International basketball can be a graceful exhibition of contrasting styles, a competition of national identities that have been crafted over decades. Spain plays a game predicated on finesse and marksmanship. Russia deploys its versatile, deceptive defense and a series of rip screens, late pick-and-roll options and back cuts to manufacture points. The two teams kicked things off in Friday's semifinals, in a game with radical momentum shifts, then were followed by the United States' win over Argentina in a game that remained tight into the third quarter.
Friday's standout performers:
United States 109, Argentina 83
JamesLeBron James, United States
A lot in his performance was familiar -- the court vision, the heady cuts, the work on the glass. Then there were other moments that were the products of raw power. We saw it in the third quarter when James used the slightest of screens from Kevin Love to explode past Carlos Delfino with a single dribble en route to the rim for a jam, or when he swooped over the entire Argentine rebounding corps a couple minutes later to collect a rare Durant miss and thunder it home. James finished with 18 points (8-for-12 from the field), seven rebounds and seven assists. His daily chasedown came against Delfino in the first quarter, denying a basket that would’ve shaved the United States’ early lead down to three points.
DurantKevin Durant, United States
Durant’s third quarter was a near facsimile to the one he turned in just a few days ago in Team USA’s group-play win over Argentina, when he erupted for 17 points. On Friday night, Durant drained a mere four 3-pointers in the period, but it was the same brand of unconscious, instantaneous sniper work. Everyone in North Greenwich Arena understood that the ball was going to Durant in short order, but Argentina had simply no recourse. Durant’s 19 points led all scorers.
DelfinoCarlos Delfino, Argentina
Delfino’s barrage of 3-pointers in the second quarter wasn’t the product of any trickery -- the American defense was merely slouching -- but those long-range bombs were crucial to keeping the Argentines within shouting distance and bought Manu Ginobili a breather. As always, Delfino worked the glass and, when the closeouts arrives, he found teammates who had better looks at the basket. His 15 points, five rebounds and three assists made for just another solid performance for a guy who has helped fortify an aging squad from Argentina.
PaulChris Paul, United States
Lost amid the pyrotechnics of the wings has been Paul’s unheralded performance over the past few weeks. Paul occasionally gets the chance to probe, but the Olympics doesn’t afford him the same opportunities to do his thing. On Friday, we saw the full breadth of CP3. Paul spotted up when his wings had possession of the ball (2-of-3 from 3-point range), but he was first and foremost a distributor. In the second quarter, Paul operated in pure point mode, first finding Love behind the defense, then James streaking down the lane to his left. A possession later, he broke down Argentina’s D, then made a blind pass to James who, this time, cut corner-to-rim. The nightcap for Paul came late in the fourth with a gaudy lob in traffic to former Hornets teammate Tyson Chandler for the alley-oop. All in all, Paul scored 10 points and dished out seven assists without a turnover.
GinobiliManu Ginobili, Argentina
Team USA did a solid job on Ginobili with multiple defenders, including James, who denied easy passes to Ginobili, forcing him to cut way up high to receive the ball. As a result, Ginobili had to grind for his 18 points. There were far fewer Eurosteps and floaters and more long-range grenades, but Ginobili was still brilliant. He notched a huge 3-pointer in a breakneck final possession just before halftime, then began the second half with another bomb -- six points that trimmed a 10-point American lead to four and had the crowd riled up.
Spain 67, Russia 59
Jose Calderon, SpainCalderon
After a disastrous first half, Spain needed two things after intermission -- perimeter production and a steady hand. Calderon, one of the world’s most reliable floor leaders, provided both. The composition of the Spanish national team suits Calderon because, as smart as he is with the ball, there's enough tactical help to allow how to flare out and space the floor. After being strangled by the Russians in the paint for 20 minutes, that was imperative for la Roja.
The biggest bucket of the night for Spain came at the 5:10 mark of the fourth quarter. After giving the ball up, Calderon faded to the weakside corner where he received a skip pass from Marc Gasol on the opposite post and hit a 3-pointer that gave Spain a 58-50 lead. Calderon finished with 14 points (4-for-9 from beyond the arc, 2-for-2 from the line).
Pau Gasol, SpainGasol
The Russians' steely defense made life impossible for both Gasols in the first half by moving extra bodies and quick double-teams to the post. Gasol spotted it early and his first couple of shot attempts came from behind the 3-point line. Gasol moved around more readily in the second quarter, but it wasn't until after halftime when Gasol embraced the notion of specific benefits and responsibilities reserved for the biggest guy on the floor. When the ball went to him in the third quarter, he did two things expertly -- moved the ball to the weakside perimeter and hung around the rim for putbacks, offensive rebounds and high-low passes. Gasol scored 16 points and collected 14 rebounds, but you'll find his greatest contribution in the second-half shooting numbers of Spain's guards, the true recipients of Gasol's active second half.
Sasha Kaun, RussiaKaun
For a good while Friday, Kaun appeared as if he would emerge the MVP of the first semifinal contest, as Russia's finest offensive moments came when Kaun was put into motion. David Blatt's team set the pace early by launching Kaun into some nifty pick-and-roll sets initiated by everyone from guard Alexey Shved to multitasker Viktor Khryapa. Kaun doesn't have the size or muscle to hurt defenders one-on-one in the post, but when the Russians delivered him the ball on the move high, he exploded to the rim without a lot of resistance. He was Russia's most efficient scorer, with 14 points on 10 shots from the field.
Sergei Monia, RussiaMonia
The 6-foot-7 swingman had a cup of coffee with Portland and Sacramento several years ago, but has been in Moscow for the past six years. He had atrocious games shooting the ball entering the semifinal, but with Monia on the floor in the second quarter, the Russians found a formula that worked -- a middle pick-and-roll with the floor lifted and Monia primed to catch and shoot. Monia's three 3-pointers in the second quarter vaulted the Russians to a double-digit lead and had the Spaniards scrambling to rotate. The closeouts came more quickly after halftime, and the Russians were never able to recapture the spacing that guided them in the first half.