Monday, August 13, 2012

2012 Olympics:
USA Holds Off Spain's Valiant Effort to Win Gold

USA 107, Spain 100

Team USA won its second Olympic gold medal in a row, but it didn't come easy. Spain made this game a lot more interesting than expected.

This game had a strikingly similar feel to the 2008 final. The offenses ruled the day just like in 2008, with good back-and-forth action from opening tip to final buzzer.

Maybe Spain was laying low through the previous seven games after all. After playing lackluster ball for most of the Olympics, they played their best game on Sunday. It just came down to Team USA having more firepower to overcome Spain's strong performance.

Spain's offense had been underachieving over the first seven games, shooting 44.7% overall and 32.8% on 3PA. But they managed to put up 100 points on 49.3% shooting (36.8% on 3PA) on Sunday.

What's odd is that Spain went into the 2008 Gold Medal game with nearly the same numbers: 44.7% FG pct. and 30% on 3PA through seven games, before exploding for 107 on 51.4% FG and 8-17 3PA (47%). Juan Navarro even had a similar repeat of 2008 by going off in the final game after struggling for most of the tourney.

Give Spain credit, they never let Team USA go on any extended runs. Every time you got a sense Team USA would go on a backbreaking run, Spain was able to reel them in.

Can't fault Spain’s defensive game plan. They went with a heavy diet of zone, and even a stretch of box-n-one, which was effective. They didn't let Team USA hurt them in transition and did a good job giving fouls. Spain actually outscored USA 13-8 on transition possessions.

There is only so much you can do when Team USA is knocking down its outside shots. Team USA cranked up 37 3PA and hit them at a clip of 40.5%.

Team USA got some clutch plays from some of the best crunch-time performers in the world. Chris Paul, LeBron and Kobe each stepped up at key points in the 2nd half to keep Spain at bay.

Chris Paul has been sneakily good all tourney doing subtle things to fill in the gaps. He was clutch in the 4th, scoring eight of his 11 pts. Had a key sequence early in the 4th where he made back-to-back buckets in ball-screen action.

The first make was a step-back 3-pter. at the top-o-key and the other was baseline drive where he fooled the defense by going away from the screen. These plays gave Team USA a six-point cushion that they rode the rest of the game.

Later in the 4th, Chris also made a darting drive past Pau (on a iso switch) to beat the shot clock and put the game out of reach with just under a minute.

LeBron also had a key sequence of his own in the 4th. With just under 3:00 on the clock, Bron had the ball isolated on the right wing. Team USA bunched up bodies, Spain got confused, and Bron sliced in for a dunk.

Then on Team USA's ensuing offensive possession, Bron made his best play of the game, worthy of an "ONIONS!" call from Raftery:
    Initially received the pass at the FT line, then, realizing he had Marc Gasol on him, he slowly backed his dribble out behind the arc. With the shot clock winding down he set up Marc, then unleashed a high-arching semi-fadeaway over the outstretched arms of Marc. The shot splashed down to give 102-93 lead with 2:00 left.
LeBron (19 pts, 7 rebs, 4 assts, 2 stls) actually did damage throughout the game, including multiple times in isolation.

Kevin Durant (30 pts, 9 rebs) punished Spain just like he did vs. every other team--by being unguardable at the 3pt. line. Durant knocked down five-of-13 behind the arc and did a nice job drawing fouls on drives (drew a foul a nifty baseline floater).

Kobe (17 pts) made plays out of the pick-n-roll and isolation all game. Had two baseline drives that led to points in the 2nd half. But maybe his best contribution came when he converted a put-back banker to give the US a 10-point lead with about 4:30 left.

Kevin Love (9 pts, 9 rebs) proved vital once again by securing extra possessions for Team USA. He was able to make Spain pay for playing a zone by getting three offensive boards and drawing fouls around the rim (5-of-6 FTs).

Pau Gasol (24 pts, 8 rebs, 7 assts) was simply awesome. Team USA simply couldn't stop him, and he put Spain on his back in the 3rd quarter (12 pts in the 3rd). Put on clinic in the post with hooks, spins, drives, drawn fouls and passes. Once again, Pau was a presence defensively as he changed some USA shots in close.

We knew Spain would try to expose Team USA’s lack of size and shaky interior defense. That they did. For the game, Spain generated 27 points off of 17 post possessions, which works out to a sterling 1.59 points-per-possession. In the 3rd quarter, Pau generated 15 points on his post-ups.

Spain desperately needed Juan Navarro to find his La Bomba groove vs. Team USA. He obliged. Navarro (21 pts) got off to a torrid start scoring 11 pts in the 1st quarter, which definitely raised Spain's confidence level. He did most of damage with long jumpers (four 3pters.) and mixed in some buckets in transition. But he never got his floater game going.

La Bomba cooled off in the 2nd half after Team USA keyed in on him (particularly Kobe) and he started forcing shots.

Foul trouble for Marc Gasol forced Spain to change its game plan around a bit. Marc was still highly productive with his 17 minutes, scoring 17 points on 8-of-10 shooting. Actually Marc's foul difficulties didn't really hurt Spain since it meant more time for Serge Ibaka.

Well, we were wondering if we would see more Serge Ibaka vs. USA, and we did. Serge (12 pts, 9 rebs) gave them great minutes off the bench, especially in the 3rd. He played off of Pau well in the 2nd half, got some buckets and drew fouls moving to the open spots. Had to guard LeBron for stretches which led to some issues. But he also did a solid job guarding Bron on some possessions as well.

Sergio Rodriquez (7 pts, 6 assts, 2 stls) gave Spain a tremendous spark off the bench. Team USA had some difficulty containing him and his playmaking was setting up easy baskets, particularly in the late 1st/early 2nd quarter.

Rudy Fernandez (14 pts) played his usual irritating, high-energy brand of ball which led to multiple drawn fouls off the ball (earned eight trips to FT line). Made a couple nice plays in transition, including a big tip-in.

Not surprisingly the refs made their presence felt in this game. A total of 54 fouls called, 27 fouls for each team. Spain's total was inflated with all the fouls to stop transition.

With this win, Team USA automatically qualifies for the 2014 World Cup. Spain is also automatically qualified as they will host.

We could likely see these two teams playing for gold two years from now. No doubt Team USA will continue to be the favorite and Spain should stay strong for the near future.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

2012 Olympics: Gold Medal Preview

USA (A-1) vs. Spain (B-3) (3 p.m. London time/10 a.m. ET EST):

Four years ago these two teams engaged in a highly entertaining Olympic final in Beijing. In London, Team USA has done what was expected of them (besides a hiccup vs. Lithuania), while Spain has struggled to play up to its normal standards.

It's a bit disappointing we likely won't get the competitive matchup we were anticipating after Spain rolled through EuroBasket last summer.

In 2011, Spain looked the best they ever had with Marc Gasol's emergence and the addition of Serge Ibaka taking them to another level. These two things made Spain potentially more dangerous than the 2008 team and a legit challenger to Team USA.

Even in 2009 when Spain underachieved for much of the prelims, they eventually turned things around and steamrolled over the last five games. We thought maybe Spain was laying low in group phase this summer and they would turn it on in the knockout rounds.

But Spain struggled to get by France and Russia. So it seems that Spain wasn't really laying low, they just don't have that extra gear this summer. Would feel stronger about Spain's upset chances if they had played better up to this point.

