Gold Medal Preview: Men’s Basketball, USA vs. Spain

Team USA will be looking at a Spanish language version of itself from four years ago when it meets Spain in the Olympic Gold Medal Game today at 10 a.m. ET (9 a.m. CT).

Back then, in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Spain took the American Redeem Team to the brink in an epic Gold Medal Game many of us in the States – including myself – watched in the wee hours of the morning after stumbling in after a Saturday night out. That game ended 118-107, with Team USA returning to a Gold standard of basketball after a relatively poor performance netted bronze in Athens in 2004.

Familiar Foes

This Spanish team is arguably better than the 2008 version, and is looking for its own brand of redemption after such a hard-fought loss four years ago. The players are not unfamiliar with each other: they met in a pre-Olympics international friendly, a game which the U.S. won handily, and  the bulk of both teams’ impact players come from the NBA’s Western Conference.

Spain’s Pau and Marc Gasol (L.A. Lakers and Memphis Grizzlies), Serge Ibaka (OKC Thunder) and Rudy Fernandez (Portland Trailblazers/Denver Nuggets) have played with or against the United States’ Kobe Bryant (Lakers), Kevin Durant (Thunder), Chris Paul (New Orleans Hornets/LA Clippers) and Carmelo Anthony (Nuggets). Tyson Chandler (Hornets/Mavericks) and Kevin Love (Minnesota Timberwolves) – Team USA’s biggest guys – both have experience playing against these guys too.

Size Up Front

Spain will feature the most talented size Team USA has come up against thus far, with the two seven-foot Gasol brothers capable of playing a deadly combo at center and power forward, and OKC’s Serge Ibaka also providing a defensive specialist off the bench. Expect the bulk of the minutes to go to the Gasols. Pau played more than 30 minutes in a double-double effort in the semifinal against Russia, grabbing 10 rebounds on defense and scoring 16 points, and Marc played just under 30 minutes, scoring 11 points.

In the quarterfinal against France, Pau Gasol played 32 minutes, collecting 11 boards and scoring 10 points while drawing 8 fouls. Marc also played 32 minutes and put up 14 points with 8 rebounds (7 defensive) and drawing 7 fouls. Spain does lead the tournament in fouls drawn, with the Gasols drawing on average more than five fouls per game. The primary question here will be can Chandler maintain a presence in the game without getting into foul trouble too early on, forcing him out of the game and the smaller Love into a defensive role against Marc Gasol. James will be charged with guarding one of the Gasols – likely Marc – and should not be underestimated for his defense. Having fresh bigs in the game longer and out of foul trouble will be key to freeing up James and the rest to focus on offense.

Spanish Weapons Not Named Gasol

Spain’s role players – Fernandez at the 2 guard, Jose Calderon and Sergio Llull at the point and Juan Carlos Navarro in the backcourt – are not as talented as USA’s Paul, Russell Westbrook and Deron Williams and its elite shooters, but they are still threats. Navarro has been nursing an injury and has played about 20 minutes the last two games, not posing a scoring threat but still capable of dishing out assists.

Calderon factored heavily into the hard-fought victory against taller Russia, playing 33 minutes and scoring 14 of Spain’s 67 points with three assists. He did post 4 personal fouls though, which is one short of fouling out in Olympics play. It remains to be seen if he can keep up with the more agile Westbrook, Paul and even to an extent Williams if they’re on the court at the same time. Llull played 20 minutes that game with Calderon in foul trouble.

Fernandez is the greatest threat of these three, known for his shooting ability outside – he hit three of seven three-point attempts against Russia, but he is prone to cold shooting nights like his 0-5 three-point performance against France in the quarters. He’ll be guarded by Bryant while he’s in the game, and Bryant has seen Fernandez in the Western Conference plenty of times. Williams will cover Fernandez if Rudy is on the court when (and if) USA runs its dual-guard rotation with Deron and CP3 on the court together, but you may see Durant playing some on him as well, depending on Spain and USA’s lineups.

