VILNIUS, Lithuania — Twenty-four has become 12 in EuroBasket as the second round of the 2011 tournament tips off Wednesday. In a largely predictable opening round, only Croatia and Italy suffered early exits among the nations favored to reach the Lithuanian capital.
The remaining teams have been divided into two groups of six, each playing three games against opponents they have not previously faced, with the top four moving through to the quarterfinals. But with the points earned from Round 1 against surviving sides carrying forward, some nations have an easier path than others to claiming a place in the last eight.
That means France, Russia and Macedonia — which all begin Round 2 with a 2-0 record — probably require only one more victory to advance. Germany, Georgia and Finland, however, likely will need to run the table to earn a ticket to Kaunas for the later rounds.
France’s 98-97 overtime win Monday over Serbia was arguably the game of the tournament so far — two heavyweights going toe-to-toe, with Les Bleus landing the final punch. In what is an incredibly loaded Group E, that victory makes life so much easier for the French, who can all but assure themselves of a quarterfinal spot if they defeat Turkey on Wednesday (11 a.m. ET).
Tony Parker continued the rich form that has the San Antonio Spurs guard second in the points standings with an average of 23.2 per game (second only to Luol Deng of Great Britain, whose tournament is done) while leading EuroBasket’s most prolific offense. Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah has slipped into international basketball as if he had been playing it for years, and Washington Wizards center Kevin Seraphin has been a surprisingly effective contributor off the bench. Defeating the powerful Serbs again underlined France’s status as a contender.
“It really was a massive victory for our team,” Parker said. “Now we’re at the head of the merged group, so, for us, it was a really big win. It’s given us confidence. Now we have to go up against Spain, Lithuania and Turkey. That’s going to be really hard. They’ll be three big games and just as intense as that one.”
Despite losing its perfect record in a defeat by Turkey, Spain (1-1) has still produced the most formidable basketball in Lithuania so far, with some inspired play at both ends of the floor. Pau Gasol, who will return for Friday’s game against Serbia after sitting out Spain’s loss to Turkey with a mild ankle sprain, is getting plenty of offensive support from brother Marc and Euroleague star Juan Carlos Navarro. But it is the defending champions’ efficient execution that still has them tabbed as the tournament favorites.
“It’s difficult not to be happy, but we have to think we can improve,” Spain coach Sergio Scariolo told ESPN.com “We’ve made some mistakes defensively and, overall, we believe we can play better. There is a lot of work to do yet.”
Lithuania (1-1) shook off its annihilation at the hands of the Spanish and ended the first round with a 98-69 rout of Portugal. Moving on to play in the 11,000-capacity Siemens Arena, where every single seat has long sold out, the lack of a single outstanding scoring threat could be a blessing as well as a curse, but the pressure of playing at home doesn’t appear to be weighing on the Lithuanians’ minds.
Serbia (1-1) has done plenty to hint at its potential to reach a second successive EuroBasket final despite that solitary loss to France. Reigning FIBA Europe Player of the Year Milos Teodosic has been an extremely effective playmaker, and Nenad Krstic is a much more imposing presence here than in the NBA.
If those four seem most likely to make the quarterfinals, then Turkey is the wild card. For a team that took silver behind the USA at last year’s world championship, the Turks’ inconsistency here has been a shock. Hedo Turkoglu has not had his customary impact, and they had to rely on Poland’s losing to Great Britain to avoid what would have been a humiliating departure.
If Dirk Nowitzki is to realize his dream of playing in a second Olympic Games, Germany (0-2) likely will now have to defeat Spain, Lithuania and Turkey. The Dallas Mavericks forward is averaging 20.4 points per game and Los Angeles Clippers center Chris Kaman is grabbing a tournament-high 10 rebounds, but the duo has little support.
“We have stretches where we play well,” Germany forward Joe Herber said. “And that’s obviously when Dirk makes incredible shots and also when we move the ball and when everybody is moving. If we get away from that, we’re in trouble.”
This group comprises the top three teams from Groups C and D, the two weakest groups in the opening round, so it would be a huge shock if the four countries that begin with credit in the bank failed to qualify for the next round.
Russia (2-0) has used EuroBasket’s strongest defense to compile a perfect start, but it needed a late score from Sergey Monya to hold off Slovenia 65-64 on Monday. Utah Jazzforward Andrei Kirilenko has been the Russians’ main offensive option, but ex-NBA swingman Viktor Khryapa is arguably their most influential force.
Bo McCalebb, New Orleans born but naturalized, has led Macedonia (2-0) to an impressive start that confirmed its status as the rising force of the former Yugoslav nations.
Similarly, the winner of the game between Slovenia (1-1) and Greece (1-1) will be virtually assured of a quarterfinal spot. The teams sit jointly in second place in least points conceded (64.8), and each is relying on several options to score.
Georgia (0-2), in its first EuroBasket as an independent nation, has achieved its mission by reaching the second round. Finland, which had to come through last month’s additional qualifying tournament to reach Lithuania, has stunned almost everyone by getting to this round, catalyzed by point guard Petteri Koponen, whose NBA rights were traded from the Portland Trail Blazers to the Mavericks earlier this year.
Mark Woods is a freelance writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland, whose work appears regularly in British publications.