Next Stop: EuroBasket 2013 — Satoransky and Vesely Lead the Czechs with Uncertain Hope
On the night of August 20, 1968, and into the morning of the 21st, the Soviet Union and its allies in the Warsaw Pact, except Romania, invaded Czechoslovakia in order to halt a period of political liberalization known as the Prague Spring. The leader of the movement, Alexander Dubcek, aimed to grant more rights to citizens of Czechoslovakia while loosening restrictions on basic freedoms such as speech. Popular opposition to the invasion was expressed in numerous spontaneous acts of nonviolent resistance, arguments, and reproaches. Even so, approximately 500 Czechs and Slovaks were wounded, and 108 were killed. The invasion successfully stopped the liberalization reforms and strengthened the authority of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia.
Some 45 years later after the Soviet invasion, the Czech Republic national team was scheduled to play Russia, getting an opportunity for another sports mini-revenge. And on this occasion, the Czechs won by a narrow margin, 74-72.
“I had two nice dunks. When I dunk the ball and the fans get up on their feet, it’s a pleasure and a motivation [to do it again].
“It was the anniversary of the invasion; [at first] I didn’t think about it much, but my mom wrote me a text [before the game] that this had happened in 1968, so it’s good that we beat Russia today.”
Added his much older teammate, team captain Lubos Barton (Czech teammates call him “Grandpa”):
“We thought about [the invasion], and we enjoyed this special win.”
The Russia game was the Czech team’s first contest in a four-team pre-EuroBasket tournament held in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. The Czechs started out sloppy, committing 11 first-half turnovers (the most glaring weakness of the team; Tomas Satoransky had six total in this game), which led to several transition points from the Russians. Another concern for Czech fans: almost every time they start a game, they dig themselves into a hole. But to start the second half, the Czechs played tenacious defense, executed on the offensive end, and in the fourth quarter, they led by as many as eight points. Russia got within three points late, but the Czech team was clutch from the charity stripe, maintained the lead, and secured the 74-72 victory.
The ability to make free throws is another weakness that could cause the Czech Republic trouble at Eurobasket. No contending team can have three consecutive games with 11 missed free throws (vs. Turkey), 13 (vs. Russia), and 12 (in the next game vs. Finland).
Russia had just one NBA player on its roster, Alexey Shved, a point guard for the Minnesota Timberwolves, who scored 17 points. Vesely had a solid game, scoring 10 points and grabbing five rebounds in 29 minutes. Satoransky, who was often matched-up against Shved, managed an impressive line of 15 points, six assists, and five rebounds in just under 30 minutes.
The next day the Czechs played Finland in their second game and, no surprise, trailed by a lot early. After the first quarter, Finland led by 15 points, 31-16, and when the lead got as high as 21, the game appeared to be over. But the Czech Team never gave up. The Czech Wizards, Vesely and Satoransky, began aggressively attacking the basket, ran some clean fast-breaks, and, along with a couple of long distance shots from their teammates, got them back into the fight. The game became a roller coaster. Twice the Czechs Lions trimmed their deficit to two points only to watch in disbelief Finland hit tough shots from everywhere on the floor. At the end, they were unable to overcome the dead-on shooting of the Finns, who finished 14-for-24 from deep. Both Honza Vesely and Tom Satoransky came off the bench that night. Honza finished with nine points and eight rebounds in 21 minutes; Saty with 11 points, six dimes, and four boards in 20 minutes. Final score: Finland 98, Czech Republic 89.
The 1-1 Czechs played their third and final game in Vilnius against the home team, needing to beat the 2-0 Lithuanians for a chance to win the tournament. It was a close, defensive battle, but the Lithuanians shot very well, better than 55 percent from the field (plus 17-22 on FTs) compared to the horrible marksmanship of the Czechs, who were all iron at 40.4 percent.
Lithuania won the game 69-55 and with it the tourney crown. Lithuania was tougher physically, and they had an up-and-coming NBA star big man Jonas Valanciunas in the middle, who basically destroyed the Czech national team by himself. He dominated portions of the game, and racked up 23 points and eight rebounds in just over 21 minutes. (The Rockets’ Lithuanian big man, Donatas Motiejunas, finished with five points and three rebounds.)
The final quarter was the epitome of the whole contest—the Czech players clawed and fought back again and again, but in the end just couldn’t buy a basket from the perimeter when they needed it badly, thus losing by a margin of 14 points. Vesely, putting it lightly, didn’t have his best night (6 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 steals, 3 turnovers, 25-plus minutes). Satoransky, playing almost 30 minutes of game time, struggled, too (4 points, 4 assists, 2 turnovers, 5 rebounds, 29-plus minutes).
Final Standings (plus results) of the Vilnius International Tournament:
1. Lithuania – Record: 3-0 – Points Scored: 229, Points Allowed: 182
2. Russia – Record: 1-2 – Points Scored: 213, Points Allowed: 229
3. Czech Republic – Record: 1-2 – Point Scored: 218, Points Allowed: 239
4. Finland – Record: 1-2 – Points Scored: 247, Points Allowed: 257
*Tiebreaker: better net result of total points scored less total points allowed in CZE-RUS, CZE-FIN & RUS-FIN contests.
