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Fearless forecasts for quarters
The knockout stage of the 2008 Olympics men's basketball tournament starts on Wednesday with an air of unpredictability. It's true that one team, the United States, has stepped forward as the favorite. That is based less on its 32.2-point average winning margin than its talent and focus. After all, the last U.S. team to win gold, at Syndey in 2000, won by 29 points on average before the quarterfinals, but was pushed hard prior to winning the tournament. Likewise, at the last World Championships, the U.S. won by 28 per game before the quarters - and got eliminated. That history says that anything can still happen. The question is which other teams are ready to push or eliminate? That's where there is the most unpredictability, but with four teams in the quarters, Europe once again is a likely candidate to be in the hunt until the very end. Here's how the quarterfinal matchups look...and some fearless predictions.
Spain vs. Croatia
Few would have said so before the tournament, but this matchup can now be called a tossup. Even though it has only lost to the United States so far, Spain has looked less than convincing during long stretches, due in part to the worst three-point shooting of any team in Beijing. Pau Gasol and Ricky Rubio have anchored the offense and defense, respectively, but others will have to step up now that elimination games are here. Good candidates include Rudy Fernandez, Jose Manuel Calderon and Juan Carlos Navarro. Croatia arrived from the qualifying tournament, has already surpassed most predictions, and now has little to lose. Croatia also boasts plenty of special, ambitious players who would love to return their country to the Olympic medal stand it occupied for silver in 1992. One of them, dangerous scorer Marko Popovic, is not expected to play due to injury, however. If he is joined on the bench by backcourt mate Zoran Planinic, who also missed the last game, Croatia will have numbers problems. Half of Croatia's roster play in Spain, and in the opening round of last summer's EuroBasket, they upset the host Spaniards. A repeat is not likely, but far from impossible.
Lithuania vs. China
In this quarterfinals rematch from 2004 in Athens, Lithuania starts as a favorite, based on winning Group A while China was fourth in Group B, but there is more to this game than meets the eye. Consider just one unique subplot: Jonas Kazlauskas, the coach who gave the Lithuanians their last Olympic medal, the bronze in 2000 at Sydney, is now on China's bench. The question is whether Kazlauskas knows them better than the Lithuanians know his new team. How the Lithuanians handle Yao Ming, the best rebounder and fourth-best scorer left in the tournament, will be pivotal. Robertas Javtokas must defend well but avoid fouls, since he will be the big body Lithuania depends on, and because Yao shoots free throws so well anyway. Also, watch out for China's streaky shooters, especially after Lithuania let Australia bury 16 triples in the last group game. Its veteran guard trio - Sarunas Jasikevicius, Ramunas Siskauskas and Rimantas Kaukenas - needs to defend the perimeter well and to include their big men on offense if things are to run smoothly for Lithuania. Don't forget that China will also enjoy the support a sellout crowd at Wukesong Arena and that of a huge nation behind them. Under those circumstances, this game can be very tight, certainly tighter than the 20-point difference by which Lithuania won their quarterfinal in Athens.
USA vs. Australia
Australia has finished fourth in three of the previous five Olympic tournaments, but few are giving the Aussies a chance to go that far after Wednesday, when they meet the rejuvenated United States, the only undefeated team in the group stage. LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Kobe Bryant and Co. have made all the right moves so far for Team USA, and no one is doubting their ability to keep doing so. The Americans have shown killer defense, sweet shooting and deft ball distribution throughout the tournament, all that to go with their traditional advantages in fastbreaks, rebounds and shotblocking. All are enhanced by a laser-like focus that, until it wavers, makes Team USA a prohibitive favorite in every game. If it were a heavyweight boxing match, Australia would have a puncher's chance based on its incandescent three-point shooting. Australia is the only team to make more than 12 long-range shots in any game, and did so twice. Problem is, that only adds up to 36 points, and Team USA has averaged 103 so far. It will take more than fine shooting - protecting the ball and rebounding defensively, for starters - if Australia is to even put itself in a position to consider pulling off the upset of the century so far.
Argentina vs. Greece
Talk about a thriller. Argentina and Greece are not only two of the world's most dominant teams this decade, but offer a clash of styles that makes for great basketball. Argentina uses invention and creativity within a solid team concept, while Greece proposes a physical battle from the first second to the last of big games. All of Argentina's main players - Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola, Andres Nocioni and Fabricio Oberto - learned the ropes in Europe, so they know the Greeks well. How their point man, Pablo Prigioni of Tau Ceramica, handles Greece's aggressive guard corps of Vassilis Spanoulis, Theo Papaloukas and Dimitris Diamantidis, will be a key factor. So will Greece's ability to defend in the paint, where Scola again has joined Ginobili among the top scorers in the tournament. Argentina's starting five is a perfect fit at every position, while Greece goes deeper with potential game-changing talents like Antonis Fotsis and Sofoklis Schortsianitis, who have been unpredictable until now. Greece also wants to avenge Argentina knocking it out of the 2004 Olympics in Athens by just 5 points in the same quarterfinal round. In games like this, whichever team imitates the other's strengths better - Argentina grinding out tough possessions, Greece getting bold on offense - usually comes out on top.
Vassilis Skountis, Beijing
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
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