ISTANBUL (2010 FIBA World Championship) - There could be non-stop cannon blasts across Istanbul on Saturday night and it wouldn't be as explosive as the basketball that’s going to be on show at the Sinan Erdem Dome.
First up will be a game between two intense rivals, Croatia and Serbia, and that’s to be followed by a titillating clash pitting Spain against the team they beat in the world title game four years ago, Greece.
Fasten your seatbelts, folks, because the Eight-Finals at the FIBA World Championship is about to burst into life.
For all the intense feelings that have existed between Serbian and Croatian teams over the years, Saturday marks a first-ever meeting for these two sides at a World Championship or Olympics.
When Serbia were still a part of the former Yugoslavia, the two national sides met in 2001 here in Istanbul at the EuroBasket – a game the Yugoslavians won 80-66 en route to a gold medal.
However, club sides in the two basketball-mad nations square off on an annual basis in the Adriatic League.
There will be no secrets between these two national teams.
Serbia, led by veteran coach Dusan Ivkovic, captured a silver medal at EuroBasket 2009 and have kept the momentum going by winning Group A at the World Championship while Croatia are a team that is still in transition.
Josip Vrankovic is coaching the ‘A’ national team of Croatia for the first time, and there are also newcomers in the squad that have been awarded prominent roles who are still trying to find their feet.
Much has been made of Serbia’s young guns like Milos Teodosic and Milenko Tepic, but it was a more anonymous player that came up big on Thursday and provided much of the inspiration for their 84-82 win over Argentina in the battle for first place.
Dusko Savanovic, who forced his way into consideration for a spot on the national team with a brilliant season at Cajasol Sevilla, had 19 points and a go-ahead three-ball in the last minute.
“We have been told that if we could beat Argentina, we could beat anybody,” he said. “We proved this.”
The performance of Savanovic tells you all you need to know about Serbia.
Any of their players can be a game-winner on any given night.
Playmaker Teodosic, the Euroleague MVP and a member of last year’s all-tournament team at the EuroBasket in Poland, remains their most dangerous player although he will be put to the test by Roko-Leni Ukic, the Croatia captain and starting point guard.
For those who like the battles inside, Serbia’s 27-year-old captain Nenad Krstic going up against Croatia’s Ante Tomic, 23, is intriguing.
Krstic has averaged 16 points and nine rebounds in the two games he played in Group A against Australia and Argentina after serving his three-game suspension, which was punishment for his role in the brawl against Greece in the pre-World Championship friendly.
Tomic, in his first tournament with Croatia, is averaging nine points and 5.6 rebounds.
Just as Serbia have numerous players that can come to the fore, though, so do Croatia.
Vrankovic relies heavily on 25-year-old center Luka Zoric but he went down with an ankle and knee injury late in the game against Slovenia and hasn’t played since, though could return to face Serbia.
Spain taking on Greece promises to be no less exciting.
Both teams have players that were in the side that reached the 2006 Final.
While Pau Gasol, the MVP of the 2006 FIBA World Championship, isn’t playing this year, it’s worth remembering that an injury prevented him from suiting up in the title game four years ago yet Spain still routed the Greeks, 70-47.
Spain defeated Greece in their EuroBasket 2007 Semi-Final, in the Preliminary Round of the 2008 Olympics and in the last four of last year’s EuroBasket in Poland.
Gasol did play in all of those games, however.
A game against Spain wasn’t what Greece expected when they suffered a surprise defeat to Russia on the last day of Group C in Ankara, but that’s what they got after New Zealand shook up Group D and upset France by 12 points to drop Les Bleus to fourth place and lift Spain to second.
Gasol’s younger brother, Marc, has led Spain in scoring at 15.5 points per game and he’s the second-leading rebounder at 7.2 per contest. He’s supported down low by veteran Felipe Reyes.
Greece will counter with Ioannis Bourousis and Sofoklis Schortsanitis in the low post, with Antonis Fotsis, Kostas Tsartsaris and Kostas Kaimakoglou also big bodies to throw at the Spaniards.
The rhythm of the game will be dictated by the backcourt, though, with Spain’s Ricky Rubio, Juan Carlos Navarro and shooting guard/small forward Rudy Fernandez looking to push the ball up the floor quickly at every opportunity.
Greece will pick their spots when they run.
They will prefer the long-armed Dimitris Diamantidis, shooting guard Vassilis Spanoulis and youngster Nick Calathes to dictate a slower tempo.
Spain have bossed the recent encounters but no one in Turkey is expecting this game to be a blowout for either side.