In the immediate aftermath of the Olympic Women's Badminton scandal that saw eight participants disqualified for trying to throw their final pool play matches in order to secure more favorable matchups in the knockout stage, we discussed a nightmare scenario that could play out in men's basketball. As it happens, that perfect storm for tanking has formed once again.
Unbeaten Russia has clinched first place in Group B, so when Brazil and Spain meet in their final pool play game Monday, it will determine second and third place, with the winner finishing second and the loser third -- they are locked into those two spots and cannot rise to first nor fall to fourth, regardless of the outcomes of the other games. The ostensible advantage of finishing second in the pool is to avoid the second seed from Group A in the quarterfinals. However, there's no appreciable difference between France (the likely second seed from Group A) and Argentina (the likely third seed).
The real issue comes in the semifinals. The second seed from Group B is placed on the same side of the single elimination bracket as the United States, easily the most dominant team in the world. The third seed would avoid a meeting with Team USA until the gold medal game, while the second seed will run into LeBron and company in the semis. These teams know that they'll have to beat Team USA to win the gold, but (a) they'd like to put that off as long as possible on the off chance that another team manages the trick and (b) if they have to settle for less than gold they'd still rather get the silver medal, which they can't do if they lose in the semis.
The coaches and players are all saying the right things before the game -- that they are here to compete, that they will try to win every game, etc. But frankly this is no minor issue -- avoiding a semifinal meeting with Team USA is a significant strategic goal, and Brazil and Spain would be foolish to ignore the opportunity.
Team Spain may have more deniability heading into the game. Juan Carlos Navarro is dealing with plantar fasciitis and Marc Gasol has a sore shoulder -- coach Sergio Scariolo can rest two of his stars without raising too many eyebrows. Don't be surprised if Brazil's Ruben Magnano counters with some strategic lineup changes of his own.