a talented team. They don't have a leading player, and maybe it's better for them."

Holden has hit double figures in scoring in every game so far in Serbia & Montenegro. There is no question who the leader of this team is, though, and that is Kirilenko.

"He's everything for the team and I'm happy to play together with him," Holden said.

"He's amazing on the fast break and a guarantee in the rebounds. Sometimes the team who have a leading player have a bigger problem, but that's not the case here, because Kirilenko isn't just a good player, he's also an excellent guy."

As for Kirilenko, he is worried about a Greek team which is flying high after their latest win.

"I think that after the game against Israel, Greece can play better and better," he said, before revealing part of Russia's game-plan.

"We want to play fast, because Greece make bad turnovers when they try to play fast."

Russian coach Sergey Babkov says both teams have their merits.

"We are a team that has a lot of forwards, while Greece is built in a more classic way with balance between the guards, forwards and centers.

"The Greeks put a lot of focus on defence. On the other hand, they have (Nikos) Zisis, who's a very important player, and (Lazaros) Papadopoulos also has an important role on offense."
 
The Greek side received just one rest day after the Israel contest.

Barcelona forward Michail Kakiouzis, who nailed a key three-pointer in the win over Israel, agrees with Holden.

"There's no clear favorite in the game," he said. "The chances are 50-50 each. We don't have any pressure or stress on us. We came here to win the medal, and we can take even the gold one. I don't want anything less."

His team-mate, Nikolaos Chatzivrettas, added: "After the game against France we didn't play well.

"We can surely play better. I hope you will see our real face against Russia."


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