Both nations have already earned a ticket to Berlin for the Round of 16, but there’s still a lot on the line with positioning and setting up matchups for the knockouts.
Starting the day as the 4th-best team in Group C, Croatia would play Group D’s 1st seed Serbia — with back-to-back NBA MVP Nikola Jokic and former Euroleague MVP Vasilije Micic among others — if all positions held.
However, if all factors break right for Croatia, they could finish as high as 2nd in Group C. They have a tall task ahead of them in facing Ukraine, currently 2nd in the group with their only loss coming at the hands of Greece.
Ukraine features two players with NBA experience:
- Alex Len — center who was drafted 5th overall by the Phoenix Suns in 2013 and currently plays for the Sacramento Kings
- Svi Mykhailiuk — sharpshooting wing that’s been back and forth between NBA and G League, currently with Toronto Raptors
It’ll take a well-rounded game out of Croatia to win the matchup, putting behind them issues of past games, such as turnovers and bad perimeter defense.
Right off the opening tip, neither team seemed to have an early advantage with neither team able to build a lead larger than 5. The pace was a little on the slow side; Croatia got their first highlight-worthy play nearly seven minutes in, with this behind-the-back bounce pass from 2021 Summer Suns Jaleen Smith to LA Clippers big Ivica Zubac, who forced a goaltending call, a rare one in FIBA play:
Phoenix Suns forward Dario Saric was mostly invisible during the first quarter, not doing much more than connecting the Croatian offense. However, that also means he didn’t have the negative impact that he had in previous first quarters with heavy turnovers, so taking the relatively bad with the relatively good.
The two teams were tied at 21 after the first frame.
Suns trade target Bojan Bogdanovic got in on the “behind-the-back bounce pass” fun as well, setting up a nice driving lane for teammate Dominik Mavra:
Croatia opened the second quarter on a 20-8 run, including this corner three from Saric, his only points of the day, before Ukraine had a late surge of their own to pull within 3 at the half with Croatia still leading 45-42.
The third quarter started out pretty intensely with Ukraine trying to get over the hump and finally take the lead. Even as Croatia’s lead got as low as 1, they responded, in this case with a stepback three in transition from Bogdanovic:
Bogdanovic hit another later on in the frame to extend the lead back out to 8, this time assisted by Smith:
Ukraine cut the deficit back to 1 numerous times throughout the frame, but Croatia always seemed to have the answers. In some cases, that meant back-to-back inside scores from New Orleans Pelicans draft-and-stash prospect Karlo Matkovic...
All the way up til the final 30 seconds when a three finally got Ukraine over the hump. Free throws by Bogdanovic to close the quarter tied the game at 67 going into the fourth.
Little bit of role reversal going on in the fourth; Croatia would cut the deficit to 1 and Ukraine would have the answer until — guess who? — Bodanovic hit a wide open three to take the lead and force a Ukraine timeout:
Bogdanovic’s high level shot-making was the difference down the stretch for Croatia as they pulled away late despite some free throws making the end a little closer than they’d like. 90-85 is the final.
- D. Saric: 3 pts (0-2 2P, 1-5 3P, no FTA), 3 rebs, 0 asts in 22 min
- B. Bogdanovic: 27 pts (4-11 2P, 4-5 3P, 7-9 FT), 7 rebs, 3 asts, 3 stls in 36 min
- J. Smith: 7 pts (2-5 2P, 1-5 3P, no FTA), 1 reb, 3 asts, 2 stls, 1 blk in 24 min
- S. Mykhailiuk: 14 pts (2-10 2P, 3-6 3P, 1-1 FT), 5 rebs, 3 asts, 1 stl, 1 blk in 33 min
- A. Len: 6 pts (0-1 2P, 2-3 3P, no FTA), 3 rebs, 4 asts in 22 min
- V. Herun: 21 pts (9-10 2P, 3-3 FT), 6 rebs, 1 ast in 23 min
Both teams are moving onto Berlin, play for which will start on Sat. Sep. 10. This section will be updated as those matchups are set in stone.
Update: Croatia will match up against Finland with both teams finishing group play 3-2. The single-elimination match will tip at 5:45 a.m. AZ time on Sun. Sep. 11; a nice little wake-up ahead of the Arizona Cardinals’ season opener against the Kansas City Chiefs at 1:25 p.m. later that day.
Finland is led by former University of Arizona forward and new member of the Utah Jazz (after Cleveland traded him in the Donovan Mitchell deal) Lauri Markkanen. The skilled 7-footer averaged 24.8 points (48.6/41.9/82.9 shooting splits) and 7.4 rebounds in 26.4 min during group play.
Local fans may also recognize Elias Valtonen, who played at Arizona State under Bobby Hurley from 2018-20 and is now a key piece to Finland’s rotation, averaging 8.6 points (45.7/42.9/100 splits) and 3.0 rebounds in 21.0 min.