The tourney, and the third week of August, ended and it looked like the Czech Republic’s final roster of 12 for Eurobasket was set, but fate had other plans. Although it first appeared last month that ex-captain big man Petr Benda had no shot of playing at Eurobasket, a swollen ankle that had been dogging him several months had healed. Czech head coach, Pavel Budinsky, immediately called Benda up. This meant that one definitive, heart-breaking cut had to be made, and to the surprise of almost everyone who follows the team, it was not Kamil Svrdlik, but Jakub Houska, a.k.a. the Czech Jared Dudley. Houska very popular among teammates, regularly blogs about his basketball journeys, and offers a great insight for the regular fan. “Kouba,” as he’s nicknamed, was not happy when he told me the sad news on Monday, one day before the official announcement. I was stunned, too, and heard that several of Czech players got emotional when they found out about Houska being cut. The next day at the press conference, Coach Budinsky reasoned the team would need the help of a back-up center Svrdlik more than the power forward game of Houska.
So this is the 12 Czech Lions who will represent the country at the European Championship (official roster photo): Guards – Satoransky, Welsch (who now goes by the nickname of “Grandpa II”), Jelinek, Kudlacek; Forwards – Vesely, Barton, Benda, Pumprla, P. Houska, Hruban; Centers – Balvin, Svrdlik.
As expected, Coach Budinsky got asked about his two young stars, Jan and Tomas. Budinsky on Vesely’s game in this summer‘s preparatory games:
“We tested Honza at center and at small forward, he was very useful at both positions. Honza’s useful at rebounding and on defense. He utilizes his agility and mobility on the offensive end. But [Eurobasket] is the highest level of European play, and it’s not easy to for him to use his weight and physical strength. And you can notice that two-year shortage of playing time in the NBA in his game. He fights, but it shows in the speed of his decision-making. Teams at this level play tremendously quick. For example, the Lithuanians were rotating every player in and out of the game like on a carousel, and you just need a quick decision-making, you need to get used to various opponents on the court. I hope that Honza’s still going to grow in this area [of game].”
Budinsky on Satoransky in the preparatory games:
“Tomas made a huge progress these last few months, he’s got an exceptional durability on both ends of the court. He pushes the team up the floor offensively. He also made progress in executing the game-plan and in shooting from distance.”
I don’t wanna sing Saty’s praises too much, but I really, really liked his play in the prep games. As I wrote in my last post, Tomas is the team’s MVP. He’s solid on defense thanks to his quick hands and feet. More often than not he doesn’t even need an outlet pass to start the fast break. Like John Wall, he just collects the rebound, makes a few long dribbles up the court, leaving two or three defenders looking like a traffic cones, and then finishes it off with a dunk or an emphatic layup—he’s a fastbreak maestro. Worth noting: when the Czech Republic desperately needs a bucket, Satoransky is the guy who gets an iso and plays one-on-one, or takes the clutch shot.
Last week, the Czech team went to Belgium to play their last two preparation contests, games six and seven, at the sports arena in the town of Pepinster. I watched these two matches (which could’ve been dubbed “The Battle of Lions,” as both of these squads call themselves the Lions) on just a tiny smartphone screen. Nonetheless, here’s the quick recap from what I saw:
In the first game on Wednesday the Czech Lions again basically slept through the initial quarter, but turned it around and began playing and defending the pick-and-roll much better and smarter. They piled up their usual amount of fast-break points and led at the halftime break. However, the second half was a Czech nightmare offensively… they way they were shooting, they couldn’t throw a rock into the ocean, they turned the ball over like a junior varsity team, and looked like they would have rather been at one of those famous Belgian chocolate factories than playing basketball. Satoransky and Vesely, however, had a couple of impressive dunks; you can see a gem from Saty in this video:
Final Game 1: Belgium 72, Czech Republic 59 (Points: Vesely 13; Satoransky 7).
Going into the Belgium rematch the next day, the Czech national team carried a record of one win and five losses in prep games. They needed to win the game just to gain some team confidence, and they had to do it without the services of Jiri Welsch, who was held out with a mild ankle sprain. The score was close until the fourth quarter, but then the Czechs took over and, finally, looked like well-oiled team just a couple of days before Eurobasket 2013.
Final Game 2: Czech Republic 83, Belgium 68 (Points: Vesely 7, plus 7 rebounds; Satoransky 14).
Of course, these prep games are similar to NBA exhibition games in October, you can’t really draw any final conclusions. However, you can notice some positive and/or negative trends, as well as strengths and weaknesses of particular players. We’ll see if the quality effort from the Czechs in their final game carries over when the 38th edition of the Eurobasket tournament begins this week.
On Wednesday, Vesely, Satoransky & Co. will play their opening game against the home country of Slovenia, in an arena in the town of Celje, whose fans are known for being raucous and fiendish. Here’s to hoping the Czechs will fight like a lion and make it out alive.
Stay tuned for updates on the Czechs from EuroBasket and follow me on Twitter: @Luke_Mellow