2008 Olympic Quarters Preview (Part I)
Also: Quarters Preview, Part II
Not a ton of competitive games in the prelims, but hopefully the one-n-done knockout portion of this competition will provide some intrigue this week. Iran & Angola have been eliminated, no surprise, while Germany & Russia have left the proceedings earlier than expected. We're left with eight teams going for three medals, with Team USA well on track to its much-discussed redemption, and defending Olympic champ Argentina still alive and looking to repeat.
Have to say that Argentina-Greece game projects to be the best quarter matchup. Think Greece matches up really well on the perimeter with some good long athletes that all defend very well. M. Haubs & I are both really feeling that Croatia has a great shot vs. Spain. Neither of us has been impressed with Spain's play so far, and realize Croatia can take down Spain with a hot shooting night & strong board work, like they did last year (see below).
Could see China hanging around with Lithuania, but would be stunned if they actually pulled off an upset. And have a hard time seeing Australia making the U.S. sweat. I know their recent exhibition was kinda close without Bogut, but Team USA is rolling on all fronts, and can't see this game being competitive.
Here's the schedule for the quarters starting Wednesday morning: (All times Eastern Daylight Time)
Game 1: Spain vs. Croatia (2:30 am)
Game 2: Lithuania vs. China (4:45 am)
Game 3: USA vs. Australia (8:00 am)
Game 4: Argentina vs. Greece (10:15 am)
Part I will deal with the first session of games.
SPAIN vs CROATIA:
Last time these two teams met was in the first stage of group play at the '07 Euros where Croatia pulled off a 85-84 stunner thanks to this Marko Tomas 3pt. make:
This was the only blemish for Spain during the opening rounds of Euro '07, where they were crushing all comers. Spain definitely turned the defensive intensity off for Croatia game, and Croatia's stellar outside shooting from Tomas, Kus & Popovic was a huge plus. While Spain could be missing Marc Gasol for this game, Croatia could take a bigger hit by probably missing Marko Popovic, and possibly Planinic.
Have to say, I'm not loving the way Spain is playing so far. We know about the U.S. game, but Spain did not look particularly good vs. China or Germany. Granted, they are still 4-1, but maybe I'm expecting more after they played so well the previous two summers during the early rounds. Think some of the uneven play might have to do with the coaching change, something my partner alluded to earlier. They are clearly not hitting their 3pts., reverting back to their dreadful '04 shooting ways--30% from deep in group play (worst in the Olympics). Their outside shooting has really improved the last few years, and has been a key for their emergence as a top threat.
Coach Aito's distributing of minutes has probably helped his young guns like Rubio, Rudy, & Marc Gasol prosper. But I think it's come at the expense of lackluster play from veterans like Calderon, Navarro, & Garbajosa. Particularly Calderon. You have to remember Calderon was tearing it up last summer at Euros. He was running the Spanish offense to perfection (Coach Pepu was letting him push the pace in transition at his own discretion) & really broke out as an outside shooter--he finished 2nd overall in FG% at 55%, and was 19/38 behind the arc for the Euros, 5th best.
But this year, I really think the substitution pattern has hindered Jose's effectiveness & verve, not to mention the entire team. This Spanish team rolled thru the '06 Worlds, with only the Argentina game being competitive, & last year they cruised thru the Euros besides the hiccup vs. Croatia, and then the shocking loss to Russia. Jose only has five assists total for the Olympics. Yes, five assists. And he's shooting 34% from the floor & 5/19 from 3pt range.
One thing is for sure, Aito has to stop playing Raul Lopez & give his minutes to Calderon--Jose has to be getting close to 30 minutes per. Maybe Coach Aito is playing possum and just messing with the advance scouts of the other nat'l teams, but he also seems to be messing with the heads of some of his players as well. Also, think he needs to get Garbajosa on the floor more, hand him some minutes alloted for Mumbru & Berni. He's still a factor as a help defender.
The one guy who has not been affected by the change in coaching is Pau. Pau is playing nearly as well as he played the two previous summers. The only minus for Pau has been his foul shooting & turnovers--actually two things that cost him down the stretch vs. Russia last year.
