Welcome to the knockout phase of the Olympic basketball event.
The NBA game affords teams a two-week chess match in each playoff round, during which a team can slip up, adjust, then eventually figure it out. That's not the case in London, where one stink bomb can send home the most talented teams and individual performers licking their wounds.
On Wednesday, the elimination tournament got under way, with standout performances from some likely -- and unlikely -- competitors.
United States 119, Australia 86
JamesLeBron James, United States
The line speaks for itself: 11 points, 14 rebounds and 12 assists, zero turnovers. But as impressive as the numbers are, the dramatic sequences are the real treat. Just one example from the second half: James chased down Patty Mills in transition, neutralizing the shot as he's done so many times. Chaos reigned for an instant, then James made the open-floor assist to Kevin Love on the ensuing break. Olympic play with elite teammates suits James well. We rarely saw him in isolation on Wednesday. Instead, James kept one eye on the ball and the other fixed on the defense. When a teammate such as Carmelo Anthony got the ball at the elbow, James zipped across the baseline, diverting the defense's attention, creating space for all five Americans.
WilliamsDeron Williams, United States
Williams has the speed to attack and the strength to absorb almost any kind of contact. The Nets guard propelled the Americans in the first half, during which they never found a flow but were still able to manufacture a considerable lead. In a larger sense, Williams functioned as a security blanket for Team USA, a player they could rely on to maximize possessions. He scored 18 points, seven of which came at the stripe, and another six materialized after he found real estate to spot up behind the arc.
BryantKobe Bryant, United States
Bryant’s visit to London hasn’t come without its trials. Has Coach K been resting him, or does Bryant’s latter-day, back-'em-down game not conform to the rhythms of Team USA? Challenges require adjustments and at some point in the second half, Bryant decided he’d be a 3-point specialist. It was a Whitman’s Sampler of treats -- pull-up jumpers in transition, catch-and-shoot, ball-faking grenades. He finished 6-for-10 from beyond the arc for 20 points -- all of them in the second half.
InglesJoe Ingles, Australia
Patty Mills led the Boomers in scoring, but Ingles was their most valuable player with 19 points (6-for-8 from the field) and eight rebounds. The 6-foot-8 forward showed off his one-on-one game and a nice toolshed of skills. He put a scare into the Americans with a step-back 3-pointer to cap Australia’s 11-0 run to start the second half. It's not all stretch, either. Ingles sprints the floor and he makes sneaky back cuts off the ball. At times, he found himself with unenviable task of guarding James and, occasionally, Kevin Durant one-on-one. He dug in, swallowed hard, but never backed away from the assignment.
Argentina 82, Brazil 77
GinobiliManu Ginobili, Argentina
Split, show, go, absorb, contort, finish -- repeat. Ginobili has been applying this formula for years, and Argentina’s 82-77 win over Brazil on Wednesday was merely his latest exhibition. It wasn’t all showmanship for Manu. He willingly mixed it up with the big guys beneath the glass, snagging eight rebounds to accompany his 16 points. Ginobili strategically chose his spots. Seeing that teammates Luis Scola and Carlos Delfino had their shots going early, Ginobili worked off the ball to create even more space for the forwards to find space for those jumpers. Overall, Wednesday was just another savvy performance from a player who has set the standard for international competition.
ScolaLuis Scola, Argentina
Scola had one of the tougher matchups of the quarterfinals in Tiago Splitter, but managed to find just enough space to launch that patented face-up jumper. Scola isn't the quickest guy on the floor, but he was always willing to move along the baseline and to the top of the key to find that spot. When Brazil’s defense forced him into an extended isolation possession in the first half, Scola went to work and ultimately drained a hook over Splitter. Quickness will ignite spurts at this level, but there's no substitute for skills. Scola's team-high 17 points was an apt demonstration of that.
HuertasMarcelinho Huertas, Brazil
The Brazilian point guard couldn't buy a shot from long range during group play, but he was unconscionable in the first quarter, launching off-balanced bombs off his right foot. That wasn't all. Huertas also demonstrated some textbook pure-point moments. In the open court, Huertas hit Splitter when the big man had the good sense to sprint to the rim in transition. Once Argentina began to body up on him 25 feet from the basket, Huertas evolved into a creator. Splitter returned that earlier favor when Huertas made a smart basket dive down the gut of the lane to catch the ball on the move from his big man. Observing Huertas match up against Pablo Prigioni was like watching a couple of samurais with their swords drawn, waiting for the other to make the first move. Down the stretch, Leandro Barbosa would assume the role of fearless sniper for Brazil, which almost managed to forge an upset but ultimately fell short.
NocioniAndres Nocioni, Argentina
To emphasize how nasty Nocioni was to play against, a veteran NBA starter said that the Argentine's irritating style once had the notoriously mellow Josh Childress ready to fight him. Nocioni's feistiness was critical for Argentina, especially with the Brazilians fighting back in the fourth quarter. Nocioni was his usual, detail-oriented self. As insurance, he followed a teammate's breakaway opportunity, and ultimately got paid with a putback when the layup wouldn't go down. A couple of minutes later, Nocioni had Brazil's Alex Garcia hearing footsteps on the break and, go figure, Brazil failed to convert. On offense, Nocioni never held the ball for long, but always advanced it to a guy with a pretty good look. During an important possession at about the 3-minute mark, Nocioni cleverly deked Guilherme Giovannoni with hesitation to create a driving lane, then muscled up the shot at the rim against Nene. He contested rebounds under both baskets to preserve possessions for his team. The all-purpose pest finished with 12 points (5-for-7 from the field), six rebounds and at least a dozen shoves, bumps and dirty tricks that helped his team.
