22:54
11/10/2007
 © AP

In his first year on the job, head coach David Blatt reinstates Russia as a European basketball powerhouse.

The scoreboard flashed 59-54. World champion Spain had a five-point lead and was only 108 seconds away from winning its first-ever European gold after five unsuccessful shots at the title. At that point, thousands of local fans filling Madrid's Palacio de Deportes arena must have thought the coveted trophy was theirs. The victory would have capped a string of brilliant performances that coach Pepu Hernandez's team had displayed within a fortnight.

But the five men on the court in white jerseys had other plans for the night. Team captain Andrei Kirilenko hit two free throws and then power forward Nikita Morgunov followed suit with a mid-range basket to cut Spain's lead to just one point with 43 seconds left.

Russia's spectacular comeback was crowned by U.S.-born guard Jon Robert Holden who deftly stole the ball from local superstar Pau Gasol, giving David Blatt's team to overturn the score on its last possession. In the clutch, Holden stepped up to take that final shot. His marker Jose Calderon flew by, arms flailing in the air - Holden first pump-faked a shot, only to release the ball smoothly the next moment. It hit the rim twice, then bounced up and struck the backboard, before sinking through the net. It was Holden's fourth basket of the night in 13 attempts, but with the score now standing at 59-60 with just two seconds on the clock, the shot had a golden lining.

The Spaniards' tragedy was complete when their go-to-guy Gasol missed the last shot, sending the Russian team, officials and a handful of diehard fans into a fit of euphoria. Moments later Kirilenko lifted the trophy - Russia's first in major basketball tournaments since the collapse of the Soviet Union 16 years ago.

UNHEALTHY SKEPTICISM

Reactions were mixed last March when Russia's basketball officials appointed Blatt head coach of the national team. Though Russia's top basketball league had already featured such household names as Zvi Sherf, Dusan Ivkovic, Ettore Messina, Kestutis Kemzura and Blatt himself (in the 2004-2005 season he coached Dinamo St.Petersburg and won the FIBA EuroCup with the franchise), most local coaches resisted the idea of awarding the number one coaching job in the country to a foreigner.

On the other hand, 15 trophyless years spoke volumes. After Russia failed to qualify for the 2004 Olympics in Athens and missed on the 2006 World Championship in Japan, local media repeatedly insisted that only a reputed foreign coach could remedy the country's ailing basketball. 

Russia's painful resurrection under Blatt started in August 2006. While Spain, its future rival for Eurobasket 2007 gold,  was crushing opponents en route to its first world championship title in Japan, Blatt's squad toiled in qualifiers to earn a berth in the continental tournament it would sensationally win 12 months later. Critics were loud again after Russia lost to Belgium in only Blatt's second game in charge. But it eventually proved to be a single slip in an otherwise unblemished campaign with the team posting  a 5-1 record and securing a spot in the Euros.

QUICK ‘N' DEADLY

But even more important than this was the players' adoption of Blatt's coaching philosophy. From day one, the outgoing American coach had stressed two things: his team's defense will be granite-tough and its offense will be lightning-quick. Indeed, what we saw in Spain was a towering defensive wall that in nine encounters allowed opponents to score only 65.7 points per game.

Reigning European champion Greece was held to just 53 points, while the Spanish marksmen's two-point shooting against Russia in the final was an appalling 20 percent as they hit only seven baskets in 35 attempts.

The lack of size in the frontcourt (CSKA Moscow's Alexei Savrasenko was the only true center in the squad) Blatt's men compensated by quickness - his forwards often rushed to help in the paint, eventually double-teaming the opposition's scorers. Russia's backcourt players, led by Holden and point guard Pyotr Samoilenko, harassed one after another of Europe's leading playmakers, limiting such stars as France's Tony Parker, Lithuania's Sarunas Jasikevicius and Spain's Jose Calderon to subpar performances.

On the opposite end of the court few teams could handle the Russian players' fast-paced offense. Their quick feet and movement without the ball often set up open shots along the perimeter, while the point guards fed their frontcourt quartet of Savrasenko, Morgunov, Kirilenko and Viktor Khriapa for easy baskets in the paint, taking advantage of the teammates' quick rotation on the floor.

VERSATILE KIRILENKO

Russia's captain, coming off an NBA season during which his playing time had been unexpectedly reduced, proved he is a true team leader. On the court, Kirilenko was the conduit of Blatt's basketball philosophy and the epitome of an all-round player. Scoring, rebounding, shot-blocking, stealing... you name it - Andrei excelled in each aspect of the game leading by example. He was relentless in the final leading his team's chase to kill the 12-point deficit Russia faced in the second quarter. His 17 points topped the scorers' list on Sunday, but it was Kirilenko's overall contribution that earned him the MVP title.

Blatt also seemed to have resurrected Khriapa, Russia's other export to NBA who spent most of his time last season sitting on the Chicago Bulls' bench. The coach rediscovered an inspired Morgunov, without a club contract during the championship (!), and gracefully handled Savrasenko's negative emotional outburst in the run-up to the tournament, finding the right role for the center who complained about his scarce playing time.

Many basketball pundits in Europe were stunned to see relatively unknown Samoilenko in the role of a "man eater," but Blatt was confident the Dinamo Moscow guard can do the job. The same with 21-year-old Anton Ponkrashov, whose performance in the final was unbelievably mature.

WINNER'S MIND

As he pieced his championship squad together, Blatt used the majority of players who already wore the national team's jerseys in the 2003 and 2005 European championships when Russia had failed. Though they have kept improving since, these are not different people. The major difference was on the bench where they had an apt leader who knew exactly what he wanted from the squad at virtually any moment during the tournament. Be it the nail-biting finale in the quarters against France or the threat of a Lithuanian comeback in the semi, or the need to keep Spain's scoring run in check in the final - Blatt had all the answers.

The American's confidence in his players was boundless and they paid him back by delivering the best performances in their lifetimes. The coach-player relationship worked as Blatt managed to instill the champions' mentality in the team that many back home doubted would grab a place in the Top-7. The triumph in Madrid showed that Russia has no shortage of top-class basketball players, and magnified the importance of a coach's role in today's game.

With their appetites whetted, Russia's basketball fans are now looking forward to new trophies. The most optimistic among them go so far as to forecast the gold for the rejuvenated Russian team at next year's Olympics in Beijing.

With the United States likely to feature its strongest squad since the 1992 Games in Barcelona, winning in the Chinese capital seems unreal.

But then, everybody said winning a medal - let alone the championship - in Spain was unreal, too. And after Beijing comes London 2012. If only officials at the Russian Basketball Federation would rush to offer Blatt a lengthy contract extension... 

By Bojan Soc

Moscow News № 40 2007 (12th of October, 2007)