Belinelli leads surprising Italy run
LJUBLJANA, Slovenia – San Antonio Spurs general manager R.C. Buford has been an interested spectator at EuroBasket over this past week in Slovenia. Marco Belinelli has tried to set Buford's mind at rest that the decision to offer the Italian international a two-year deal worth a reported $6 million earlier this summer remains an astute piece of business.
Coming off a season where the seventh-year guard played major minutes for the Chicago Bulls but struggled at times with his shooting, Belinelli remains the major additional piece to a roster that, Buford hopes, will remain a contender to make it all the way through the Western Conference and earn a chance to return to the NBA Finals for a second consecutive time.
Belinelli has averaged 14.1 points in seven games so far at the European Championships, and he was a key influence Monday as the Azzuri rallied from 15 points down in the fourth quarter to eventually sneak past defending champions Spain, taking an 86-81 win in overtime in their final game in second-round play.
With New York Knicks forward Andrea Bargnani and Danilo Gallinari of the Denver Nuggets absent, Italy's other NBA representative has been entrusted with a lead role alongside Detroit Pistons newcomer Luigi Datone and young forward Alessandro Gentile, who had a team-high 25 points against the Spanish.
But in San Antonio, Belinelli believes he can have a similar influence off the bench.
"I'm going to try to have an impact," he told ESPN.com. "Nobody knows right now. But for sure, I'll look to be important for San Antonio. I'll need to understand their game in offense and defense. It won't be easy. But at the same time, it's a team that wants to win a championship. And my mentality is to win."
The 27-year-old has already played alongside San Antonio's existing second-unit sparkplug, Manu Ginobili, when the pair were teammates at Virtus Roma when Belinelli was a teenage prodigy. Yet while the Spurs have a huge international flavor, that wasn't a factor in his defection to Texas.
"Sure, they have European guys," he said. "Boris Diaw is there. Nando de Colo, I already know Ginobili. But at the same time, they've a great team, the best organization probably in the NBA. For me I decided to go to San Antonio because I think I can improve my game. I can be a better player, and I think I can win there."
His arrival with the Spurs has the endorsement of one of his future running mates, Tony Parker, who will also be in action for France when the quarterfinals begin on Wednesday.
"He's a very talented player, a great scorer, a great shooter," Parker said. "He's been great for his country. And he's going to be good for the Spurs."
The pair will not, however, square off unless their respective teams go all the way to the EuroBasket final in Ljubljana next Sunday. Italy will meet Lithuania in the next round, with the winner of that game facing Croatia or Ukraine. The other side of the draw sends France into a quarterfinal with host Slovenia, and either Spain or Serbia lying beyond.
Huge outsiders at the outset, the Italians have nothing to lose.
"No one expected us to be here in the quarterfinals," Belinelli said. "But we won't just stop now."