Carlos Delfino also deserves consideration at this spot. His 14 first-half points paced the Argentinians as Delfino used Ray Allen-like misdirection along the baseline to flare out to the perimeter for clean looks.
Spain 66, France 59
Pau Gasol, Spain
The Spaniards won this game on the glass and at the stripe. Looking at the former area, the elder Gasol was the key. In only 23 minutes, Gasol gobbled up 11 boards (that’s 19 rebounds per 40 minutes if you’re scoring at home) to go with 14 points.
Although he wasn’t dominant, Gasol made himself a true triple threat. He’s never lacked for passing and shooting, but on Wednesday he wasn’t bashful about putting the ball on the floor or pressuring France in the post. When double-teams arrived, Gasol found shooters like Juan Carlos Navarro for open 3-pointers. But Pau’s most graceful play of the contest came when he delivered a gentle touch pass to his brother Marc, who finished on the move with a layup that gave Spain a five-point lead with 45.3 seconds remaining.
Boris Diaw, France
France’s offense was supposed to be fueled by Tony Parker’s speed; instead, it was guided by Diaw’s vision. When he operates as a point forward, the French offense hums with elegance. Diaw did some damage from long range, but it was even more affirming to see him bounce a pass in traffic underneath to a young guy like Kevin Seraphin, who needs to establish his confidence. Later, Diaw fired a skip pass to Nicolas Batum that resulted in a badly needed 3-pointer as France's offense was grinding to a standstill. And how about that drive, then up-and-under, switching hands to finish strong with his left? Later in the third quarter, Diaw impressed with a runner through the teeth of the Spanish defense. Diaw finished with game-highs in points (15), assists (5) and 3-pointers (3-of-6), and led his team in rebounds (8). A noble performance in a disappointing loss.
Marc Gasol, Spain
The younger Gasol put his signature on Spain’s win with his defense. He presided as the gatekeeper of the baseline, constantly shutting down penetration from the corners. He gave up nothing in the post against a French team that couldn’t generate anything inside. Offensively, Gasol did nothing fancy with the ball except what must have been his most satisfying moment: Big bro pinned two French defenders to allow Marc to float out to the top of the arc for a big 3-pointer, a silky-smooth shot that gave Spain a 41-37 lead in the third quarter.
Russia 83, Lithuania 74
Andrei Kirilenko, Russia
The veteran continues to make his case as the most complete player in London. The stat line suggests as much (19 points, 13 boards, 3 assists, 3 steals and 3 blocks), but Kirilenko's overall impact in Russia's 83-74 win over Lithuania far transcends the numbers. AK is one of the stealthiest big guys around, not only defensively but also in the confines of Russia's offense. His checklist spans from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok.
Not a one-on-one player? Baloney. Did you see that left-handed dribble drive in the second quarter? Too unassertive to thrive in the post? Not a chance, as he repeatedly looked for an advantage on the block. He found teammates from the top of the floor as Russia's high-low facilitator and thrived in the open court as well. Kirilenko initiated so many pretty sequences, but the most impressive came in the second quarter, when he swooped in to collect an offensive rebound off a missed free throw, kicked the ball out for the reset, then, realizing the right block was completely unoccupied, pounced to the open space, where he received a prompt pass for an easy dunk.
Kirilenko’s coup de grace came on a weakside basket cut inside of two minutes. Viktor Khryapa found Kirilenko, who went up strong for the and-1, which ultimately iced the game for Russia. Vintage Kirilenko and a portrait of intuition.
Timofey Mozgov, Russia
He knew where to be on the court at all times, whether it was following misses with tip-ins or just ducking in from the weak side for easy looks. The big man also can run the floor and converted a big bucket on the break in the third quarter to give the Russians a nine-point lead -- their largest at the time. Mozgov also showed signs of being an effective dive man, working with Alexey Shved on a number of slick slip screens. As size becomes increasingly important during the medal round, Mozgov will come in awfully handy for the Russians if he can display the opportunism he showed Wednesday.
Darius Songaila, Lithuania
Time and again when they needed a basket, the Lithuanians would go to the Sarunas Jasikevicius pick-and-roll for nourishment. Songaila timed his rolls perfectly and scored 10 big points in the second quarter en route to a 15-point outing. The Russians never really found an answer for Songaila on the move and ended up hacking him repeatedly to prevent those shots at close range. As a result, Songaila made a living at the line, sinking all seven of his attempts at the stripe. On the other side of the ball, Songaila played with his usual level of impunity, rushing the ball and groping for position.
Viktor Khryapa, Russia
Loved the game Khryapa put together on Wednesday. Known primarily as an energy guy with quick defensive feet and a bit of a streak shooter, Khryapa functioned as a primary playmaker offensively for Russia. He was the key assist man (including a deft pass on that climactic Kirilenko traditional 3-point play late), and drained a couple of huge bombs from beyond the arc when the game tightened. Want to see Khryapa in isolation? He showed off his handle and finish in the second quarter when he spun off Martynas Pocius on the right side, then powered his way to the hoop.