The simple fact is Spain's offense just hasn't lived up to its capabilities. Currently shooting 44.7% from the floor and 32.8% on 3PA.

Though one interesting fact is Spain went into the 2008 Gold Medal game with nearly the same numbers: 44.7% FG pct. and 30% on 3PA through seven games, before exploding for 107 on 51.4% FG and 8-17 3PA (47%). So maybe there is hope.

A key reason Spain's struggling this summer is that Juan Navarro just doesn't have his fastball right now. Navarro has been one of the top FIBA players over the last decade and he was the MVP at EuroBasket last summer.

The foot problems have crimped his creative shot-making ability and he can't create space like he normally does (Juan is shooting only 29% on 2PA, 33% on 3PA).

If he can somehow pull out a vintage La Bomba game (he gave Team USA issues in 2008), then maybe Spain can make things interesting. He wasn't playing well in the 2008 Olympics before the finals either, but the difference this year is he's playing hurt.

Spain desperately needs big games from the perimeter guys, especially Jose Calderon and Rudy Fernandez. Calderon came up big in the semis (14 pts, four 3-pters.) but had been unimpressive in group play and frankly looked old. He has to show up vs. the U.S.

Rudy and Sergio Llull have helped Spain with their relentless attacking style on both sides of the ball. Sergio Rodriguez has also helped Spain for limited stretches with his speed and he could be valuable in this game as well.

Maybe the perimeter guys haven't been great but the Gasols have been doing their job. Pau (18.4 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 2.3 apg, 1.3 bpg, 63% FG) has been terrific for Team España (like he is every summer) and has been one of the best players in London. Not only has Pau been great offensively, he's been a major factor defensively as well. Pau's defense in FIBA play has always been underrated.

Marc (12 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 2.3 apg, 47.5% FG) has been solid for the most part, though his effort level has fluctuated. Marc has brought much better activity in the knockout phase, particularly on defense. Though Marc has been a bit sloppy in spots unnecessarily rushing shots and coughing up the ball (averaging 2.7 TOpg).

Serge Ibaka was supposed to take this team to another level this year but that's hard to do when he can't get consistent minutes. Understand there is a minutes crunch with the Gasols needing floor time, but why must Felipe Reyes play at this point? Reyes saw 10 minutes of action in the semifinal while Ibaka looked pissed sitting on the bench. We'll see if we get more Serge in this game as he was added to roster primarily to help neutralize Team USA's athletic advantage.

Spain's defense has helped cover up for poor offensive play. Holding opponents to 43% overall (33% on 3PA). Expect plenty of zone from Spain. Mixed in zone in their last two games and it was effective vs. both France and Russia.

But then again, those teams aren't great from the outside, while Team USA has been raining bombs. Team USA buried Argentina under a deluge of 3-pointers and they are currently shooting 44.5% behind the arc.

One area where Spain should be able to neutralize Team USA is on the glass. Not surprisingly, Team USA crushed the undersized Argentina squad on the the glass (+17 reb. margin), but Spain has been one of the top rebounding units in London.

Spain has the obvious size advantage and they will likely pound the post to see how Team USA reacts. Spain will try to get Tyson Chandler in early foul trouble and the Gasols have been doing a good job drawing fouls.

Like Russia, expect Team USA to dig down hard and force the Gasols to pass the ball out. They'll make the Spanish perimeter guys prove they can hit jumpers.

Spain hasn't gotten out in transition as much this summer as they normally do. They are generally a very dangerous team pushing the ball, but this might be the one game they need to be judicious with how often they go uptempo.

Spain has much more depth than Argentina which could allow then to give more fouls while Team USA is trying to get out in transition.

Another reason that Spain might not be up to challenging Team USA like they did in 2008 is the difference in coaching. In 2008, Spain had a master tactician, Aito Garcia Reneses pulling the strings while this time they have Sergio Scariolo, who leaves you non-plussed. Now if Spain had David Blatt running the show, Team USA would have to worry a bit more about a potential upset.

Still Spain has to win only one game, not four. Team USA could get into foul trouble, possibly Chandler and LeBron. Team USA's outside shots could be off the mark. They could misfire from the FT line. While Spain could go nuts from behind the arc. And you never know what to expect from FIBA refs.

But that's just it: Spain needs a perfect confluence of bad things to happen to Team USA to win. Even if Spain were at full strength, they would need everything to fall in place perfectly. Team USA's margin for error is just too large for even Spain to overcome.

2012 Olympics:
Spain's Second-Half Surge Sinks Russia

Semifinal: SPAIN 67, RUSSIA 59

Spain's goal of reaching the Olympic finals looked to be in danger after a putrid first half. Going into the halftime break, Spain's offense only managed 20 points on 21% shooting.

But Spain's fortunes immediately improved after the halftime break. Spain got a much needed, and timely jolt, from key perimeter guys, Jose Caldron and Rudy Fernandez.

Calderon (14 pts) frankly looked old in group play and he was failing to shoot the ball up to his capabilities. On Friday, he was crucial in Spain's second half comeback by knocking down four 3-pointers in the half.

Rudy (11 pts) had his jumper working today as well, and he finished the game with three 3pt. makes. Spain hit 7-of-12 3PA in the second half after shooting just 2-for-11 behind the arc in the first half (shot 55% overall in the second half).

It didn't hurt that Russia helped Spain further by coughing up the ball seven times in the 4th quarter.

Spain's defense was stellar for the second game in a row. Held a normally high-functioning Russian offense to 38% shooting. Russia never really burned Spain with back cuts and Spain took away the easy buckets around the rim that Russia thrives on.

Instead Spain encouraged Russia to toss up shots on the perimeter; a strategy we were in favor of in our semifinal preview. Russia ended up attempting 27 shots behind the 3pt. line, nearly 10 more 3PA than their Olympic average.

Russia didn't help their cause by shooting 26% on those 27 attempts. We mentioned in our Olympic preview their mediocre outside shooting has been an underrated sorespot for a few years. Another perennial weakness came into play today as Russia made 6-of-12 at the FT line.

Both Gasols were terrific patrolling the painted area. Their help was on point and their challenges at the rim caused Russia to shoot 36% on 2PA. Marc was particularly spry with his help all over the floor.

Marc (11 pts, 4 rebs, 3 assts, 2 blks) has been noticeably more active over the last two games. Marc came up big down the stretch by making plays in the post. He drew some fouls and made two nifty moves: an old-school running hook and a masterful countermove drop-step that earned him a +1.

Pau (16 pts, 12 rebs) had another full-service type of game: hit long jumpers, finished on cuts, drove the ball, passed well out of doubles, rebounded and protected the rim. Both brothers did a nice job accepting the Russian doubles and surveying the floor.

Can't fault Russia's defensive effort too much as they held Spain to 37.5% shooting. They contested well, as usual, it's just Spain was able to make some difficult shots.

Russia swarmed the ball down low as usual. This worked well in the first half but Spain was able to make Russia pay for it in the second half. In the second half, the ball movement was crisp when the Gasols were doubled.

Nonetheless, it was the correct gameplan: get the ball out of the Gasol bros' hands and make the perimeter guys beat you. Spain came into this game shooting 31% from deep.

Andrei Kirilenko (10 pts, 8 rebs, 3 blks, 2 stls) couldn't make shots from anywhere on the floor vs. Spain. Had some good outside looks but couldn't get the ball to fall. Also had a tough time finishing shots in close. He did do a good job drawing contact again, but he just couldn't hit from the FT line (5-for-10).

