With three games won by an average margin of 18 points, Turkey is putting up one of its best EuroBasket performances. But Turkey's medal hopes in the European Basketball Championship will be put to the test when the 12 Giants take on Spain, Serbia and Slovenia

GIANTS: Turkish players celebrate an away-team victory against Poland in the first round of EuroBasket 2009. AA photo
After winning all three of its first-round games, the Turkish national basketball team kicks off the EuroBasket 2009 qualifiers against Olympic silver-medallist Spain.

Turkey was off to a flying start this week, as it beat Lithuania, Bulgaria and host-country Poland to win Group D of the European Basketball Championship.

Turkey advanced to the next round along with Poland and Lithuania, where they will be met by Slovenia, Spain and Serbia.

As of now, the “12 Giants” are one of only three teams in the championship that are still unbeaten. As wins are carried to the qualifying round, Turkey has a remarkable advantage in this three-game stage.

Many may argue that Turkey faced softer first-round competition than other teams, and these critics are right to a certain degree. While Spain, Serbia and Slovenia vied to top Group C and France, Russia and Germany challenged each other in Group B, Turkey took on somewhat easier opponents. But Turkey’s sterling performance made it look easy, too.

The first game against Lithuania on Monday, for example, could have gone the other way. The 12 Giants made a great team effort on defense and shared the ball well to find the right man on offense, winning the game 84-76. Even though they were missing several key players, including star point guard Sarunas Jasikevicius, the Lithuanians are famous for their disciplined teamwork and tough defense. If Turkey did not respond in a similar manner, it could have been a win for Lithuania.

Building on the confidence of the first day, Turkey had a fairly comfortable game on Tuesday against Bulgaria, but again, credits goes to coach Bogdan Tanjevic’s team for controlling the game early and shutting the door on its hapless opponents. At the buzzer, the scoreboard showed 94-66, but what was more important than a completely lopsided victory for Turkey was that Tanjevic had a chance to rest some of his stars in the middle of a hectic week.

That decision would help against Poland. A fresh Turkish team beat the host country in a game that it completely dominated. Poland’s front-court duo of Marcin Gortat and Maciej Lampe and the support of 7,000 fans appeared intimidating, but Turkey responded with fine performances from its big men, especially up-and-coming center Ömer Aşık, who had 22 points, eight rebounds and one blocked shot in only 24 minutes.

Three games won by an average margin of 18 points makes a bright start to the tournament, regardless of the strength of Turkey’s opponents. However, what is more important than the score is the way Turkey plays. For the first time in years, Turkey does not rush during its offensive sets, the team passes the ball around until a free man is found. The result is a victorious team, which doesn’t just rely on NBA star Hidayet “Hedo” Türkoğlu of the Toronto Raptors. Hedo plays his part, but knows how to leave the stage to the likes of Barcelona forward Ersan İlyasova, center Aşık, or Efes Pilsen guard Ender Arslan, who’s been Turkey’s shining star, averaging 14.3 points per game. That teamwork looks even more effective when Turkey is defending, since the whole team stepped up in the paint to make up for the team’s lack of experience at the center position. Turkey allowed the opposition to score an average of 70.3 points per game, which must be maintained if the red-and-white is to earn wins against the solid trio of Spain, Slovenia and Serbia.

Turkey set an important bar in the group stage with solid defense and productive offense. The Giants should continue to do so when they take on a star-studded Spanish side, which has yet to find its rhythm.

The Turkey-Spain game starts at 4:45 p.m. on Saturday