|"I think it's important to play for the national team, for our country, to play the best we can" - Marco Belinelli|
By Dimitris Kontos
The Azzurri will punch their ticket to the last eight of the tournament if they win their game against Croatia on Saturday.
A big part of their hopes rest upon Marco Belinelli, and anyone who converses with the star guard will be assured that he is up to the challenge.
"I think it's important to play for the national team, for our country, to play the best we can," Belinelli told fibaeurope.com.
"I really care about this team, it is important for me as a player to grow, and also for the growth of basketball and young players in Italy.
"Two years ago we didn't play a good EuroBasket but right now we have the possibility to play well, we believe we are a good team and we are not scared of anyone."
Belinelli is averaging 14.8 points, four rebounds and 2.8 assists-per-game for Italy so far in the tournament.
"In this team I try to help everybody, I try to be the leader on this team," he admitted.
"I try to help my teammates to stay together on the court and off the court, I think it's part of my motivation right now.
"I mean I am 27 now, I think you need to grow every day as a player but at the same time it's time to win and improve as a group."
PLAYING WITH THE BEST
During the early stages of his career at Virtus and even at cross-town rivals Fortitudo Bologna, Belinelli was poised to become Italy's next big point guard.
Gradually he moved to the '2' spot, sharpened his shooting skills and, lately, acquired extra confidence when he found himself playing on NBA teams which plan for a deep run in the play-offs.
"Last year I played for one of the most storied clubs in the world (Chicago Bulls), with one of the best coaches in the league (Tom Thibodeau) and next year I am going to have [Greg] Popovich (in San Antonio), so better again," he explained.
"So when you play on a team with a championship mentality, you get the possibility to improve on the court and also mentally.
"My mentality is always to win a title, last season for me was really important in Chicago, with coach Thibodeau and with great teammates.
"This year I am going to play with one of the best point guards in Tony Parker, one of the best big guys in Tim Duncan, one of the best guards in [Manu] Ginobili.
"Last year they went to the final, almost won the championship, and for me to join this great organisation and play for this great coach is a great opportunity.
"I will try to improve every day and for sure try to win something."
CLUB AND COUNTRY
Belinelli made the jump to the other side of the Atlantic in 2007 and ever since, his only contact with European basketball comes during the summers, when he almost uninterruptedly joins the national team to assist Italy in that effort to finally win again as a group, as he puts it.
What is perhaps surprising is that he assumes this switch from one style of play to the other and back again in a seamless manner, without standing at technical differences between the two worlds.
|When you play in a big tournament like a EuroBasket, a World Cup, you play every time against the best players and basketball quality is good, you need to play at your best level as a team to win something - Marco Belinelli|
"In the NBA, it's a little bit different, but for me the NBA was like a dream," he said.
"I wanted to play there and be a better player every year, I played at Golden State, Toronto, New Orleans, Chicago and now I will play in San Antonio.
"For me it was a good move to improve as a player.
"But [the national team] is important too, when you play for your country you have the opportunity to compare your skills to the players on the other teams.
"We are going to play against Croatia, Spain, and all those players on those teams are good."
The 1.96m guard also acknowledges that just like for every other team in this tournament, success for Italy is a possibility only if they deliver their best version.
"When you play in a big tournament like a EuroBasket, a World Cup, you play every time against the best players and basketball quality is good, you need to play at your best level as a team to win something," he said.
"It's different because here we have a month and a half to do everything together as a team and then come here and try to win.
"At a club, you have more time, 8-9 months, to work.
"But for us it's only time to think about the EuroBasket right now, and then, when every guy goes back to his club, it will be time to think about that."