Sergey Monya had his shooting stroke working for the second game in a row, but all his nine points came in the 1st half.

Timo Mozgov (4 pts) was a non-factor on Friday after he gave Marc Gsaol and Spain problems in group play. In place of Timo's no-show, Sasha Kahn did step up to score 14 points primarily on rolls and cuts. Kahn was really the only player who was able to finish at the rim vs. Spain.

Alexey Shved (2 pts, 7 assts, 2 TOs) couldn't get his jumper to fall for the third time in four games. But he wasn't a total lost cause as he set up his teammates with some perfectly placed passes.

Russia's Olympics run isn't over yet as they play Argentina for bronze on Sunday (11am London time). Spain's win sets up the much-anticipated matchup with Team USA for Gold (3pm).

Friday, August 10, 2012

2012 Olympics: Semifinals Preview

Below we take a look at Friday's semifinal matchups. Russia meets Spain at 5pm (London time) while Team USA plays Argentina (9pm) for the second time in four days.

USA (A-1) vs. ARGENTINA (B-1):

These two teams meet again after a chippy contest on Monday. Argentina hung right with the US through the 1st half. After the halftime break, the Americans cranked it up and left the boys in light blue in the dust, 126-97.

Was going to give a quick breakdown of the USA-Argentina semifinal but won't waste too much time since Zach Lowe over at already did a magnificent job at breaking down Argentina's possible attack plan vs. Team USA.

We thought we would piggyback on some of the general themes Zach covered in his post.

Zach makes a keen observation about teams like Lithuania's and Argentina's affinity for moving spot shooters long distances (pick-n-replace) while the ball-handlers are in motion.

This is aspect of ball that is much more prevalent outside the US, and this why you see US players have difficulty with this action.

In Europe, when a ball-handler goes in motion (usually off ball screens), spot-up guys will often move way out of their original spot-up area. For example, a wing will start the play spotted in the corner, then with the ball-handler on the move, they will trace along the arc up to the top-of-the-key. Lithuania has been doing this for years. If you're not use to this action, it's very easy to lose sight of your man if you're a help defender.

Can be very tricky for US players to get use to because spot-up guys in the US tend to stay in the same confined area when the ball-handler starts to penetrate. The spot-up shooter might move a few feet either way, but they tend to stay in the general area they were in before the ball-handler started to penetrate.

Basically, international ball tends to add another element to their drive-n-kick action. NBA/NCAA ball is more about drive-n-kick to stationary shooters. Int'l ball has more drive-n-kick to players moving into their spot-up positions.

Argentina's reliance on flex-style sets dates back to the Ruben Magnano-era. "Screen-the-screener" is a key element to their offense and this action has a way of lulling defenders to sleep.

Argentina's get a lot of mileage off of cross-screen action. Keep an eye out for Scola getting easy buckets at the rim early in possessions. As Argentina is coming down the floor to set up their offense, Scola will get a quick cross-screen right at the rim, while the ball-handler (usually Prigioni) will whip a pass near the half-court line to Scola.

Those are just a few things to watch for from Argentina.

Good news for Argentina is Pablo Prigioni looks to be alright after missing some games with kidney stones. He didn't shoot the ball well vs. Brazil, but his steady decision-making was key for the victory. Pablo didn't play vs. Team USA on Monday, which might give Argentina a bit of hope that they will stay closer to Team USA this time.

Argentina didn't rebound too well in group play but surprisingly outrebounded Brazil. Delfino and Nocioni gave better effort on the boards on Wednesday and will have to repeat this on Friday. Scola needs to work a little harder on the glass than he has and would be nice if he boxed out just a little.

Would love to tell you that Argentina can keep this game competitive late into the 4th, but just not feeling it. At this point, Team USA is too familiar with Argentina.

Sure, Argentina will catch Team USA off-guard sometimes with their multiple options and counterplays offensively. But Team USA is much better prepared to face international style teams than they were five years ago (big hat tip to scout Tony Ronzone) and their margin of error is just too big for Argentina to overcome.

RUSSIA (B-1) vs. SPAIN (B-3):

When these two teams met last Saturday, Russia had to rally twice from significant deficits to beat Spain, 77-74.

Spain came out on fire and had a 20-2 lead at one point. But Russia slowly chipped away and took control of the momentum during the middle section of the game.

Then Spain wrestled back the lead early in the 4th and eventually built a nine-point lead with just under five minutes to go. But Russia fought back and closed the game on a 17-5 run.

Russia has been the best defensive unit in London. They're currently holding opponents to 39.5% overall. Russia held Lithuania to 37% shooting.

Lithuania managed to shoot 42% behind the arc, but Russia historically stymies the opponent's 3pt. shooting (currently holding Olympic opponents to 31% on 3PA).

They totally shut down Linas Kleiza (5 pts) primarily with a platoon of Vik Khryapa and Sergey Monya. Their denial made it very difficult for Kleiza to get into good scoring situations.

Russia likes to swarm to the ball when it gets below the FT line and imagine they will do this with the Gasol Bros. Russia denies well on the perimeter and challenges nearly everything.

Expect Coach Blatt to mix up his defensive alignments and his hybrid zone/man mashups have confused opponents as usual. It's very hard to decipher if they're in man or zone sometimes because they pass off offensive players so much.

Russia's size allows to pass off/switch so freely. Usually the smallest guy on the floor is 6'6 and their trio of 6'9 forwards are such versatile defenders.

Russia's done pretty well on the offensive end as well. They are currently shooting 49.6% from the field. 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.

Often like to keep the basket area clear to open up passing lanes. Russia assisted on 24 of their 28 made field goals vs. Lithuania. They currently have a 71% assisted FG percentage for through six games. Which is superb.

Andrei Kirilenko (19 pts, 13 rebs, 3 assts, 3 stls, 3 blks) was a terror on both sides of the court vs. Lithuania. His constant movement off the ball led to easy baskets, put-backs and drawn fouls. He's been doing this all tourney. Blatt gives Kirilenko free reign to roam around defensively likes he's a free safety. And this strategy has worked out pretty well for Russia.

Alexey Shved didn't play well vs. Spain in group play and was yanked in favor of Anton Ponkrashov. Shved is coming off an uneven performance vs. Lithuania where his shot selection and general carelessness (four TOs) outweighed some slick playmaking that set up scores for teammates. Right now, not sure what to expect from him on Friday.

Russia were quite fortunate Anton Ponkrashov (14 pts, 11 assts vs. Spain) had the best game of his national team career vs. Spain. Don't expect him to score like that the second time around vs. Spain. But he's a very creative passer

Russia loves to bring sharpshooter Vitaly Fridzon off of down screens and Fridzon hurt Spain on screen action in group play (24 pts). Fridzon will sneak back cuts in if defenders overplay him on screens.

For the fourth straight summer, Timo Mozgov (12.7 ppg, 4 rpg, 67% FG) has played quality ball for Russia. Timo has been hurting foes by finishing at a high rate off rolls or cuts. His energy has been good on both ends of the floor and his activity hurt Spain last time. Can he stay out of trouble vs. the Gasols? He'd done a slightly better job of curtailing his fouls in London and just generally playing smarter ball.

