LaMarcus Aldridge's Big Leap Forward
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There were decisive matches at Eurobasket '09 in Poland on Monday. The Painted Area was glued to the action, and has this update:
GROUP F: Spain 84, Lithuania 70
Spain officially slammed the door shut on Lithuania's Eurobasket run by outscoring the Lithuanians 49-19 in the middle quarters.
Pau Gasol and the Spaniards looked strong ... but they still need another win to reach the knockout stage.
(Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images)
The turning point came early in the second quarter where Spain went on 23-0 run to start the quarter. Lithuania went scoreless over the first seven minutes and only produced eight points in the quarter.
After scoring 24 pts in the first quarter, Lithuania could only generate a total of 19 points over the next two quarters. Things started off very promising in the first quarter with Lithuania making nine of 15 from the field.
Then, Spain really turned on the defensive pressure after the first quarter and the Lithuanians wilted. Spain scrambled in the half-court to contest/change shots and extended pressure up the floor that produced turnovers.
Lithuania has always been vulnerable to aggressive ball pressure (even with Sarunas Jasikevicius around), and struggled mightily handling the dogged Espana defense. Lithuania coughed the ball up 19 times vs. Spain, and now lead the tournament in turnovers with over 15 per game.
Active hands for the Spanish that led to 12 steals. The steals were not just thefts in passing lanes, four out of five of the steals came on strips right out of the ball handlers' hands.
Pau Gasol led the Spanish assault with 19 points, eight rebounds and three blocks. Pau ignited the second quarter explosion with two straight strong finishes in transition. Spain was able to get Pau great looks near the rim, he rarely missed (8-for-10) and he usually end these touches with dunks.
Easily the best ball movement from the Spaniards in the tourney -- 25 of their 31 field goals were assisted. Ricky Rubio had been pretty quiet for much of Euro '09, but you could tell the revved up pace of the game got him flowing. Ricky (9 assists) pushed the ball ahead well and smothered the opposing guards. FIBA doesn't officially chart fast break points, but imagine Spain had one of the top transition scoring days of the tourney.
Rudy Fernandez joined Rubio is creating chaos on both ends of the floor with quick hands (three steals) and attacking on offense (11 points). Jorge Garbajosa dropped two 3pts. in transition and ended with 10 points & 4 assists. Juan Navarro did most of his damage on jumpers -- 3-for-6 on 3-pointers for 13 points ...
... Spain (2-2) isn't quite out of the woods just yet. If they lose to Poland on Wednesday, they are done. Doesn't matter what happens in the Serbia-Lith game because Spain would lose the tiebreaker as of right now. If Spain wins, they're in and could be seeded anywhere from second to fourth in Group F.
GROUP F: Slovenia 76, Poland 60
Slovenia rolled to a decisive win that puts Poland's 2010 Worlds' qualifying chances in serious jeopardy. Slovenia continues to impress with their array of weapons on offense.
Much like the Spain-Lith game, Slovenia blew this game open in the middle section. Slovenia outscored Poland 42-23 in the middle quarters. Was never much of a contest in the second half.
Poland had a decent offensive groove working in the first quarter and was getting the crowd behind them. After a 17-point first quarter, Poland only could muster 23 points over the next two quarters. Poland just went ice cold, clanging one shot after the next.
Slovenia made sure the ball was in Erazem Lorbek's hands often and it paid off well. Lorbek showed off his multi-skilled arsenal scoring on the blocks with a hook, turnaround jumper and a face-up jumper. Lorbek stepped outside to hit two pick/pop 3-point jumpers. He also did a nice job passing from the high & low post. Lorbek had a mighty fine stat line -- 20 pts (7/14), 9 rebs, 5 assts, & two 3pts.
Slovenia's Primo Brezec hit two long 2-pointers up high and did a nice job flashing from the weak side for some easy scores on his way to 12 points on 6-for-7 shooting. Point guard Jaka Lakovic kept up his strong Euro '09 campaign with 14 points, six assists, four rebounds and three steals. Lakovic set-up his bigs well on pick/pop and continued his sharp shooting with three deep balls (18-for-35) ...
... No worries for Slovenia (3-1) besides seeding for the quarters. Been very impressed with Slovenia and like them to squeak by Turkey on Wednesday. If they beat Turkey, they win Group F and grab a No. 1 seed. It's do or die for Poland on Wednesday vs. Spain. It will be a tall task to take out the Spaniards, but they do have the home crowd.
GROUP F: Turkey 69, Serbia 64 (OT)
Turkey kept their undefeated record alive by outlasting the Serbs in overtime. Ragged game where both teams shot less than 40 percent from the floor and a total of 52 fouls were whistled. The Turks made things hard on themselves by shooting 18-for-31 at the free throw line.
The Bucks must be giddy with the way Ersan Ilyasova has ripped it up this summer. Ersan carried the Turks today with 22 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks. Ersan was damn efficient with a 7-for-12 shooting day and smoked the ball from long range -- 4-for-6 on 3-pointers. Ersan's stellar play covered for a miserable night had by Hedo. Hedo did contribute with seven rebounds and four steals, but his awful 1-for-16 shooting day wasn't helpful.
