Vitaly Fridzon fumbled the ball at midcourt, Alexei Shved then stole it back and fed his last, seventh, assist of the night to his teammate who was hurtling toward Argentina's basket. Fridzon’s lay-up stretched Russia's lead to four with only 5.2 seconds left, triggering celebrations among the red-and-white clad crowd at London’s North Greenwich Arena.
Fridzon's basket was a fitting finale to his squad’s historic run as Russia on Aug. 12 captured its first Olympic medal in men's basketball since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. More is yet to come as Russia's young talents mature, but London 2012 could just as well mark the end of an era that saw Russia claim three podiums in major tournaments in six years under David Blatt. The Israeli-American coach's contract is up and his future in Russia unclear, though he has often reiterated he would like to stay at the helm of the team he calls the best he’s ever coached in his career. Whatever the outcome (on the heels of the third-place encounter with Argentina Blatt admitted he craved only one thing – rest), the London Olympics can duly be considered the pinnacle of Russia’s rise in recent years.
Despite dashing past its opponents in the Olympic qualifying tournament in Caracas last month, Russia's chances of returning home with a medal were questioned by many as the competing pool in London featured five nations (U.S.A., Spain, Argentina, France and Lithuania) that claimed a place on the Olympic podium at least once since 2000. Eventually, Russia met three of the five favorites and beat them all, falling to Spain only in their second encounter. Russia's chances to wrestle its way to the semis looked particularly difficult, however Kirilenko & Co. accomplished what only a handful of daring optimists believed in right from the start.
During the Olympic fortnight Russia was defeated only twice, its first loss courtesy of an Australian buzzer beater in an otherwise meaningless last-round game in pool play, but it was never outplayed by an opponent. Blatt’s team gave everyone a hard time, including back-to-back European champion and Bejing Games silver medalist Spain. Its stellar first- half performance in the semifinal against Spain was a textbook display of excellent coaching tactics implemented on the floor by gifted performers. The ability to hold one of the world’s best offensive teams to 20 (!) points in as many minutes is a feat that speaks volumes about this squad. However, Russia inexplicably collapsed after the break, ceding game control to the fast- paced Spaniards who eagerly tore into the deficit by unleashing a hail of three-pointers.
Despite widespread doubts, Russia regained composure and bounced back in 48 hours to beat Argentina for bronze. Doubters fell silent as the man who ended Russia’s nine-year (1998-2007) medal drought completed a truly remarkable feat, putting his team on the same pedestal with the global basketball powers, U.S.A. and Spain.
BLATT’S LEGACY TO LAST
What makes this team different from previous Russian squads is its depth: assembled talent allowed Blatt to use two almost equally strong lineups with the B unit often making impact on a par with the starters. In London, the Israeli-American coach predominantly used a nine-man rotation with national team rookie Sergei Karasyov, backup point guard Dmitry Khvostov and defensive specialist Yevgeny Voronov getting only glimpses of court action.
Coming off the bench, Fridzon, Monya, Mozgov and Antonov provided invaluable backup, often leaving opponents puzzled and clueless as they wondered who might be Russia’s next go-to-guy when its stars don’t have a stellar night. Blatt’s wholesome reform of Russia’s basketball program was all about nurturing young talent around a core group of key players and maintaining continuity. He was not afraid to place his bets on up-and-coming youngsters and with three medals under his belt he’s also got a young, promising squad with only Kirilenko and Khryapa in their thirties. Most importantly, he instilled the winner’s mentality in the Russian team, which often in the past lacked the mental stamina required to beat the strongest.
Not any more.
Blatt didn’t have the same luxury as Sergio Scariolo whose star-studded lineup allowed him not to play at all 2010 Euroleague champion Victor Sada and the new Portland Trailblazer Victor Claver in both games against Russia, but Blatt’s men did give the reigning European champions a run for their money. Their London episode ended in a 1-1 tie, with Spain winning the more important semifinal game, but it is obvious that Russia has edged closer to the European giant and could just as well dethrone it next year in Slovenia.