Sergey Monya has done his usual strong defensive work but Russia needs him to step up his shooting (only 3-for-17 on 3PA). He perked up vs. Lithuania scoring 10 points and burying two contested 3pts. in the left corner down the stretch.

Vik Khryapa has been shooting the deep ball better than usual (44% on 3PA) and he hurt Spain with jumpers (four 3pts.) last Saturday. Vik is coming off a strong game vs. Lithuania where he did patented Kirilenko Jr. Tremendous entry passer who acts as a point-forward who doesn't dribble all that much.

Spain doesn't have to worry about what they'll get from Pau Gasol (19 ppg, 7 rpg, 59%) as he has been one of the top players in London. Doing work in the post, knocking down jumpers (even some 3pts.) and timely passes. Pau's defense in FIBA ball has always been underrated and he was great vs. France.Pau has been an anchor on the backline

Marc Gasol has to bring more energy on Friday than he did vs. Russia last Saturday. Mozgov outplayed and outhustled Marc, which hurt Spain. Marc (14 pts, 8 rebs) showed nice effort vs. France on both ends of the floor and he can't let Moz outwork on Friday.

Spain's zone was very succesful vs. France and they need to consider some packed-in looks vs. Russia. An underrated fact about Russia is they're generally mediocre outside shooting team. They are currently shooting 34% on 3PA. Besides Fridzon, they're kind of erratic.

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.

Spain's bigs were effective clogging the basket area vs. France. Russia makes a living with back cuts (Kirilenko & Fridzon) and rolls/cuts down the lane (Mozgov).

When guarding Russia's pick-n-roll, Spain bigs should sit back into the lane. Mozgov and Sasha Kahn are not pop threats, and are more dangerous rolling. This strategy will open up pull-ups for the ball-handler.

Shved can be a dangerous pull-up shooter, but he should be tested. Ponkrashov killed Spain on pull-ups last time they played, but that was kind of fluky. He normally doesn't shoot or score like that.

Russia's Princeton-style sets gave Spain some problems last Saturday. Obviously got beat by some cuts (Mozgov's game-winning dunk came on a slip cut with the basket area clear) but some of Khryapa's jumpers came from Spain getting mixed up from Russia's movement.

Spain needs Rudy Fernandez and Sergio Llull to harness their high-flying style in a positive way vs. Russia. Both players were disruptive and attacked well vs. France.

Spain's outside shooting (31.4% on 3PA) hasn't been up to their normal standards and they shot poorly last time they played Russia (3-for-15 on 3PA).

They really Jose Calderon and Juan Navarro to step up their efficiency. Can't fault Navarro too much for his subpar Olympics because of the bum wheel, but Calderon has been non-existent too often.

We love the way Russia plays the game at both ends of the floor. And you know were huge David Blatt fans, but not sure they will be able to beat Spain twice.

Just can't shake the fact that Spain was up 18 points early, then up nine points with under five minutes to go. Russia needed a huge offensive game from Ponkrashov and they hit 91% of their free throws. Russia only hit 61% of their FTs vs. Lithuania and they are only hitting 66% from the FT line in London (an underrated perennially problem).

Spain hasn't looked great overall but still think their superior raw talent should get them by Russia this time.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

2012 Olympics:
Spain Holds Off France to Advance to the Semis


Low-scoring, competitive game where the defenses dictated the action. Spain pulled out a tough victory on Wednesday but they should be somewhat concerned with their play, particularly offensively.

Give credit to France, they had a 57-54 lead early in the 4th and were making Spain struggle mightily on the offensive end.

But France's six-point 4th quarter proved fatal. It was like a flashback to the brutal stretches that plagued France's offense constantly during the previous decade.

They failed to score over the last seven minutes of the game besides a meaningless jumper with five seconds left. They only managed to score 22 points in the 2nd half.

Both teams played excellent defense (both teams shot under 40% from the floor). Spain rarely had any space to get clean looks because of France's aggressive defense. While Spain's condensed alignments made life rough for the French.

The one key difference was Spain was able to draw fouls at a high rate. France committed 29 fouls and sent the Spaniards to FT line 28 times. While France only managed 12 FT attempts. The extra fouls shots combined with seven more rebounds than France gave Spain the edge in the game.

We thought going into this game Ronny Turiaf and Kevin Seraphin would pick up fouls quickly trying to guard the Gasols. No surprise Turiaf fouled out in 17 minutes while Serpahin picked up three fouls in seven minutes.

Did the refs contribute to the ragged flow? You bet. Questionable whistles on plays off the ball ruined the rhythm of another FIBA game. But it's just something you have to accept when dealing with FIBA refs.

Really thought France had left their inept offensive ways behind after their strong play last summer. But they struggled in London and Nic Batum was the only consistent outside shooter.

Spain had success mixing in some 2x3 zone, which was the right call vs. France. The zone was particularly effective in the 2nd quarter and put the brakes on France's offense after a 22-point opening quarter. In the 2nd half, Spain forced France late into the shot clock multiple times.

France's outside shooting let them down vs. Spain (32% on 3PA). Mickael Gelabale couldn't knock down some good looks today, which capped off a horrible shooting tourney for him (26% on 3PA). Gelabale had been France's most reliable shooter over the last few years (64% on 3PA in '11) and they desperately needed him to play better this year.

After a few years of solid outside shooting, France reverted back to the errant outside shooting ways of the previous decade. They only made 29% of their 3PA in London.

Whichever Gasol bro was guarding France's center was free to play a one-man zone. Both Gasols were constantly in the right spots to help. Was reminiscent of the way Spain guarded France in the quarterfinals of the 2009 Eurobasket.

Pau (10 pts, 11 rebs, 3 assts, 2 blks) did most of his scoring in the first half as France doubled him hard in the 2nd half. Pau mixed in a couple nifty post scores with a few impressive drives going to his left. Thought his help defense was outstanding. Actually his defense has been pretty good so far in London and his defense in FIBA play has always been underrated.

After some uninspired preliminary play, Marc Gasol (14 pts, 8 rebs) brought better energy vs. France. Mentioned his good defensive effort above and he led Spain with 14 points. Marc made some plays in transition, even hit a 3pt. off a screen and converted a decisive bucket rolling to the rim off a nice entry pass from Pau.

Rudy Fernandez and Sergio Llull used their speed to contribute on both ends of the floor. While Juan Navarro (12 pts, 6 rebs) created some plays for Spain and knocked down some spot jumpers. But once again Juan wasn't very efficient (3-for-11) and he continues to have a tough time creating separation from his defender.

Can't fault Boris Diaw's (15 pts, 8 rebs, 5 assts) effort as he came to play today (Now if only Boris could play with this type of intensity every game). Boris was attacking off the dribble to set up scores for himself (sweet step-thru move) or his teammates. Dropped some nice feeds including a nice bounce pass as the pressure release in the middle of the zone.

Tony Parker (15 pts, 6 rebs) did finds some ways to wind his way to hoop but Tony never really got his jumpers to drop (6-for-20 overall). With the way Spain had their bigs sloughed off, Parker's penetration was neutered and that cut down on his FT attempts (2-for-3 FTA).

Nic Batum (9 pts, 5 rebs) couldn't find the range on his shots but his activity level helped France overall. Batum was seemingly everywhere defensively and gave little air space to the Spanish perimeter players.

France's London stay is over while Spain goes on to play Russia in the semis on Friday. Spain lost to the Russians in group play after they had comfortable leads early and late in the game.

