Nowitzki, NBA stars go home, chase Olympic slots
With Olympic berths at stake and their league in limbo, Dirk Nowitzki and other NBA stars have flocked home for the European Championship to help their nations try to qualify for the 2012 London Games.
The tournament in Lithuania starts Wednesday and runs through Sept. 18, and the two finalists are the only teams among the 24 entries guaranteed slots in London. Four other teams will earn places in a later qualifying event.
Germany's hopes received a major boost with Nowitzki coming back to the national team after two years.
Nowitzki was the MVP of the NBA finals after leading the Dallas Mavericks over the Miami Heat. He was always eager to play for Germany, but there was some doubt the 33-year-old forward would return after his long season.
"I've been to the Olympics and it was the best experience of my life, so I want to help the young players get there as well," said Nowitzki, Germany's flag bearer at the Beijing Games in 2008.
"I think we have a good bunch and I think we can qualify," he said.
"It's fantastic to have Dirk back after two years, but our job at the Europeans remains very hard," Germany coach Dirk Bauermann said.
Nowitzki experienced some discomfort in his right knee during Friday's warmup game against Macedonia, but still played 26 minutes and contributed 13 points in a 70-68 win.
"It was better in the second half," Nowitzki said.
Germany has perhaps the toughest of the four six-team pools. It's in Group B in Siualai with France, Italy, Israel, Latvia and Serbia, the runner-up at the last Europeans and a semifinalist at the World Championships in Turkey last year.
Without Nowitzki, Germany beat Serbia in a friendly. Serbia won an exhibition tournament of former Yugoslav republics, all accomplished teams, but then also lost to Croatia, Australia and France. Its captain is Nenad Krstic, the former Oklahoma City and Boston center.
"France has much more experience and so does Spain and some other teams," Krstic said. "We are an average team but we always have extra motivation at big championships."
Serbia coach Dusan Ivkovic said he expected the tournament to be "the best (European) championship ever and that's good for basketball."
Spain should be the team to beat, with the Gasol brothers in a group that has been together for a long time and won the silver medal at the Beijing Olympics.
"We will try to get a good position for the quarterfinals, and from there go for it all. The games in the first phase are important and we hope to get stronger as we get deeper in the competition," said Pau Gasol, the Los Angeles Lakers center.
Rudy Fernandez, newly acquired by the Mavericks, is recovering his form after injuring his arm. Ricky Rubio, the playmaker headed for the Minnesota Timberwolves, will be under special scrutiny. Spain also has Oklahoma City Thunder forward Serge Ibaka.
"When we are playing hard we have the capacity to intimidate our rivals with Ibaka, Pau, Marc and also Victor Claver, who can all get up high. But it's the entire team's job since the outside players have to defend from the perimeter," coach Sergio Scariolo said.
Spain has a tough draw matching up against host Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, Britain and World Championship runner-up Turkey, in Group A in Panevezys.
Group C in Alytus has four former Yugoslav republics: Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro and Macedonia, plus Greece and Finland.
Group D in Klaipeda has Slovenia, Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Georgia and Belgium.
The top three teams from each group advance to the second round with two pools of six teams each that will produce the quarterfinalists.
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