On a roll of its own, Spain has won its eighth medal in 11 years and is eager to keep counting. Success came after including in the national team 1999 junior world champions Juan Carlos Navarro, Pau Gasol, Felipe Reyes, Raul Lopez, Berni Rodriguez, Carlos Cabezas and other members of Spain’s golden generation of players born in 1980. Eventually, the Spanish rise to superpower status and Russia’s renaissance under Blatt have created a new rivalry to savor, resembling the epic, decades-long standoff between U.S.S.R. and Yugoslavia that marked the late 20th century.
If Russia can keep Blatt and keep building (next year, the team could be stronger for Sergei Bykov and Andrei Vorontsevich who missed the London Olympics), it might be able to aim for even higher targets such as the world champion’s title and the Olympic final in Rio. Khryapa and Kirilenko’s hypothetic retirement from the national team can seriously dent these plans, but with Blatt on the bench the program would still have clear direction and hold big promise. “My contract is finished and I have to think about what the future holds for me,” Blat told The Associated Press after his last game in charge. “But what I do know is the experience with these young men and with this team in this country will be with me for the rest of my life.” Whatever the outcome of Blatt’s contract negotiations, one thing is certain: he will always be able to hold his head high and proudly look back at the legacy he’s built. And though it is sure to last, we hope he’s not done yet.
Russia’s London Accents
The NBA’s new arrival lived up to expectations, capping his amazing tournament run with a key three-pointer that secured the bronze medal against Argentina. Morevoer, after taking up point guard duty, he finished the tournament as the Games’ third-best passer! Had he been more consistent, Russia might have faced the U.S. team for gold – following a strong start with big displays against Great Britain, China and Brazil, Shved unexpectedly faltered against Lithuania in the quarters and Spain (twice!), scoring a combined six points in three games. His scoring input was badly missed in the semi and on a better shooting night he might have been Blatt’s answer to Spain’s sharpshooters who turned the game around after the break. In four years Shved will be in his prime at 27. Whether he evolves into Russia’s next big team leader will greatly depend on the path his NBA career takes meanwhile. Past experiences suggest that many an international player often failed to get enough playing time to prove his worth in the NBA and Shved’s case is hardly any different. If he gets his minutes, he should see continued improvement that would propel him into a top star, capable of leading the new Russian generation in Rio 2016. After the London Games anything short of that would be a true disappointment.
Subbing for starter Alexander Kaun, the 7-1 Nugget again helped create what Blatt loves to call his “double-headed monster.” Mozgov’s input off the bench was solid, peaking in the key game in pool play vs. Spain (12 points, nine rebounds) and the quarterfinal vs. Lithuania (Russia’s top scorer with 17 points, adding four rebounds, an assist and a steal). He is still maturing and the better reading of the game helps him to stay away from foul trouble, his major weakness in the past. When he plays smart and doesn’t pick up fouls fast, he’s self-confident and hard to guard in the paint.
Never the one to shy away from taking a big shot, Fridzon drained an unbelievable three-pointer at the buzzer to beat Brazil and pave the way for Russia to secure the top spot in pool play. He sealed that spot with an excellent shooting display against Spain in the Group B decider, scoring 24 points to help Russia recover from an 18-point deficit early in the game. Moreover, that win instilled in Blatt’s men belief they can beat any rival on any given night. En route to evolve into a great shooter, Fridzon has everything it takes: self-confidence, mental strength, a wide array of shots and the courage to step up and hit key baskets in the clutch.
Sidelined last summer by injury, 2008 NCAA champion Kaun returned to the fold this year, strengthening Russia’s presence in the paint. The return required little adjusting to as Blatt’s starting lineup regularly featured Kaun’s CSKA Moscow teammates Ponkrashov, Shved, Kirilenko and Khryapa. Kaun added size to the team, brought back his trademark resilience and commitment, the qualities that have helped him progress every year. He loves to play close to the rim and is almost impossible to defend when he has the ball in the lane. Free throws remain his weak spot, making him the opponent’s preferred foul target, but his reading of offensive plays is getting smarter, allowing him to finish quickly, before getting fouled.