Omer Asik should be commended for his 11-point (5-for-6 shooting), six-rebound day. But Omer nearly single-handedly submarined his squad chances with a 1-for-10 day at the FT line. Serbia's offense was a disaster -- combining 31 percent shooting with 18 turnovers is never advisable. Point guard Milos Teodosic had one of his finer national team games with 16 points, eight assists and six rebounds. Milos and Novica Velickovic each drained three 3-pointer for the Serbs. Oklahoma City's Nenad Krstic managed to add 11 points and seven rebounds, but also had four turnovers. Serbia (2-2) can shake this loss off quickly because they're qualified for the quarterfinal no matter what happens in their game on Wednesday. Serbia is just playing for seeding purposes like Turkey. Turkey (4-0) plays Slovenia to determine the winner and No. 1 seed of Group F.
For the full analysis, go to The Painted Area.
Big contracts, NBA stars, a new coach, a new approach, and -- after a disappointing loss in a recent major international competition -- something to prove.
More than anything, almost being able to taste Olympic gold, knowing that hitting shots and playing good defense will be enough.
No, I'm not talking about Team USA.
I'm talking about the squad they'll meet on the court in Beijing at 10:15 ET Saturday morning, and likely in the gold medal game on August 24.
I'm talking about Spain.
U.S. in the Driver's Seat
After dispensing China, Angola, and Greece, the United States team led by Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Kobe Bryant has convinced nearly all observers that they are the favorites to win Olympic gold. Team USA's impressive depth, matched with a withering defensive attack on the perimeter, has produced long series of turnovers followed by the kinds of open-court layups and dunks that posters are made of.
But the Spanish team is also deep, also stocked with NBA players, and on something of a special mission.
The Spanish players are reigning world champions. To most of the basketball world, this is a more prestigious title than Olympic gold. The 2006 version featured 24 teams, with a grueling 16-team elimination tournament to wrap things up. (The Olympic competition, on the other hand, features 12 total teams, with eight making it to the knockout stage.)
Spain has also played the U.S. in elimination games twice in recent years. Many of these same Spanish players beat Paul Pierce and company at the World Championships in 2002. At the Athens Olympics in 2004, Spain cruised through qualifying for a top seed, while Team USA stumbled to 3-2. With a high seed, Spain met Team U.S.A. in the first elimination game, and lost by eight. (In the next round, Team USA lost to Argentina, before beating Lithuania for bronze.)
Spain and the U.S. did not play each other in the 2006 World Championships, as the U.S. lost to Greece in the semifinals. Spain, with much the same roster they have this year, did not lose all tournament long.
Last summer, however, in one of the best games of last year, Spain lost to Russia by a single point in the EuroBasket final.
These Olympics are Spain's chance to prove 2006 was no fluke.
The roster of the Spanish national team has been one of the most stable in basketball. The team has long been built around the likes of Pau Gasol, Juan Carlos Navarro, Jose Calderon and Jorge Garbajosa.
In 2008, however, time is showing its effects. Youngsters like Rudy Fernandez, Ricky Rubio, and Marc Gasol are emerging as the rightful future centerpieces of the team.
How long will the more experienced players like Pau Gasol and Juan Carlos Navarro keep sacrificing their off-seasons for their country? It is unclear. It's certainly possible this team will look very different next time around.
Spain is an elite international team as is. Will it be so for the World Championships in Turkey in 2010? Maybe.
For a team that has always had high expectations, 2008 is time to seize the moment.
New Coach, New Approach
When Spain won the World Championships in Japan two summers ago, the offensive attack was built around now-Laker big man Pau Gasol. Time and again Gasol set up in the post, and used his grab bag of post moves and jumpers to poke and prod the defense as his teammates orchestrated series of dives, picks, and cuts to get themselves clean looks whenever Gasol was doubled.
The team used the same approach, and the same roster, in 2007, when they lost a close game to underdog Russia in the final game of the EuroBasket.
A month and a half ago, however (reportedly owing to internal politics in the federation that runs the team) Coach Pepu Hernandez was replaced by Aito Garcia Reneses.
Aito, as he is known, has a vastly different approach that wholly deemphasizes any single player's role.
Jorge Munoa, a journalist with the EFE wire service, has been covering the team closely for years. Having watched Spain's early games of the tournament I asked him if the team perceived what I felt I had seen, namely the emergence of young swingman Rudy Fernandez (headed to the Blazers next season) as the kind of leader the team turned to when things get rough.
An emerging force: Future Blazer Rudy Fernandez has excelled in big moments.
(Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images.)
"Absolutely not," he declared. "There are no leaders on this team. The leader is just a group. That is the key to this team. The group. There are no personal agendas or characteristics that are more important than the group."
That's pure Aito.
He is no control freak. He has a fairly loose hand in terms of style of play. On offense, the guards have the latitude to be as inventive as they'd like, and NBA-style isolations and shots off the dribble are no longer uncommon.
