Tuesday, August 07, 2012

2012 Olympics: Quarterfinals Preview (Part I)

The knockout phase begins on Wednesday with four quarterfinal games. All the knockout games will be played at the 20,000-seat North Greenwich Arena (aka O2 Arena).

Wednesday action starts at 2pm (London time) with Russia vs. Lithuania. France vs. Spain follows at 4:15. At 8pm, Brazil meets up with their rival, Argentina. USA vs. Australia concludes the slate of games at 10:15.

The semis follow on Friday while the Gold-Medal and Bronze-Medal games will be contested on Sunday.

Below we'll focus on Russia-Lithuania and France-Spain quarterfinal matchups. Tomorrow, we'll look at the USA-Australia and Brazil-Argentina games.


RUSSIA (B-1) vs. LITHUANIA (A-4)

Both teams are known for their exacting offense of crisp ball movement and off-the-ball player movement. Lithuania will feature a lot of dribble handoff action, while Russia loves to get back-cut action The ball does not stick and they tend to always make the extra pass.

Russia has been one of the most impressive teams in London, nevermind the last-second loss to Australia in a meaningless game. They have executed well offensively and their perennially strong defense has been on display.

Russia's defense is top-of-the-line again, which has been the case nearly every summer since David Blatt took over six years ago. Right now Russia is holding the opponent to 40.3% overall and a Olympic-leading .823 points per possession (PPP), according to Synergy Sports Technology.

Their transition defense has been great and they're shutting down the 3pt. line (opponents shooting only 30% on 3PA). Russia does this every year.

Russia swarms to the ball when it gets below the FT line, denies on the perimeter and challenges nearly everything.

Once again, Coach Blatt has mixed up his defensive alignments adroitly and his hybrid zone/man mashups have confused opponents as usual.

Russia's done pretty well on the offensive end, shooting 50.5% overall. Their offense is built to get mileage off of cuts and off-ball screens to cover for the lack of a dominant pure scoring threat.

They thrive on back-cuts and action off back-screens. They like to keep the basket area open--sometimes see Princeton-style sets. Their assist-to-FG ratio is usually good and they currently have a 68.6% assisted FG percentage. (They finished the Pre-Olympic with at 84%).

Andrei Kirilenko (18 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 2 spg, 1 bpg, 58% FG) has been one of the top players in London and has made a killing either cutting in the half-court or drawing fouls in transition. On defense, Blatt allows him to rover around at his own discretion like a free safety.

For the most part, combo guard Alexey Shved (12 ppg, 5.4 apg, 51% FG) has been impressive in London. He's shown his ability to cause major issues for the opponent with his shifty handle. But there have been a few hiccups: the no-show vs. Spain, the usual bouts of carelessness and erratic 3pt. shooting (32%).

Shved has been very dangerous in pick-n-roll either knocking down pull-ups all over the floor and dropping on-target passes.

Actually the ball-handling combo of Shved and Anton Ponkrashov have helped Russia to be the most dangerous team in pick-n-roll. Russia is shooting 62.4% (when adjusted for 3PA) and scoring 1.083 PPP on plays coming off ball screen action (best in the Olympics).

Vitaly Fridzon (11 ppg, 2.8 apg, 46% on 3PA) is Russia's best pure shooter and they like to bring him off down screens. Fridzon has played great ball for Russia this summer (was terrific in the Pre-Olympic) and has been doing more than his usual catch-n-shoot damage. Fridzon has been hitting shots off the dribble and dropping nice passes as well. Also, Fridzon has done a nice job reading the defense to break off cuts.

Timo Mozgov (12 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 74% FG) has had another strong summer of FIBA ball and has been highly productive during his floor time. Been a major factoring cutting or rolling to rim and has been active on defense as well.

But Russia is not devoid of shortcomings. In general over the last few years, Russia is really not that great of an outside shooting team. They are currently shooting 34% on 3PA. Besides Fridzon, they're kind of erratic. Sergey Monya tends to be a solid shooter but he's only 1-for-13 on 3PA so far.

We mentioned this is our Olympic preview, but we'll repeat here: maybe teams shouldn't respect Russia's spacing as much as they do. Focus on sagging into the painted area and keep the backline integrity to discourage the cuts. You have to stay at home on the baseline vs. Russia, or they will shred you with back cuts.

Russia also tends to have issues at the FT line and they're only shooting 68% on FTs right now. Something to watch for as Lithuania is one of the best FT shooting teams (81%) in the Olympics.

Lithuania's offense has been solid--48.5% shooting--but not quite as good as last year or Pre-Olympic quality. Lithuania is currently shooting at a solid 35% from 3pt. range. But Lithuania is actually a more dangerous outside shooting team than the numbers suggest.

Linas Kleiza (16 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 48% FG) was one of the best player at the 2010 Worlds and has been one of the better players in the Olympics. Lithuania hasn't posted Kleiza quite as much as expected so far, but he should get some extended post/iso touches. Though Russia does matchup well with Kleiza with Kirilenko and Vik Khryapa being able to split time on him.

Should see plenty of pick-n-roll action from Lithuania (a third of their offense so far). The big question for Lithunia: can Saras Jasikevicius and Mantas Kalnietis keep their turnovers down. Like every summmer, Lithuania has struggled with taking care of the ball.

