EuroBasket '07 /Although It Lacks a Strong Offense, Russia Has One of Europe's Top Defenses

"Maybe we will be able to compensate for our poor percentage on offense by the sheer number of opportunities we get," said Andrei Kirilenko, captain of Russia's national basketball team, in an interview with the Sport Express newspaper before the squad left for EuroBasket '07 in Spain.

Kirilenko, following years under manager Jerry Sloan at the Utah Jazz, evidently recognized the current Russian team's major trouble area immediately: a defective offensive game incongruous with its ambition to be included in the highest level of Continental basketball.

Coach David Blatt and the top level of the Russian basketball world are also aware of these limitations. The national team, which Blatt took control of a year and a half ago, is not talented enough to be considered one of the best European teams, which include Spain, France, Lithuania, Greece and Serbia's original strong squad. "This squad is not expected to surprise anyone," said Sergei Tarakanov, Russia's general manager.

This is not a preemptive strike; these are the facts. Most Russian basketball experts and senior sports journalists agree with Tarakanov: A place among the top four to seven teams at EuroBasket '07, which would give Russia a chance to compete for an additional spot at the Beijing Olympics next year, would be a realistic and respectable finish. In the three previous European championships, Russia was stopped in the quarterfinals.

There is no doubt that Blatt knew what he was getting into and what is expected of him. From the very first day, the Israeli coach - who is considered an expert on American basketball by many in the Russian media - made it clear that his goal is to qualify the team for the 2008 Olympics. If he does not meet this objective, Blatt's association with the Russian Basketball Federation would naturally come to an end.

Another thing is certain: Professional appreciation for Blatt in Russia is solid, even from those who originally thought hiring a foreigner as head coach was a national disgrace. Blatt has been described in Russian newspapers as "the squad's ace at the European championship" (Vladimir Muzeytzev, Sport Express).

In light of the task his employers gave him, Blatt introduced a style of play different from what the team had been accustomed to: aggressive defense, quick transitions and relatively shorter offensive plays. However, the Russian national team is not Maccabi Tel Aviv, with Parker and Saras, nor is it Benetton Treviso, with Zizis and Bargnani. Russia may have one of Europe's best defenses, but it is inferior to other squads in its players' offensive skills.

"David is an experienced coach and he is trying to create a 'golden mean' style during the squad's preparations," Kirilenko said.