Spain's outside shooting continues to be a concern after they only hit 20% on 3PA vs. France. They are currently shooting 31.4% from behind the arc. Russia will look to sag off and collapse on the Gasols, so Spain needs to improve their shooting go forward.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

2012 Olympics: Quarterfinals Preview (Part II)

Part II of our Olympic quarterfinal previews will focus on the evening slate of games. Brazil meets Argentina in the battle for South American supremacy at 8pm (London time). At 10:15, Australia faces Team USA and winners of each game meet in the semis on Friday.

Check out Part I of our Quarterfinal preview.


Will Ruben Magnano have a hand in ending the run of Argentina's "Golden Generation"? Would be weird if the man who was the architect of the "Golden Generation" put it out to pasture.

The last few meetings between these rivals have produced intense, competitive games. At the 2010 Worlds, these two teams engaged in a classic in the Round of 16 where Luis Scola carried Argentina to a 93-89 win. (No Manu or Nene in 2010)

At FIBA Americas, Brazil beat Argentina by two in the second round, then a few days later Argentina held off Brazil in the finals, 80-75. Though take into account Argentina was at full-strength (at home) while Brazil had no Nene, Barbosa or Varejao.

Argentina is playing with a thinner rotation this summer and might be in even more dire straits if Pablo Prigioni can't play because of kidney stones.

Brazilian have more depth, more size, younger legs and more athleticism. But Argentina has tremendous chemistry and more big-game experience than Brazil. Plus, they have Manu.

This game could get ugly in spots because these teams know each other's individual and team tendencies so well. For example, both teams like to use cross-screen action to set-up quick post-ups or lay-ups. This is Magnano's influence (flex offense) on both teams.

Leandro Barbosa (15 ppg on 47%) has done a solid job in his return to the Brazilian lineup after last summer's absence. Sure there are some forced shots and forced plays in transition, but Barbosa has done a nice job going at the rim.

Marcelo Huertas (9.2, 6.2 apg, 1.8 TOpg) has cooled off a bit after a strong start. He has caused problems with his ability to change direction swiftly with his dribble, going back-n-forth through ball screens. He been one of the best passers in the Olympics. He just can't find the mark on his jumpers or his patented floater (39% overall).

The trio of Brazilian NBA bigs have been solid for Brazil. Tiago Splitter (11.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 49%) has been productive in his 23 minutes of floor time. Tiago can't find the touch on his post attempts but has done a nice job rolling/cutting. Huertas-Splitter pick-n-roll combo has worked well once again, but think Brazil needs to go to more often.

Nene and Anderson Varejao are only playing around 20 minutes a game but both have been productive with their floor time. Both are averaging around seven rebs/game and both have been strong defensively.

Varejao has been a constant motion machine as usual and had been great crashing the offensive glass (4.2 off rpg). Both Varejao and Splitter have been terrific scoring on put-backs.

Nene is only averaging 6.5 ppg but then again Nene only has 14 shot attempts total. We mentioned this after the Russian game, but Brazil really needs to get Nene more post touches.

We thought Marcus Vinicius Viera (8.6 ppg, 50% on 3PA) could be an x-factor for Brazil as he adds much need length on the perimeter and he has performed well in 20 minutes/game. Viera has been Brazil's most reliable deep shooter and he has the ability to make plays in isolation.

Brazil's offense hasn't performed quite as well as expected. Brazil needs to get its outside shooting on track (32.3% on 3PA). Marcelo Machado has been disappointment so far only hitting 4-for-19 from deep.

Brazil has covered up for their subpar offensive play with a strong defense. Holding teams to 43% overall and .84 points per possession (according to Synergy Sports), which is only second to Russia. Not only are they allowing just 13 3PA/game, but their opponents are only shooting 27% on 3pts. (best in the Olympics).

So something has to give as Argentina has been one of the best offensive teams in London. Argentina has shot 49% overall and 38% from behind the arc (3rd-best in group play) Their offense has produced 1.055 PPP, only second to Team USA.

Manu (20 ppg, 6 rpg, 4.8 apg, 2 spg, 2.2 TOpg, 51% FG, 46% 3PA) is playing at a higher level than he did last summer. He has been Argentina's best player this year and in contention for tourney MVP.

Manu has been knocking his jumpers, snaking his way to rim, getting out in transition, running the offense, lacing sweet passes, forcing TOs and rebounding. You know, normal Manu things.

Luis Scola (20.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 3.2 apg, 57%) is converting at high rate in FIBA play once again. Though wouldn't say he's been without fault. His rebounding should be better and he's failed to box out too many times. He hasn't been great scoring on his post-ups, but has been great on cuts. Watch for Luis getting a flex screen early in possessions.

It will be interesting to see if Argentina can get Scola working in pick-n-pop action. Since Prigioni has went down, Scola's pop game has lessen and Scola away from the basket might work better vs. Brazil. This is where Prigioni's absence could hurt Argentina: Scola's mid-range game could suffer.

They will run Carlos Delfino (15 ppg, 50% FG, 36% on 3PA) through a phalanx of screens and he has done a good job hitting his jumpers off screens or spotting up. Argentina will run Manu off screens as well.

Andres Nocioni has been his typical spazzy self and has knocked down his jumpers. But Noce has underachieved rebounding the ball (3.4 rpg) and Argentina desperately needs him to crash the glass.

Argentina has had to go deeper into their bench they would have liked in London. Diminutive 21-year-old Facundo Campazzo has been thrust into the starter role with Prigioni's illness.

Argentina's defense hasn't been that great. They're holding opponents to 43% overall but are getting hurt by the deep ball at a 37% clip. Their transition defense has been a bit a shaky and that could be a problem vs. Brazil.

What's always been an underrated factor about Brazil is their affinity to push the pace. 16% of their offensive possessions have come in transition (according to Synergy), which is roughly the same as last year. The issue for Brazil is they don't always make the best decisions in transition (particularly Barbosa and Garcia).

Brazil has a distinct advantage on the boards and this could be the deciding factor. Scola, Nocioni and Delfino have to hit the glass harder than they have vs. Brazil.

The hardest game to predict of the four quarterfinal games. Sounds corny, but Argentina won't go out without a fight. Could see Manu taking over and putting up 25+ points to push Argentina to victory. Also, Scola always seems to play big vs. his South American rival.

This game is a toss-up. We're going to need a tiebreaker to decide this one. That tiebreaker is an unhealthy Prigioni which should give the slightest edge to Brazil.

USA (A-1) vs. AUSTRALIA (B-4):

The last time these two teams met in international competition was in the 2008 Olympic quarterfinals, where Team USA throttled Australia, 116-85. Don't expect it to be quite that lopsided this time, but the Aussies don't have much of a chance.

Team USA hasn't looked perfect (particularly defensively) but their margin for error is so huge it doesn't matter if there are minor flaws.

You are plenty familiar with what Team USA is capable of doing, so we'll focus on what to possibly expect from the Aussies.

Australia is a relatively deep team, with experience playing together--pretty much the same roster that advanced to the 2010 Worlds quarters (seven players remain from the '08 Olympic team)

Australia is a tough, physical team that will probably send the Americans to FT line a lot. Expect Australia to really muck up this game and make it choppy. Expect plenty of fouls to be given when Team USA is trying to get out transition. "No easy baskets allowed" edict in effect.