Jonas Valanciunas has been mostly a non-factor through five games as Coach Kemzura has preferred Darius Songaila's veteran know-how instead. Songaila (10 ppg on 80% has done a terrific job at rolling and cutting for Lithuania. Lithuania has been productive scoring on cuts and rolls so far.

Lithuania has also gotten very little input from Jonas Maciulis, who played well at the Pre-Olympic tourney and the 2010 Worlds. Not sure if he's hurt or in Kemzura's doghouse, but he's a valuable player on both ends of the floor.

Martynas Pocius's aggressiveness has been key for Lithuania in spots and he needs to see more than his usual 18 minutes in this game.

Lithuania has the ability to keep this game close and possibly pull the upset. It's not like Russia has much more raw talent than Lithuania. This game could come down to which team can win the battle of the 3pt. line when Lithuania is on offense and Russia is on defense. Picking Russia to win a tight one.


FRANCE (A-2) vs. SPAIN (B-3):

Last time these two teams met was in last year's Eurobasket finals where Spain cruised to a 98-85 victory. Though, this time around Spain won't have Juan Navarro at full strength.

Should we be concerned with Spain's lackluster Group B play? Hard to say. Ever since Sergio Scariolo took over as coach, Spain has had a habit of uninspired play in the preliminary rounds.

In 2009, after sleepwalking through the first four games, Spain flipped a switch and crushed their next five opponents. At the 2010 Worlds, a Pau-less Spain underachieved in the first round once again, but they failed to ever right the ship and failed to medal.

This year it's a little bit tougher to gauge if Spain is just coasting in group play or if they are struggling because of injuries to Juan Navarro and Rudy Fernandez.

Navarro played well in the first game but missed the next two games with injury (supposedly different from his plantar fasciitis) and was off in his last two games. He's only shooting 33% overall (33% on 3PA) and he's just not displaying that usual La Bomba playmaking flair.

The Spaniards have been fairly solid on the offensive end, shooting 47.3% overall. Though their 3pt. shooting has been off the mark (34%).

Pau Gasol has delivered as usual, leading Spain with 20.6ppg on 60.6% shooting. No surprise Pau has done damage in the post. Also has been knocking down his jumpers and even a few 3pt. makes, just like last year.

Haven't been overly impressed with Marc Gasol's play. He hasn't bad, per se (12 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 2.6 apg), just think his effort level has been suspect. Too much standing upright on the defensive end and just some general careless play all-around.

Really think Spain needs a tad less Marc (not to mention way less of Felipe Reyes floor time) and little bit more Serge Ibaka. Think this will help the defense and overall activity level. You lose a little passing ability at the high post, but Pau can cover for it. Serge is only getting 16 minutes a game but still giving Spain 9.2 ppg on 64%, 3.8 rpg and 1.8 bpg.

Spain's defense could use some tightening. Currently giving up .95 PPP (worst of the playoff teams) and allowing opponents to shoot 45% from the floor.

In particular, their pick-n-roll defense has stunk. They are giving up 1.1 PPP (according to Synergy) on plays that develop out of ball screen action. Their opponents are shooting 62% (when adjusted for 3PA) on shots coming off of ball screen action.

This is a bit discouraging since Tony Parker can be menace in pick-n-roll. Though, Tony (16 ppg, 3.6 apg, 2.6 TOpg, 44% FG) hasn't been quite as dominant this summer like he was last summer. Have to imagine the aftereffects of the eye injury are hampering his impact to a degree.

The good news for France is Nic Batum (17 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 60% FG) has stepped up his play to be even better than he was last summer. Batum has been the one Frenchie who been making his outside looks (39%) and he has been a defensive disruptor.

France has reverted back to the errant outside shooting ways--28% on 3PA--that plagued them for much of the previous decade. Batum has been the only reliable outside threat and France really needs Mickael Gelable to get his shooting back on track vs. Spain.

Expect Spain to show some zone or packed-in looks to make France prove it can hit from range. If not, Parker could find it difficult to hurt Spain on pick-n-roll or iso.

It doesn't help that France has had issues with turnovers (15.8 TOpg) so far. Though Spain hasn't been generating TOs at a high rate like they normally do.

Little surprised France hasn't established Boris Diaw on the blocks all that much. Working through Boris in the post has worked well for France in the past.

They have been feeding Kevin Seraphin a decent amount down low but he hasn't delivered much on post-ups. Though Seraphin (6.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 55% FG) has given France solid play in the 17 minutes per game he gets. France is going to need a strong night from Seraphin if they want to hang with Spain.

France's defense has been solid holding opponents to 42% overall and a stifling 28% on 3PA. France's perimeter defensive prowess is only second to the US and Russia.

France has not really guarded the post all that well--something they didn't do well the last time they didn't have Joakim Noah. Obviously, this doesn't bode well when you're going vs. the Gasols. Actually thinks Ronny Turiaf has given France decent defensive effort so far, but he's prone to fouls just like Seraphin.

Even without a healthy Navarro, expect Spain to win this game fairly comfortablly. The Gasols are too much for the French bigs to handle down low and expect foul problems for France. Unless France can go nuts from behind the arc (Spain will likely encourage outside shots), they have little chance to beat Spain.

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