Not surprisingly, Croatia's fortunes seem to tilt depending on how well they shoot their 3pts. In their three wins, they are 30/48 from deep, and 8/32 in their two losses. Not a huge sample size, but this team has always been reliant on their outside shooting, and beat Spain last year mostly because of a very strong shooting night & by some nice offensive rebounding.
Croatia's primary plan of attack is to run their guards off screens & play off that action. Roko Ukic & Planinic are more dangerous getting in the lane, and don't always need screens to free themselves. Though, Planinic has been shooting the ball well in the Olympics. Meanwhile Davor Kus & Marko Popovic are much more potent as shooters, and can drill coming off screens.
Swingman Marko Tomas continues his solid play this summer and is a deft shooter, but also is a good athlete that can make his way to the basket on occasion. But the loss of Popovic is a significant blow to the Croatian offense, and if Planinic can't go, it puts a ton of pressure on Ukic & Tomas to produce.
Croatia's frontline players get less pub than their nice collection of guards, but the frontline is actually pretty solid. They won't overwhelm you offensively, but all their bigs give a good effort defensively, especially helping on screens, & will board hard. Actually, Croatia is hitting the glass very well in the Olympics--they've outrebounded each opponent by at least 5 per game. And they're very dangerous on the offensive glass.
Bruising big Nikola Prkacin likes to methodically back-in his defender, a la Barkley, often looking to finish with an old-school lefty hook. He teams with Marko Banic, another physical interior option who is a solid defender & rebounder. Valuable reserve Kresmir Loncar has continued his strong play from the pre-Olympic qualifier by crashing the boards & will look for elbow jumpers much like 7-foot Stanko Barac. S. Nicevic has decent footwork to get some low box points, and is another good help defender.
Spain's main concern has to be to shutdown Croatia's outside shooting. Then to try to keep Croatia off the off. glass. Expect Croatia to bring their physical defense, and anticipate Spain heading to the free throw line quite a lot. My partner feels the Spanish are ripe for an upset, mainly because of Aito's peculiar game management, and I'm seeing Croatia having a great shot in this game. But the Popovic & Planinic injuries are making me feel Spain's chances of moving forward more likely. Though, Croatia could hurt Spain on the glass, especially with Marc Gasol out. Think Spain might be able to get by a depleted Croatia with the herky-jekry lineups, but think Spain will have cut down their rotation if they face Lithuania in the semis.
LITHUANIA vs. CHINA:
These teams met in the quarters at the last Olympics when Lithuania was a # 1 seed, and China a #4, and Lithuania rolled by 20. But one factor working in China's favor this time--the '04 game was in Greece, this one is of course in Beijing.
Kleiza has been a stud for the Baltic Bunch, instant offense coming off the bench. Linas is averaging 14 ppg & 6 rpg on 54% in only 20 mins per. Linas put the Croatia game away by burying three 3pts early in the 4th after sitting the entire 3rd quarter. As usual, Lithuania has been shooting the ball well, and the patented ball-movement has been there as well.
Jasikevicius has not been quite as superb as last year, but he's still played pretty well. Running his team's offense as well as any point in this tourney. Still turning the rock over too much, but still a playmaker deluxe in pick/rolls.
K. Lavrinovic & Javtokas have done a solid job protecting the rim & hitting the glass for Lithuania. Javtokas is dangerous working pick/roll with Saras, where he's always capable of dunking on your skull. Not sure you should put much stock in Australia's spanking of Lithuania. Lithuania has a tendency to float thru games that have no meaning.
Think China will have to get their normally reliable outside shooting on track if they want any shot at this upset. Need this aspect to play off Yao in the post. Only shooting 32% thru five games, and this is supposed to be a strength. Though, PG Liu Wei & Zhu Fangyu have shot the ball fairly well.
Just have a feeling China can keep his game competitive. They're at home and very well could have the benefit of favorable refs (see Germany game). Also, Lithuania can come out flat vs. teams they don't consider as threats. Lithuania fouls a lot, and China is shooting their free throws well. Lithuania is actually turning the ball over more than China, who usually has a mighty hard time holding onto the ball. (This game could be a TO-fest). China also is coached by Jonas Kazlauskas & Donnie Nelson, who have both coached for Lithuania in the past, and should be very familiar with Lithuania's personnel. But think all these factors will have play out perfectly for a China upset.
Also: Quarters Preview, Part II