Two years ago, Great Britain coach Chris Finch watched his side impress but still fall short in their EuroBasket debut. It won’t get any easier when they open up their 2011 campaign on Wednesday night against the tournament hosts Lithuania.

It is the toughest possible start for Finch’s men, entering the lion’s den to take on one of the sport’s superpowers, whose every move will be watched and supported across a nation where basketball verges on a religion.

With just six of Britain’s squad surviving from the finals of two years ago, the tie in Panevezys will be both an eye-opener and a huge challenge. And Finch, whose side sustained a heavy loss to Latvia in their final warm-up game last weekend, has set out what he expects from his players.

“We’ve told them they need to be ready on and off the floor,” the American said. “They need to enjoy the experience and focus on playing well. They need to get into an early rhythm where hopefully we can take some of the atmosphere out of the building. As tough as our group is, it’s a good measuring stick for us. A lot of eyes will be on our group and we want to be in the middle of it. That’s exciting.”

The draw was unkind to GB, who must finish in the top three places in their six-team group to reach the second round. Not only does their pool include the hosts but also Spain, the reigning champions, and Turkey, who lost to the USA in last year’s world championship final. All three will be targeting one of the two automatic berths at London 2012 which will go to the tournament finalists.

Andrew Lawrence has seized his chance (MAP Photos/BB)

Poland and Portugal represent lesser threats but Finch acknowledges his side, spearheaded by Chicago Bulls forward Luol Deng, will likely need to shock one of the giants to have any hope of progress.

“Getting through would be a dream goal,” he said. “We know it’s going to be hard. But we’re hopeful and expecting to take what we learnt from 2009 and putting it into practice.

“We’ve seen how over the last few years – even going back to the Spain game in 2009 and the Serbia and Australia games at the Olympic test event in London – what the small differences mean. It’s like golf: to cut your handicap from 15 to 5 is a lot easier than going from 5 to 3. We’re at that stage now. We’re giving ourselves a chance to win these games. But we need to start making that step to actually winning them.”

Thoughts of the Olympics Games clearly loom large even though the talk is of here and here alone. That is surely why the likes of Andrew Lawrence and Devon van Oostrum have been blooded, to keep eyes on the future as well as the present. Dan Clark has claimed the starting centre’s role, leaving Robert Archibald to spell effectively off the bench, while Joel Freeland could yet emerge as equal to Luol Deng in terms of importance.

Still, who would have forecast this squad when camp opened four weeks ago? “One thing I’ve learnt in this job is that it’s difficult to predict,” Finch said. “You are never sure when you start the summer about availability – guys can pull out. You always have one of two guys who surprise you by making the team because they find ways to help you. We’ve become much younger this year. We felt we needed to get these guys that kind of experience.”

As a coach, Finch’s own stature has never been greater. Once the NBA lockout eventually ends, he will take his place on the Houston Rockets bench as a key assistant to Kevin McHale, another step in the journey which began when he was a surprise appointee at Sheffield Sharks over a decade ago.

Battling through Europe, then the D-League, it is where he always wanted to be. “I don’t think it’s totally sunk in,” he revealed. “When I went into the D-League, I just wanted to maximise that opportunity and see what happened next. I was fortunate to come into the organisation at the right time and build some winning teams and capitalise on that. Two years ago, I would never have thought I’d be where I am now. I’m lucky that the Rockets organisation took a vested interest in me.“

He laughs at suggestions that he has already been tabbed as McHale’s successor. Certainly, he is well regarded by Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, who asked Finch to carry out a number of experiments in the D-League while also watching on as he picked up a championship within a league which is notoriously hard to coach in.

But, once the GB campaign is out of the way, he will have just one boss. “I’m very grateful to Kevin for the chance to be on his staff. My job is to figure out how to implement the style of play he wants and to make our players better and to be successful. That’s all that matters. If we’re not successful, then there’s no such thing as succession plan. We have to worry about being a play-off team. That’s our goal.”

Deng will have to assimilate (Map Photos)

For the next week, or maybe two, his thoughts – and those of assistants Nick Nurse, Paul Mokeski and Tim Lewis – will be on making some noise in Lithuania, a country which will embrace this event like it were a member of their own family.

Flags are atop every other car. Giant basketballs, banners, adverts, TV programmes, EuroBasket has consumed the nation in a way that the UK can only imagine in times of a football World Cup.

If there is a fault in British basketball’s own programme, it may be that the men’s national team does not generate the passion that is seen from the Spaniards and Lithuanians of this world.

Finch defends his own team’s commitment to the cause. “I think we have a pretty good team spirit. First of all, if playing for your country doesn’t get you excited, I’m not sure anything will. Our guys are motivated by that and by the Olympics which is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

But, he acknowledges, there is a different ethos due to the disparate nature of successive squads. “The guys are all over the world. That’s not unusual but none of them play together except for Joel and Rob.

“So this is the only time they are team-mates. It’s the only time they’re together. And summer’s the only time they are doing British things on British soil.”

Now they are on Baltic terrain doing their thing. It must either come together or it could all fall apart. Some of the decision-making has been poor. Zone defences, ubiquitous internationally, have posed GB questions which they have struggled to answer. The offense has become more isolation-based, a huge gamble in a European tournament. Finch says his side is ready but the manner of Saturday’s tune-up loss to Latvia was disconcerting.

What has now become a tradition: to incorporate Deng at the eleventh hour is a visible frustration. “It’s a challenge,” Finch states. “We held out from putting in a big part of our offense and some of the stuff we wanted to do. That’s taken a toll on the other players.

“But we’ve gone through that transitional period. I’m not sure that we’ll be a well-oiled machine come opening night but I’m not sure we’re that type of team any way. But we’ll be more efficient than we have been.”

Whether that will be enough will be quickly discovered. There is no hiding place on these kinds of stage. GB is no longer the fresh-faced newcomer. Led by their coach, it’s time to stand tall.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • MySpace
  • Print

You must be logged in to post a comment Login