Even though Australia likes to get out in transition (especially Patty Mills), have to imagine they will try slow the pace down vs. the US.

Imagine Coach Brett Brown (SA Spur asst.) will go with the pack-the-paint philosophy and make the US beat them from the outside.

PG Patty Mills has been one of the toughest guys to contain in London and currently is tied for first in scoring with Pau Gasol (20.6 ppg). He's been attacking the rim at will, especially in transition. He's just hasn't been able to knock down his jumpers (42% overall, 33% on 3PA).

Overall, Australia's offense hasn't been impressive. They are shooting 43% from the floor (worst among playoff teams) and only get to FT line 13 times a game. They chuck up a ton of 3-pointers but only hit them at a 32.3% clip. Usually they're better than this.

They're able to stay competitive because of their hard-nosed defense. They held their opponents to 43% shooting and .864 PPP (3rd-best). It might bode well vs. the US that the Aussies' transition defense is very good (must be a Spurs thing).

Multi-skilled forward Joe Ingles (14.2 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 3.8 apg) has been a reliable second option for the Aussies. His nice ball skills lets him create shots for his teammates or himself on pick-n-rolls and isos.

Australia's frontcourt rotation is solid and has good size (four quality guys in the 6'11 range). Australia is strong on the boards and could hurt the US on the glass.

Former NBAer David Andersen (12 ppg, 6.4 rpg) has had a nice tourney and he can score inside and out. Andersen is a capable post option who can hit turnarounds over both shoulders. He's also a pick-n-pop threat out pass the 3pt. line.

Aron Baynes (8.2 ppg, 3 rpg, 73%) and Aleks Maric are big, strong dudes who will use all their five fouls. Baynes and Maric aren't particularly skilled, but they can bull their way to some points in close.

Matt Nielsen is another decent veteran upfront who makes plays in the post (good post passer) and at the high post (sneaky driver).

Australia has gotten a nice boost from the reigning WCC Player of the Year, Matt Dellavedova (8.2 ppg, 4.6 apg). The St. Mary's senior-to-be has given Australia another reliable ball-handler next to Mills and Ingles.

Dellavedova is probably the best pure shooter on the team and plays with aggression on both ends of the floor. Dellavedova and Baynes run the pick-n-roll well together and watch for alley-oops.

If Australia keeps this game within 15-point margin they should be lucky.

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.


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.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

2012 Olympics:
Russia Rallies (Twice) to Upend Spain


Russia continued their strong Olympic play by upsetting Spain and clinching the Group B crown. Would call this a mild upset as Spain is dealing with Juan Navarro's injury and they seem to be in their preliminary round sleepwalk-mode that has plagued them since Sergio Scariolo has taken over.

Not to say Russia is not close to Spain's level--we picked Russia to fight with Brazil for the bronze. Like they've done nearly every year under David Blatt, Russia is showing that a team without a dominant natural scorer can make up it with great execution on offense and defense.

Give Russia tons of credit, not only did they overcome a hot start by Spain and a 18-point deficit, but they also recovered when Spain took back the lead in the 4th.

Russia took the lead late in the 3rd, but Spain regained the lead a few minutes later early in the 4th. After a strong middle portion of the game, Russia couldn't get anything to fall early in the 4th. Russia only managed four points through the first six minutes of 4th and Spain held a 69-60 lead with 4:40 remaining.

At that point you felt no way was Spain going to give up the lead again. But Russia regained their composure and outscored Spain 17-5 over the last four minutes of the game.

Spain looked like they were headed for an easy victory when they got out to 20-2 lead. Pau was particularly sharp early and Spain was getting out in transition. Russia was helping Spain by turning the ball over six times in the opening quarter.

Russia's defense tighten after the 1st and David Blatt did his usual masterful job of mixing up his looks. Russia's matchup zone gave Spain some issues, like it gives every team issues. Russia started to swarm the ball when it got into the post or near the basket. Plus, Russia only had four TOs after the 1st quarter.

What was somewhat impressive, Russia was able to pull the upset without a ton of offensive input from Kirilenko and Alexey Shved.

Alexey Shved (0 pts, 0 assts, 2 TOs) didn't have it working early, making careless plays. Blatt wasted no time and sat Shved for most of the game. This is what you like about Blatt--never shy about possibly alienating his main guys.

Russia was fortunate that Anton Ponkrashov (14 pts, 11 assts) was able to step in Shved's place. Ponkrashov is not known for his scoring ability, but on Saturday he had the best game of national team career. He was seemingly unstoppable drilling pull-up jumpers all game including one where he crossed up Pau that cut the lead to one with 1:40 left

Ponkrashov is known for his passing ability and he threaded a few sweet dished today. Made a shovel pass to Mozgov, who was sneaking baseline from the opposite side, for a dunk over Pau. Also fed Mozgov for the game-winner with a bullet-pass.

Russia loves to bring sharpshooter Vitaly Fridzon (24 pts, 3 assts) off of down screens and Fridzon hurt Spain on screen action today. Fridzon is a dangerous catch-n-shoot threat but vs. Spain, Fridzon did more damage off the dribble either knocking down a variety of jumpers or creating some easy looks for his teammates. Fridzon has been doing a good job finding his teammates in the Olympics, an added bonus for Russia.

Timo Mozgov (12 pts, 9 rebs, 2 blks) had another solid effort for Russia and was a factor on both ends of the floor. Moz hurt Spain rolling/cutting and his dunk of a slip cut gave the Russia the lead for good with 18 seconds left. He bodied up the Gasols on the block admirably and changed multiple shots, including a huge block on a rolling Marc with 3:30 left.

Andrei Kirilenko had somewhat of a quiet game and only had eight points with both field goals coming on put-backs (four off. rebs). Kirilenko drew fouls and was a factor for Russia has their designated rover.

Like Kirilenko, Vik Khryapa (12 pts, 5 rebs) didn't have his usual sharp all-around game and his normally sharp entry passing was off the mark. But Vik's jumpshooting came up big for Russia, particularly in the 2nd half. All of Khryapa's 12 points came on 2nd half 3pt. shots. Vik knocked down three in the 3rd and buried an "ONIONS!"-worthy jumper isolated on Pau that tied the game at 73 with a minute remaining.

Russia's Princeton-tinged sets gave Spain's defense some issues. We mentioned before that Russia often keeps the basket area clear and Russia hurt them with cutting a few times, including two crucial times late in the game. Fridzon made a nice read and drew a foul shots off a backdoor cut with 2:15 remaining. Some of Khyrapa's jumpers came from Spain getting messed by Russia's movement in these type of sets.

On the Mozgov's game-winning dunk, Russia had the painted area clear and Fridzon tried to cut backdoor earlier in the possession. Spain was prepared for the back cut but they got confused later in the possession when Russian dribble handoff action up high confused Spain. Khryapa handed off to Ponkrashov while Mozgov was attempting to screen for Khryapa. This bunched up three Spain defenders up high and Mozgov made the right read and slipped a cut into a wide-open paint for a dunk.

Pau Gasol (20 pts, 5 rebs, 2 blks) was the one Spaniard who was consistent throughout the game. Pau banged home mid-range jumpers all over the floor (many pop jumpers) and made a few fluid moves out of the post.

