Olympic hoops quarterfinal preview
LONDON -- In a country where "Big Brother" continues to be regarded as compelling TV, Wednesday's quarterfinals in the men's Olympic basketball tournament should play pretty well.
As the competition moves from the ghostly white structure they call The Marshmallow in Olympic Park to the state-of-the-art O2 Arena, every final-eight matchup features an established basketball power trying to repel the challenge of an up-and-coming neighbor ... apart from Team USA's encounter with Australia.
Mighty Spain has drawn the strongest team France has ever assembled. Argentina's Golden Generation of champions have to deal with the biggest Brazil they've ever seen. And the Russians, who are actually dwarfed in terms of basketball pedigree by little Lithuania, are finally the clear favorites in a showdown with the basketball-rich former Soviet republic that produced so many of the USSR's stars.
What follows is a preview of the four games -- Olympic basketball's answer to Big Brother versus Little Brother -- on Wednesday's schedule:
UNITED STATES (Group A winner) vs. AUSTRALIA (Fourth in Group B)
The Aussies have had 13 cracks at the United States in FIBA competitions. They're 0-13.
But this is a stubborn, physical bunch that has its American coach, San Antonio Spurs assistant Brett Brown, routinely referencing the "prideful Australian basketball" it's been playing.
Team USA might really have something to worry about if Brown could trot out injured linchpin Andrew Bogut, who had to skip the Olympics to continue his rehab from ankle surgery back home, but it's a safe bet that the Americans are going to take a pop or three in this one no matter how much they win by.
Can Patty Mills top the 39 points he scored against Great Britain and/or his buzzer-beating 3 against Russia? Mills, Joe Ingles, David Andersen and Saint Mary's own Matthew Dellavedova will all have to play huge to keep this quarterfinal close, but rest assured that the Yanks will know they've been in a game even if they bring a halt to Australia's three-game win streak in the expected double-digit fashion.
BRAZIL (Second in Group B) vs. ARGENTINA (Third in Group A)
Soccer nations, huh? These bitter regional rivals have a contentious basketball history, too, which is spiced up on this occasion by the fact that Ruben Magnano -- mastermind of the Argentine squads that ushered in a new world hoops order at the turn of the century with seismic wins over Team USA at both the 2002 Worlds and 2004 Athens Olympics -- is now coaching Brazil.
Argentina brings a considerable mental edge into this showdown, since it's been a rather one-sided rivalry until now, but Brazil, thanks in part to its coach, has the on-paper edge almost everywhere else you look.
Marcelinho Huertas is generally regarded as the best point guard in the world outside of the NBA's borders. Leandro Barbosa finished group play strongly to top Brazil in scoring at 15.0 points per game on 47-percent shooting from the floor. Nene, Anderson Varejao and Tiago Splitter, meanwhile, form the most feared front line in the tournament.
And Magnano, of course, knows the opposition as well as Argentina knows itself.
"They're not the team that [just] used to shoot very fast," said Argentina forward Andres Nocioni, hinting at the structure and poise Magnano has installed in the first Brazilian basketball team to even qualify for the Olympics since 1996.
But the winner here, remember, advances to a near-certain semifinal encounter with Team USA. You want to bet against Manu Ginobili in a big game? Against Luis Scola? As awestruck as Scola sounded after the 29-point pounding that the Argentines absorbed Monday night from the United States, they've got too much big-game experience not to have Magnano concerned.
FRANCE (Second in Group A) vs. SPAIN (Third in Group B)
This is Europe's answer to the Copa America steel-cager we just covered.
Spain, like Argentina, is the perennial power with history on its side, having punished France as recently as last summer in Lithuania with the European championship on the line. But the French, like Brazil, have played the better basketball in London, which has some in the worldwide hoops community thinking this might finally be their time.
"The way we are playing right now," Spanish star Pau Gasol said, "anyone can beat us."
We'll see. France coach Vincent Collet is convinced that Tony Parker has adjusted to the goggles he detests and contends that his point guard is all the way "back on the track." Yet France's chances figure to depend more on how well the French shoot the ball from the perimeter and how Boris Diaw, Ronny Turiaf and Wizards youngster Kevin Seraphin cope in the paint with the high-low menace of Pau and brother Marc Gasol, since Joakim Noah is regretfully (and crucially) missing this time thanks to his ankle woes.
Spain, furthermore, has no shortage of motivation to deliver a make-good performance after absorbing widespread criticism for the fourth-quarter fade Monday night against Brazil that just happened to take the European champs out of Team USA's path until the gold-medal game. (A result, incidentally, that France couldn't have loved, either, and reportedly considered protesting.)
Said one rival coach: "Something tells me that [Spain's Juan Carlos] Navarro is about to join this tournament and shoot his b---- off."
RUSSIA (Group B winner) vs. LITHUANIA (Fourth in Group A)
Before you fast-forward to the potentially historic implications of a USA-Russia reunion in the gold-medal game -- which is on the table as a real possibility exactly 40 years removed from the infamous, unforgettable Cold War title game in Munich in 1972 that finished USSR 51, USA 50 -- we've got to deal with the backstory that oozes out of this quarterfinal pairing.
Arguably the greatest Soviet team of them all, which toppled John Thompson's college kids in Seoul in 1988, was fueled by Lithuanians, most notably Arvydas Sabonis, Sarunas Marciulionis and Rimas Kurtinaitis. Then in 1992, representing Lithuania in Olympic competition for the first time, those same titans of European basketball, along with Arturas Karnisovas, led Lithuania to a bronze-medal victory over the Russian "Unified Team" that inspired a new movie: "The Other Dream Team."
But as Russia's American-born coach, David Blatt, has been saying every day here in rainy England, this is a "new Russia" playing in a new era. Without the help of Lithuanians or the talents from various other basketball-strong former Soviet republics, Russia draws from its own deep, rugged talent pool now and has played the consensus best ball in this tournament outside of the United States.
The mental edge that Lithuania might have had in past meetings with post-Soviet Russia is gone. And with its significant size all over the floor, Russia plays a different game than any other team in the field, including Team USA.
As dangerous as Linas Kleiza, Sarunas Jasikevicius and the Lithuanians looked in the scare they gave the Americans over the weekend, and as much as Lithuania coach Kestutis Kemzura knows about Blatt after serving as his assistant for years, they're about to encounter a supersized superpower in the making from that part of the world. One with length everywhere you look that specializes in knocking teams out of their rhythm.
On top of that, Lithuania worryingly hasn't played especially well in any of its other games apart from the USA bonanza.
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