By Jeff Taylor
|Andrei Kirilenko is back in the Russia lin-up and looks as good as ever on the court|
On the evidence of Russia's current six-game winning streak at EuroBasket 2011, Andrei Kirilenko and Co won't be pushovers for any team they go up against.
The team is young, but very athletic and it also has players who know what it takes to reach the top of the podium.
One of them, 30-year-old Kirilenko, was in the squad that captured gold four years ago in Madrid.
In 2007, Kirilenko was the EuroBasket MVP and also FIBA Europe Player of the year.
In his first Second Round game in Vilnius on Thursday, Kirilenko looked as concentrated and menacing as he's ever been in a Russia shirt and that is worrying news for any of the opponents his team is going to face over the next week.
In Thursday's 79-60 rout of Finland, Kirilenko had 14 points and four steals.
There was a sense that coming into this summer, Kirilenko needed to make up for lost time because he missed the last two summers with the national team for different reasons.
In 2009, he and his wife had to fully focus on the adoption of a baby in Russia and he asked to be excused from the national team.
He wasn't able to play at last year's World Championship in Turkey, either.
For the supporters back in Moscow, the hope is that Kirilenko will replicate the form he showed in 2007 and lead Russia to the gold medal.
"I always have pressure and I don't really feel something extra," Kirilenko said to fibaeurope.com.
"Every time we come into a championship, whether it's European, World Championship or Olympics, we always have something to prove, some responsibility playing for our country.
"We cannot play bad, cannot not play hard and not give all our strength or not give everything on the court.
"We have to play hard as much as possible and this is our playing card."
Those spectators in Lithuania can't help but wonder if this year's team is as good as the one that captured the gold medal in Spain.
Even without naturalized point guard JR Holden, the player who hit the game-winning shot over the Spaniards in the title game, some think this year's Russian squad may be better.
"I don't know that this is a stronger team, but it's a different one," Kirilenko said.
"The 2007 team won the championship and although we are in the last eight, we still have a long way to go.
"We cannot compare it yet.
"The 2007 team had more veterans and this is a younger team, more energetic but again, we will do our best.
"We want to be playing in the Final.
"We want to win the championship. That is the goal."
The Russian sports world, meanwhile, is in mourning.
On Wednesday, an airplane with the Lokomotiv Kuban ice hockey team was just leaving on a journey to Belarus when it crashed.
Forty-three people on board died and two others, a player and crew member, survived.
The player, Alexander Galimov, has burns on 80% of his body.
Sergey Bykov and Nikita Shabalkin are Russia national team players at the EuroBasket who will compete for the Lokomotiv basketball team this season.
"I feel pretty bad and we pray for the guys and for all the families," Kirilenko said.
"They are going to be with us in our hearts."