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Saturday, September 10, 2011
FIBA Americas' final four

By Alvaro Martin

MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina -- Sept. 10 was marked down by all 10 participating countries in the 2011 FIBAAmericas Championship a long time ago. The two winners of Saturday’s semifinals will receive automatic berths in the 2012 London Olympic Games. The losers will have to fight through a 12-team, last-chance qualifier in early July 2012, but the four runners-up from EuroBasket will be favored to win the last three spots on the Olympic basketball tournament.

With a lot on the line, let's take a look at the four semifinalists before they clash on ESPN3 (Dominican Republic vs. Brazil, 6 p.m. ET; Puerto Rico vs. Argentina, 8:15 p.m. ET).

Brazil: Brazil has been very impressive in the tournament. Its only blemish was a loss to Saturday's opponnet, the Dominican Republic, in opening-round play. Since then, they have improved their execution at both ends of the court, given valuable playing time to three youngsters under the age of 21, and played their best basketball toward the end of the tournament.

The efficiency analysis, based on eight games played by the eight advancing quarterfinalists, reveals a few pleasant surprises and disappointments. Brazil is by far the best offense in the paint and inside the arc in this tournament, but not because Tiago Splitter has wreaked havoc in Mar del Plata -- he has, in fact, struggled offensively. Instead, point guard Marcelinho Huertas and reserve centers Rafael Hettsheimeier and Caio Torres have stood out for their productivity down low. Huertas’ floaters in the lane, much-improved defense and 50 percent 3-point shooting will be appreciated in Barcelona, where he takes over starting point guard duties from Ricky Rubio. Huertas would stand out as an NBA backup point guard right now.

Argentina: Argentina is still a favorite to both win a berth and the Olympic qualifier, something they have never achieved in their team's history. Andrés Nocioni is slated to play tonight, although officially the team is calling it a game-time decision. If he makes a few spot-up corner 3s, handles a few rebounds and plays solid defense against Puerto Rico, it will help greatly.

What surprises you about Argentina is how the NBA game has imperceptibly influenced its usual brilliant team play. In its past two games, Argentina has given Manu Ginóbili and Luis Scola half the team’s shot attempts. The other players set them up and get out of the way, letting its two best players carry the load. But that is not quite the Argentine Way. Of all four of Saturday’s semifinalists, Argentina is the weakest on the boards: Puerto Rico has to dominate the rebound battle if it stands a chance to win against the heavily favored hosts.

Puerto Rico: Puerto Rico knew getting an Olympic berth in Mar del Plata was going to be very difficult, as it was without three starters and two more rotation players because of injury. The team came here thin at center and saw their starting center and leader, Danny Santiago, tear his right plantar fascia. Santiago says he will try to play, but it seems unlikely he will be able to contribute significantly. With Santiago out and Puerto Rico’s offense lacking a post presence, opponents can focus on stopping Carlos Arroyo and José Juan Barea. Renaldo Balkman has publicly shown how disruptive his misplaced passion can be, as he loses his temper repeatedly on the court.

This overachieving team disappointed everyone with their meek performance and attitude against Brazil the last time out. They also have not met their goal to be the best defense in the tournament. Puerto Rico has been repeatedly victimized by the 3-pointer. An undersized team, everyone helps on penetrations, but they are slow or incapable to close out shooters; opponents have connected on 37 percent of their 3s against the Boricuas. We will see if they can sort out their issues and come to play prepared, focused and oblivious to the reception Argentine fans will prepare for them tonight.

Dominican Republic: The Dominican Republic has little to lose and much to win. No one gives it much of a chance to prevail against Brazil, even after a victory over the Brazilians in group play eight days ago. The Quisqueyanos have already achieved the highest finish in an Olympic qualifier in their history (the worst they can finish is fourth), but they would make even more if they beat Brazil again to become the first Domincan basketball team to earn an Olympic berth. Head coach John Calipari’s team matches up well against Brazil, as Al Horford can take Splitter out of the game. For the Dominicans, the keys may be to once again guard the 3-point line well, make free throws and minimize turnovers without a true starting point guard.