One of the most intelligent players on the basketball court, CSKA Moscow captain Khryapa has again proved why Ettore Messina once labeled him the Muscovites’ “glue player.” His performance cannot be judged solely by figures – Khryapa is the “connective tissue” linking Russia’s backcourt and frontcourt, an excellent passer for a 6-8 forward, a superb defender and a permanent outside scoring threat. Add here his input in the paint and you’ve got a complete player, able to break down any defense with his incisive passes, long-range baskets and tenacious toil on the glass. When Russia fell into a deep hole in the group tie vs. Spain, Fridzon and Khryapa started making shots that kept Blatt’s squad alive. In his trademark fashion, Viktor coolly hit three straight three-pointers in the third quarter that helped kill the deficit and made another huge three in the fourth period to tie the game at 73 with only a minute to play. Where does Blatt (or his potential successor) find a player like that if Khryapa decides to retire from the national team? Nowhere. Within Russia’s borders, this guy is unique.
The 6-8 athletic small forward from Nizhny Novgorod was called up last year to compensate for Kaun’s absence and despite his lack of size his debut at EuroBasket 2011 was a huge success. With the CSKA center back in the team, Antonov’s playing time in London was significantly reduced, but his presence gave Blatt more frontcourt options. Being assigned minor roles, Antonov did not always hit his stride immediately and often had too little time to make an impact. He also must have felt the mental pressure in his first Olympics, but then wouldn’t you if you were only 23 and subbing for some of the best frontcourt players on the continent?
One of Blatt’s favorite players, Russia’s captain has always been there for his team and its coach. Blatt’s “Iron Soldier” didn’t miss a single tournament since 2007 and has steadily contributed to Russia’s success. His team-first mentality facilitated smooth transition from starter to sub, and his versatility – he can play both shooting guard and small forward – was another ace up Blatt’s sleeve. A true warrior, Monya had his moments of greatness in London and he’s sure to have many more. At 29, he’s far from calling it quits on the international stage and next summer in Ljubljana he’s likely to give it another shot at winning the trophy he already lifted five years ago.
If Ponkrashov were consistent, he could be one of Europe’s top point guards. He’s tall, athletic and a solid ball handler with good court vision, able to impose his game on opponents. However, he has trouble producing at the same high level night in and night out. This time, though, his inspired performance (14 points, 11 assists!) against Spain helped Russia clinch the first place in pool play and thus avoid the U.S. team until the hypothetic final. Having him play alongside Shved who also got involved in playmaking duties allowed Blatt to vary his offensive options and on most nights at least one of his guards was having a great game. Blatt’s longtime belief in his talent resulted in Ponkrashov becoming one of only four players (the remaining three being Kirilenko, Khryapa and Monya) to win all three of Russia’s medals since 2007.
This season, Europe’s most versatile player showed the entire world what a difference one guy can make. And just as if the grueling eight-month club season wasn’t convincing enough, he continued to shine wearing the national team jersey. When he wasn’t rebounding the ball, Kirilenko was stealing it. When he wasn’t stealing, he was scoring, assisting, defending, screening, dunking, blocking and even fouling… with a reason. Long story short, he was frustrating his opponents left, right and center. After London, his future with the national team is under a big question mark, though. Kirilenko is returning to the NBA and his desire to keep playing for his country will largely depend on the wear-and-tear of the world’s strongest basketball league. Even more important is the motivation factor – does he still feel challenged to come back after having accomplished almost everything one could only dream of? He still lacks a world champion title – something he might have a shot at in Spain 2014 – and he would definitely want to do one better at the Rio Games in 2016. He’ll be 35 then. We can only wait and see.
PS: For Dmitry Khvostov, Yevgeny Voronov and Sergei Karasyov London was mostly a new, learning experience. In the future, though, they are likely to see their impact grow as the Russian team rejuvenates after its star veterans retire.