The day started with a 17-year-old point guard walking on-court to run the reigning world champions in the do-or-die stage of the Olympics men's basketball tournament. It ended with an open three-point shot in the air that would change the fates of two teams - when it missed. In between, Wednesday's four quarterfinal games offered plenty of fascination for anyone who loves basketball. If a year or more ago someone had predicted that the Olympics semifinalists would be Argentina, Lithuania, Spain and the USA - with Greece missing out by the margin of that open three-pointer - there might not have been much of an argument. To watch it all unfold that way on Wednesday, however, was something to see.
Spain began its quarterfinal with Croatia under the baton of young Ricky Rubio and the big-game resolve of Pau Gasol. Spain's defense wasn't so fearsom as in the World Championships final two years ago, when it barely allowed an easy pass, but had a similar spark on Wednesday as Croatia struggled to break 30 points midway through the third quarter. Spain fans will also be encouraged by the variety of offensive contributors, in particular big men Felipe Reyes and Jorge Garbajosa. By taking Croatia completely out of the quarterfinal so quickly, and not depending on three-pointers at all, Spain left a teasing impression that its best basketball is still to come.
Lithuania was similarly in-command against China, with the added benefit of having to work harder to hold its edge despite an energized home crowd for the opponents. Sarunas Jasikevicius was his old self again, no-look passing, burying threes and marshalling the Lithuanians in his non-stop director's role on the court. Big men Robertas Javtokas and Marijonas Petravicius did wonders keeping Yao Ming under wraps. And Ramunas Siskauskas tied up the whole package in a safety net of timely shots, rebounds and zero turnovers. Lithuania has the recipe, and if its many three-point shooters are cooking, no opponent is safe.
The ability of the United States to turn games suddenly into blowouts is what makes it the gold-medal favorite. They did it again against scrappy Australia, which had chances to cut the difference to five points or lower before halftime. When Australia kept missing, the U.S. pounced, going up by 12 at the break and then scoring the first 14 points after it, effectively ending the game. Kobe Bryant was the spark this time, but the fact that it could have been any of several other players is why no one is betting against the U.S. this time.
Argentina survived the toughest quarterfinal with a little luck and a rotation of six players. That last three-point shot could just as easily have fallen, and we'd be talking about the Greeks in the semis. Argentina needed, and got, a huge boost from Carlos Delfino, who scored 18 of his 23 points over 8 minutes bridging the last two quarters. His teammates deserve credit for getting him the ball and riding the wave, because with out that recognition, the defending champs might be out now. Instead, they get a shot at duplicating their semifinal win from Athens against the Unites States.
So what about Friday's semis?
The lure of a silver medal is huge for both Spain and Lithuania, so expect two extra-motivated teams. Spain has only medalled or had the chance to in Olympics affected by boycotts, finishing fourth in 1980 and winning silver in 1984. They are defending world champions and mean to prove it by taking their first chance at a sure medal. Lithuania is in its fifth straight semifinal, but has lost all of them, and collected four bronzes as a result. Another bronze would be a great accomplishment, but this team will leave its heart on the floor Friday for the chance to do better this time. Both teams know the other well, but Spain would be smart not to underestimate Lithuania's big men, who pushed around Yao Ming in the quarters and have done their jobs well all tournament. Lithuania should expect better perimeter defense from Spain, and be ready to stop a variety of scoring threats. Leadership will be an issue, with Lithuania's resurgent Jasikevicius and always-steady Siskauskas measured against Jose Manuel Calderon and young Rubio of Spain. If the quarterfinals showed that Spain's exuberance is back, then the Spaniards hold a slight edge. If Jasikevicius is truly back, however, there will be few turnovers and Spain will have to match Lithuania shot for shot and rebound for rebound, a tough task. Prediction: Lithuania
These Olympics might well be the last hurrah for an Argentina generation that turned world basketball on its head when it defeated the U.S. in the same semifinal game in Athens. Does it have a chance to repeat? A slim one, based mainly on its incredible spirit. Argentina's top six can play with anybody, but the problem is that only those six played the quarterfinal - and looked a bit tired as Greece rallied. There will not only be no room for fatigue against the U.S., but the Americans will turn any sign of it into one of their signature takeovers. Without a shot-blocker and needing a slow game, Argentina will play mostly zone and must concentrate on rebounding on defense. On offense, the Argentines protect the ball and get decent shots. If their three-pointers fall, they can stay in the game. That is the strategy for any U.S. opponent when the game starts, but don't be surprised to see Argentina try to light it up early, if possible, before settling into a slow-down game. A small lead can go a long way with such crafty players as Many Ginobili, Pablo Prigioni and Luis Scola. The U.S. players might be just as crafty in a close game, but since they haven't had one yet, they would still have to prove it. The question is whether Argentina can keep the game close. Prediction: USA
Vassilis Skountis - Beijing, China
Thursday, August 21, 2008