But no one gets to dominate. Of the team's dozen players, eleven average at least eleven minutes per game, and none averages more than 26. Six players, this far, have scored at least six points per game, and none average more than twenty.
The stars of the national team's recent past, for instance Pau Gasol and Juan Carlos Navarro, often watch from the bench as younger teammates like Pau's brother Marc Gasol and Rudy Fernandez mop up key minutes -- thus far without complaint.
There is a particular karma to that. Both Navarro and Gasol played for Aito at FC Barcelona. As young players, they benefited from the same unorthodox distribution of minutes, playing far more than they might have on other teams. Aito later coached Badalona, where he similarly gave minutes to rising national team stars Rudy Fernandez and Ricky Rubio.
What You Can Expect Against Team U.S.A.
When Spain plays the U.S. on Saturday, in group play with little at stake, Spain will be unlikely to display its full bag of tricks.
Making certain no one gets hurt will be the most important priority for both teams -- both are undefeated in the early rounds and have no worries about making it to the next stage.
However, removing the cloak of invincibility from the U.S. team could be a handy achievement leading into a potential rematch in the gold medal game.
In addition, the Spanish team is adjusting to a new coach, and a big win would do wonders to build the unit's confidence in the system.
Against the U.S., Aito's approach could have several effects.
Turning Superstars into Jump-Shooters
One of the things the U.S. players know less about -- and have had to work on in training -- is beating a zone defense. In recent years, Team USA's opponents -- from Greece last summer to Angola a few days ago -- frustrated the U.S. into scoring droughts with an extremely active zone.
Zones typically make it hard to get to the rim, resulting in more long shots. After three games, the U.S. has the worst three-point shooting percentage of any team -- men's or women's -- in Beijing.
The U.S. roster is also famously thin in the middle. Dwight Howard as the lone burly big man. The Americans certainly have the multi-faceted advantages that come with an endless supply of supersta
r wing players. But they have also faced stretches of games launching errant long balls, while also lack a dominant physical presence in the paint. In general, in basketball, that's a dangerous combination.
To negate those potential weaknesses, the U.S. has been killing opponents with speed.
By having five fresh players on the floor at all times, Spain hopes to be able to get back on defense and slow the American offense.
"With the short minutes," explains Munoa, "everyone should be fresh. Lots of zone defense, with high intensity, and a lot of activity."
Working the Referees
The Spanish team has a history of using theatrics to get the most out of the referees, and would love to see Dwight Howard get into early foul trouble -- which can happen quickly in a system where a player is ejected after just five, instead of the NBA's six, fouls.
Meanwhile, the short minutes the Spanish team players are playing almost guarantee no Spanish players will see foul trouble at all. Thus far, only one player, young guard Ricky Rubio, is averaging even three fouls per game.
One very effective method of pressuring the U.S. big men into fouls is Spain's honed ability to get big men like Pau, and especially his younger brother Marc (soon to join the Memphis Grizzlies), the ball on the move towards the hoop.
Future Grizzlie Marc Gasol is young, big, and active.
(Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images)
Thus far in the tournament, Marc Gasol has proved to be very deft at using his large frame to set high screens.
What happens next varies from play to play. Sometimes the ball handler uses the space the screen has afforded them to create their own shot.
Sometimes Gasol "slips" to the hoop, in essence faking that he will set up the screen, to get the defense fixated on the ball handler, before diving to the hoop to create a scoring opportunity for himself.
Many other times he sets the pick and then "rolls" quickly to the rim.
It's all standard basketball, but it's a play the U.S. famously had trouble defending against Greece in a loss at the 2006 World Championships. And in the case of Marc Gasol, it results in a very large, aggressive, and skilled big man headed to the hoop.
That's a big dare to Dwight Howard to recover and protect the rim, and those kinds of challenges often result in fouls on the defender.
Handling the Pressure
In the end, the story of any Team USA game this year will likely be how opponents handle the generous amounts of on-ball pressure Team USA delivers.
In 120 minutes of tournament play, the U.S. has forced a remarkable 68 turnovers. Opponents trying to pass over, dribble near, or sneak past the Team USA have been robbed again and again by an impressively hyperactive NBA defense, that is, like Spain, fueled by a deep bench and short minutes.
Most of Spain's ballhandling falls to Raptor point guard Jose Calderon, whose turnover rate is among the lowest in NBA history. But while Calderon may be unlikely to cough the ball up much, one ball handler can not defeat a tough five-player defensive strategy. Other Spanish players will handle the ball plenty. Ricky Rubio and Rudy Fernandez have each been coughing the ball up, against much weaker competition, more than once for every ten minutes they play, and Juan Carlos Navarro, Calderon, and Pau Gasol are not far behind.
If the U.S. can keep creating turnovers at a high rate, it will be nearly impossible for them to lose. Not only do turnovers tend to lead to fast breaks, but they also keep Spain from opportunities to really test America's pick-and-roll defense, get Dwight Howard in foul trouble, and get to the line.
On the other hand, if Spain can hang onto the ball, and if its many talented offensive players get an opportunity to ply their trade, don't be at all surprised if Spain makes the U.S. sweat.