Spain is shooting 50 percent from the field and averaging 78 points per game – a far cry from Team USA’s 117 points per game – but has the size capable of dealing with Team USA if it can be drawn into foul trouble early on.

Team USA’s Game Plan

Size isn’t the key weapon for Team USA in this tournament – it’s offensive firepower. It’s been largely the LeBron James show for Team USA. He and Paul have largely orchestrated the Americans’ transition game, driving the ball to the paint and either scoring or dishing to open snipers like Anthony and Durant. Team USA has feasted on three-pointers in this tournament, draining several in the fourth quarter semi against Argentina. Team USA has been remarkably adept in the paint,

It’s been little challenge for Team USA’s scorers to come up big when needed, and it’s been a different guy each quarter seemingly, with James providing the consistent threat, turning it on in key moments like the closing of the tight game USA played against Lithuania. James has averaged an impressive 5.9 assists per game, tops on a team with assist machine Cp3. James and Paul have been critical in the rebounding game as well – posting 5.9 and 5.6 boards per game.

That’s the role James has been asked to play in a lineup stacked with firepower. Durant and Anthony have been two of the most reliable scorers for Team USA – KD has averaged 18 points per game in this tournament and is shooting an awesome 56 percent from the 3-point line, but Melo isn’t to be outdone, averaging 17.4 PPG and shooting 53 percent beyond the arc. Bryant has provided the scoring lead at times as well.

Chandler and Love won’t be asked to shoulder the scoring load – that will come from the outside – but will need to provide some form of defensive presence against Spain’s bigs for as long as they can while helping out on the rebounding front. Love has been the rebounding force we’ve come to expect from his prowess in the NBA, bringing in 7.4 per game in limited minutes.

Keys to Victory

Team USA must make Spain work for its points without getting into foul trouble and giving them free passage to the free-throw line. Make Fernandez and to an extent Calderon beat you and complement the Gasols inside. Chandler hasn’t played much but will be asked to counter the Gasols as best he can in what time he can. Let James and Durant continue to focus on the offensive front – though there will be a mismatch favoring Team USA if the Gasols are guarding these guys on the other end of the court.

Team USA’s biggest threat in this tournament came in the Lithuania game, when they shot only 30 percent from the 3-point line. That can’t happen for the tournament’s most prolific 3-point shooting team. The Americans have attempted the most threes with a whopping 256, but they’ve also shot the best at 45 percent per game. That must continue – Anthony, Durant, Bryant and the rest need to continue to hit those shots.

The open look at the three will come from Paul, James, Williams and Westbrook to an extent off the bench continuing to penetrate into the paint. If the threes aren’t falling for Team USA, look for James to turn it on and take more shots on his own. Westbrook may be a key change-of-pace scoring threat.

See Ya, Coach

Worth mentioning is that this will be Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final gig coaching Team USA in the Olympics and international competition. Coach K brought this team back from disarray after a disappointment in Athens, first winning the bronze medal in the 2006 FIBA world championships but helping lead the Redeem Team to gold in 2008, and clinching gold again at the World Championships in 2010. For a college coach, Coach K – who is second to none – has done a fantastic job managing NBA-size egos and bringing these guys together in a system that has dominated all competition. This was a much needed stabilizing presence for this program to return to its former glories, and here’s hoping his successor will continue that trend.

You will also probably see the last of Kobe Bryant in the Olympics, which is sad considering he’s been a force for Team USA and has been a strong supporter of the Americans in many other events, being a constant presence at women’s basketball, beach volleyball and swimming events. James and Anthony may also be done after two Olympics.

Prediction

USA took down Spain easily, 100-78 in Barcelona in a pre-Olympics exhibition, a game where James scored 25 and Anthony put up 27. Team USA pulled away late with its perimeter shooters, despite losing Chandler early to fouls, but this Spain team has had several games to improve, recover from injury and establish team chemistry. They haven’t been the greatest scoring threat in this tournament, but they are not to be overlooked until the final buzzer sounds. Still, I think Team USA has been shooting so well, and Love and James are up to the task defensively enough to keep USA in front at the end. It may be a tighter game through three quarters than we’d like, but James has displayed impressive dominance and stamina at the end of games, and I feel USA will have enough open shots near the perimeter to take this game and repeat as Gold Medal Champions.