Thought Marc Gasol's play (10 pts, 9 rebs, 4 TOs) was sloppy and just plain lackadaisical. Not really sure why he felt the need to throw up multiple off-balanced/forced shots vs. Russia. He also fell asleep on the backline a few times getting beat to spots.

Russia also picked the right day to improve their 3pt. shooting--shot 39%. We pointed out previously that Russia is a mediocre outside shooting team over the last few years and they were only shooting 30% on 3PA coming into the Spain game.

Russia was also unusually proficient at the FT line--10-for-11. FT shooting is another perennially sorespot for Russia

Russia plays Australia on Monday in a game that's meaningless since both teams are locked into their seed (Russia B-1, Aust. B-4). Spain will meet Brazil on Monday (8 pm London-time)to determine 2nd-place in Group B.

It will be interesting to see how both teams approach this game as it might be better to get the 3-seed in Group B thus assuring you avoid Team USA until the finals.

Can remember when France played Greece in the Euro '09 prelims and both teams were in obvious tank mode so to try to avoid Spain in the quarterfinals. France won the game on a Nando De Colo buzzer-beater (that no one celebrated) and then France got trounced in quarters by Spain.

Friday, August 03, 2012

2012 Olympics: Russia Edges Brazil


We anticipated a competitive game between two closely-matched teams and we got exactly that. Best game of the Olympics so far. Vitaly Fridzon's contorted 3pt. make in the left corner off a flare screen propelled Russia to a 75-74 win.

Brazil had some tough breaks as the refs made some sketchy calls against them and they had plenty of makeable shots just not fall or just rim out.

Russia also had a touch of luck when an errant Timo Mozgov pass (that easily could have been stolen) somehow found its way to Alexey Shved, who promptly knocked down a key 15-foot pull-up that cut Brazil's lead to three points with 1:30 left.

Alexey Shved drilled mid-range pull-ups throughout the game (five total) but his biggest pull-up came behind the 3pt. line. With 30 seconds remaining, Shved lined up Nene on a switch and cooly stepped to his left to drill a 3pt. that tied the game 72-72.

Shved's (17 pts, 6 assts) game was not totally rosy. He dropped some perfectly placed passes as usual, but he also forced himself into tight spots which led to six turnovers. He also missed two FTs with just under a minute left, but made up for it 30 seconds later.

Timo Mozgov struggled with foul trouble again, fouling out in 23 minutes. But Moz was mighty productive in those 23 minutes--18 pts on 8-of-9 and seven rebounds. Moz did most of his damage cutting/rolling to the open spots as Shved or Fridzon were handling the ball.

Timo also added in a couple unexpected sweet post moves. Had a turnaround jumper and a nifty up/under move for a dunk. His activity on the offensive glass (4 off. rebs) helped Russia earn extra possessions.

Andrei Kirilenko (19 pts) didn't really hurt Brazil on cuts (something he thrives on in FIBA), but did hurt them drawing fouls in transition. Andrei earned eight free throws on transition plays. Andrei made some plays off the dribble, including a nifty spin move score.

Leandro Barbosa ignited in the 2nd half scoring 11 of his 16 points in last 11 minutes of the game. Barbosa's attacking helped Brazil cut into Russia's double-digit lead to eventually take the lead late in the 4th. Leandro's big play came when he drove pass Kirilenko in isolation to give Brazil a 70-65 lead with 2:30 left.

Reserve PG Larry Taylor teamed with Barbosa to give Brazil a huge lift in the 4th. Taylor caused major issues in pick-n-roll action scoring on short jumpers and lay-ins in traffic. Converted two three-point plays down the stretch and scored 10 of 12 in the 4th. But missed some crucial foul shots with 1:15 left that could have extended the lead to five.

Russia contained Marcelo Huertas' ball screen action fairly well. Huertas (8 pts, 5 rebs, 3 assts) wasn't as effective as in the previous two games and could not hit his floater/runner with any consistency.

Huertas sat nearly the entire 4th as Larry Taylor was hot, but then Magnano brought him back with under a minute to go. Huertas immediately got called for a travel, but redeemed himself a few possessions later by giving Brazil a 74-72 lead on his driving lay-up.

The Brazilians bigs didn't have quite as much impact on the game as you would want, but they weren't bad when they were on the floor.

Thought Tiago Splitter (8 pts, 5 rebs, 2 assts) gave another nice all-around effort during his 18 minutes on the floor. He passed out of the post well and his help defense was sound as usual. His helping on the backline was tight, especially on a play where he drew a charge on Kirilenko.

On the play, Splitter stepped up to stop Shved penetration. Shved was forced to pass off to Kirilenko on the left wing, Kirilenko drove baseline and Splitter slid over to cut off baseline right after he stopped Shved's drive. Splitter cuts off baseline as well as any big in the NBA.

Nene (8 pts, 10 rbs) was a factor around the rim, but maybe Brazil could have called a few more post-ups for him. Hate to nitpick Coach Ruben Magnano, but maybe his bigs were under-utilized today.

Anderson Varejao picked up his third foul around the 5:00 mark of the 3rd, and sat the rest of the 2nd half, besides the last few seconds of the game.

Reserve Guilherme Giovannoni ended up playing 23 minutes and was on the floor for most of the 4th quarter while Varejao and Splitter sat most of the 4th. Understand Giovannoni spreads the floor better than the other two guys and Brazil made a run when he was on the floor, but maybe Coach Magnano could have found some more time for Varejao.

Give Brazil's defense some credit, they rarely let Russia hurt them with back cuts. Russia only had nine scoring attempts on cuts as opposed to 18 attempts in each of their previous games.

Brazil hit their outside looks at a decent clip (35%), but still were not great. They need to do better job of hitting their deep shots as this tourney progresses.

Once again Russia didn't shoot the long-ball all that well (33%). Also their FT shooting was subpar (54%), but they were lucky Brazil was missing FTs (55%) as well. Russia's FT shooting is an underrated negative factor, could cost them in the future.

With the win Russia likely secures 2nd-place in Group B. Russia plays Spain next and could possibly pull the upset and grab the Group B crown. Brazil is likely locked into 3rd-place and likely to meet France in the quarterfinals.


Saturday's Games of the Day:
(All times are London time)

Spain vs. Russia (11:15 am):
Basically the Group B championship game. Spain held off a 4th-quarter rally by Great Britain on Thursday to improve to 3-0. Not sure you can read too much into Spain's one-point win vs. a clearly inferior team.

Since Sergio Scariolo took over as coach three years ago, Spain has a habit of disengaged play in the preliminary rounds. But Spain is definitely not as imposing as they could be as Juan Navarro likely won't play vs. Russia, and possibly for the rest of the tourney.

Even without La Bomba, have to go with Spain over Russia.

Australia vs. Great Britain (8pm): Winner likely secures 4th-place in Group B and earns the honor of playing Team USA in the quarterfinals.

The Brits come into this game 0-3, but have pushed their last two opponents, Brazil and Spain. Like Australia, Britain is a solid defensive unit and both teams hit the boards well.

Britain relies heavily on the trio of Luol Deng, Joel Freeland and Pops Mensah-Bonsu. While the Aussies have a solid frontline rotation to matchup well with the Brits. The Aussies have the distinct advantage in the backcourt with Patty Mills, Matt Dellavedova and Brad Newley.

Britain does have the homecourt advantage and this should be a tight contest.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

France's Speed & Depth Shutdown Argentina; Russia vs. Brazil Preview


The normally high-functioning Argentine offense was smothered by a terrific French defense. The French utilized their athletic superiority to beat Argentina to spots and disrupt the offensive rhythm that Argentina thrives on.

France's defensive performance was great and basically every French player performed well defensively.

Neither team shot the ball well overall--France 39% overall, Argentina 37%. But France's superior 3pt. shooting was a key factor in the victory.

France hit 36% on 3PA with Nic Batum, Nando De Colo and Mickael Gelabale all hitting three a piece, while Argentina only managed to knock down 4-of-23 from deep.

Actually both teams had plenty of shots rim out, not to mention, about a half-dozen shots got tipped out of the cylinder.

France's athletic advantage was a significant factor--Argentina had trouble creating space. Also, Argentina's lack of depth bit them in the butt today. France got contributions from nine guys while Argentina had to rely strictly on their starting five.

Tony Parker couldn't connect from the floor (4-for-17) but he piled up points at the FT line (9-for-10) and he came on strong at the end. Tony recorded eight of his 17 points in the last five minutes.

With 4:30 left, Tony iso'd Scola after a switch and drove by him to finish with the shot clock winding down.

France got great play from the starting wings, Nic Batum (14 pts, 7 rebs, 3 assts) and Mickael Gelabale (13 pts, 6 rebs). Both guys knocked their spot jumpers, hit the glass and provided good defensive support.

Both guys did a nice job sliding over to provide backline help multiple times. The help defense as whole was on point. Besides the three 3pt. makes, Gelabale added two nice pull-up jumpers.

Kevin Seraphin was limited to 14 minutes but still had a big impact on the game scoring 10 pts and grabbing seven rebounds. Kevin hit two righty hooks and converted a clutch alley-oop lay-in in transition that gave France a 69-62 lead with just over a minute to play. (He started the transiton play by knocking away an entry pass)

Kind of odd Argentina could not take advantage of foul trouble on France's frontline. Boris Diaw and Ronny Turiaf fouled out in 18 minutes and four fouls limited Seraphin to 14 minutes.

Argentina never could get into a rhythm offensively besides parts of the 3rd quarter. France did a solid job not letting Luis Scola (16 pts) go off. He hit some of patented mid-range pop jumpers but he never got much working in the post.

Ronny Turiaf did a terrific job bodying up Scola and guarding on ball screens. Scola draws fouls as well as anyone in FIBA, but only managed four FT attempts. Though Scola wasn't getting the calls that he normally gets--it wasn't like France wasn't physical with him.

France also did a excellent job containing Pablo Prigioni and forcing the usually steady point into four turnovers. Thought Argentina got some flow to their pick-n-roll game in the 3rd and that helped them take the lead for a bit.

France got nice contributions from their bench, particularly defensively. Florent Pietrus and Yannick Bokolo provided value off the bench by using their athleticism to disrupt defensively. Pietrus played Scola well the limited time he was on him. De Colo moved his feet well to keep players in front of him.

Manu Ginobili (26 pts) did his best to spark a fire for his team scoring in variety of ways. But Manu could not get much going in pick-n-roll action either.

Granted, France's defense forced Argentina into tough looks, thought the Argentines didn't not help themselves by rushing some shots.

In particular, Carlos Delfino was trying replicate the magic from the Lithuania game--six 3pt. makes--a little too hard. Thought he held the ball a bit too much and was forcing up shots. Delfino ended with only four points on 1-of-8 shooting.

We thought Argentina could be vulnerable on the boards in this tourney and France won the rebound battle today, 44-36. If there is one thing that Argentina needs Andres Nocioni to focus on, it's rebounding. Noce only had four boards vs. France.

This win gives France the inside track on the 2nd-seed in Group A. Though, Lithuania can still muck up the order if they beat France on Thursday.


Thursday Games of the Day:
*-All times are London time.

Brazil vs. Russia (4:45 pm):
A potential bronze medal game preview between two closely-matched teams. Two of the best FIBA coaches, David Blatt (Russia) and Ruben Magnano (Brazil) square off for the first time in national team competition.

Russia has looked impressive so far, easily cruising to wins over Britain and China. The offensive execution has been tight and their perennially-stout defense hasn't disappointed.

On the other hand, Brazil had to go down to the wire vs. both Britain and Australia. Brazil has struggled to find consistency on the offensive end and are having difficulty hitting outside shots.

Imagine Coach Blatt will flash some of his usual zone looks to test the Brazilians' outside accuracy. Expect some off-kilter matchup zone alignments from Russia as well.

Russia has done a nice job scoring inside the painted area. Russia's player movement and ball movement have been crisp so far. They thrive on back cuts and action off back screens. They like to keep the basket area open.

But like Brazil, Russia's outside shooting has been off the mark. This is an area where Russia has never been great at over the years. Here's a passage from our Group B scouting report on Russia:

    "In general, not really that great of an outside shooting team. Fridzon needs to be marked and Monya is solid, but after that they're kind of erratic. Teams maybe shouldn't respect their spacing as much as they do. Should slough off around the paint, keep the backline integrity to discourage the cuts."

Coach Magnano doesn't usually like to run much zone, but maybe some sort of sagging defense might be advised for stretches of the game. You have to stay at home on the baseline vs. Russia, or they will shred you with back cuts.

Andrei Kirilenko has been a FIBA force once again and has made a killing moving to the open spots on offense. Constantly making plays off of cuts--very dangerous on back cuts--and attacking the glass.

Very intriguing matchup between two of the most creative playmakers in the tourney, Marcelo Huertas and Alexey Shved. Both are terrific at changing direction off the dribble.

Huertas has a knack for running off a ball screen one way then immediately turning back to go through another ball screen (did this effectively vs. the Brits).

Shved is very shifty with the dribble as well. Love how he keeps his dribble low and very dangerous with hesitation/crossover moves. But both guys can get a bit careless.

Shved has been hitting his jumpers while Huertas has been doing damage with his patented floater. Both have been good dropping sweet passes as well

The Huertas-Splitter pick/roll worked well vs. Britain, especially in the 2nd half. Tiago had trouble finishing off plays vs. Australia, but he hurt Britain rolling and cutting his way to 21 pts.

Brazil moves fairly well off the ball as well. And they use some cross-screen and baseline cut/screen action (flex-style). Anderson Varejao has been active moving to open spots to score easy points and grab offensive rebounds.

Leandro Barbosa has been effective attacking the rim, but he also takes things off the table for Brazil by forcing plays that aren't there.

Brazil will need Marcus Vinicius to give them good minutes like he did vs. Britain. He made a few nice plays off the dribble (dishes & drives) vs. the Brits and his length should matchup better with Russia's forward rotation than Marcelo Machado or Alex Garcia can.

Russia's defensive prowess is well-documented but Brazil is not too bad themselves. Their trio of NBA bigs have all been sound defensively.

Should be a good game and the winner likely secures 2nd-place in Group B.

France vs. Lithuania (9am): France definitely has the athletic advantage and Parker should be hard to contain for the suspect Lithuanian defense. France's depth hurt Argentina, but Lithuania's goes about 10-deep. Last time these teams met, France won 73-67 in second round of Eurobasket '11. France forced 16 TOs and this could be a factor again as Lithuania has continued to struggle with TOs so far. If Lithuania can win, they could force a tiebreaker scenario in Group A that would likely favor Argentina.