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The US A-Team: Thoughts from the Beginning of Olympic Men’s Basketball Play

Editor’s Note:  Sebastian Henao is a friend I met while attending LSU. He is one of the more passionate and observant fans of basketball and the NBA that I know, and he has offered to provide some analysis and – as you can see – color commentary on basketball at the 2012 Olympic Games.

Jason Kidd, LeBron James and Chris Paul celebrate gold in the 2008 Beijing Olympics
LeBron James and Chris Paul are back for Team USA in defense of the gold medal. 

Before I begin, I would love to thank Mary Carillo, Olympics tennis commentator, for introducing me to the NBC Olympics Live Extra app. You have saved me from another Dan Patrick monologue about his love for the L.A. Kings. If you own cable and need to get your updates, live feed, and replays, this is a must! (See our post on how to Live Stream the Olympics)

What if I told you that you can choose the best 12 players in the world and put them on one team? What if I also told you that we will move the 3-point line three feet closer so your best player can be even more versatile? Finally what if I told you that you were playing against Boris Diaw? Is that something you might be interested in?

For our casual fans, Boris Diaw is an NBA player. Unfortunately, he has the motor of a sloth after eating a Grand Slam at Denny’s. Throughout the Olympics, the U.S. of A will be playing scrubs like this. Watching USA versus France taught me a few things.

Kings at Court 

First, no matter how much international talent has increased, USA will always be the kings of basketball. Led by the current King James of South Beach, Coach K (Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski) has enlisted an army even Leonidas would fear. Although the losses of Dwight Howard, Blake Griffin and Chris Bosh have diminished our front court, have you watched the NBA lately? The days of Sky Hook and The Dream Shake are over.

Enter Run n’ Gun and a million free throws. Both NBA finals teams – the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder – which consisted of two former Olympians and four current ones, led the league in free throws. Coach K knows his team’s strengths and knows them well. His job is to control all these superstars and stop them from making my second point relevant.

Recklessness!!!

Keeping such an up-tempo offense also has its weaknesses. If you are at a bar or watching the game with your boys, you may hear a few common phrases. “Why did you take that shot?” “Quit turning the ball over.” “Just give the ball to Durant.” High tempo offenses have just as much risk as reward. Turnovers and forced jumpers are very common in such game plans. At the end of the 1 st quarter, the US led France by only 1 because they made 7 out of 24 shots. Unfortunately, no one gave the French a memo that the 2 best players on Team USA were run n’ gun specialists.

Imagine a 265-pound behemoth running the floor either jamming it in your face or passing the ball to someone with the prettiest shot in the NBA. Did I forget to mention that the shooter is also 6’10 with a 7’5 wingspan? I just described either a giraffe and a rhino or LeBron and Durant. Either way, there is no way those two should be on the same team let alone the same watering hole.

Parity or Unfair-ity

Touching on my last point, there is no reason why these guys should be on the same team. It is just unfair. I know this might upset people, but I think the 23 and under rule is a great idea. (One proposal is to have basketball follow the same rules as soccer, by which countries may have no more than three players over the age of 23). I love the drama, the emotion, and the feel-good stories during the Olympics. The only emotion I got out of this game is Melo getting up in de Colo’s face yelling, “YOU WANT TO GO NIGHT NIGHT!”

I also feel like I’m watching Space Jam 2, except this time the MonStars win and the French are working like slaves at Six Flags. As a basketball fan, I love watching teams like the Spurs dismantle teams with their teamwork and high basketball IQ and watching Chris Paul make scrubs like Aaron Gray and Jannero Pargo look like Olympians.

Don’t get me wrong, though. I love Space Jam, and I love Team USA. If we don’t get 10 alley oops a game, then I’m disappointed. I hope Parker lets me come back for a sequel so I can give you a more in-depth background on the final four teams.