LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 04: Lebron James #6 of United States reacts after making a three point shot against Lithuania during the Men's Basketball Preliminary Round match on Day 8 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Basketball Arena on August 4, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Team USA remains the favorite after an undefeated group run. Who is the top challenger at this point? The Hook digs in.
Things went pretty close to the blueprint in the group round in the Olympic men's basketball tournament. The eight teams I picked to advance indeed advanced, though Russia's dominance, France's win over Argentina and Spain's brow-raising finish mucked up the standings.
The quarterfinals begin on Wednesday with Russia vs. Lithuania (9 a.m. ET). In advance of that, let's rank the survivors in order of quality, taking into account the draw they face. (Sorry, Boomers.)
I might have put Australia ahead of Lithuania if Australia wasn't facing Team USA on Wednesday. The Boomers had the shock of the tournament in beating Russia on Monday, though it's obviously worth noting that as the Russians had clinched the No. 1 seed in Group B, coach David Blatt saw fit to let Andrei Kirilenko and Alexey Shved, the team's stars, take a seat during crunch time. (Kirilenko had a minor cut above his eye, and Shved saw fit to commit the grave crime of talking during a timeout.) Still, a win is a win, and the Boomers did well to get into that position. In the end, Australia proved to be the only team from outside of Europe and the Americas to be worth any attention in The Games.
But yes, they are going to get smoked by Team USA.
Lithuania's signature game in group play was a loss. Sure, it was a loss to Team USA, but that's the only performance that should give anyone any hope of a medal for the Baltic state. Otherwise, Lithuania beat Nigeria and Tunisia. Congratulations, Lithuania!
Still, because Lithuania's quarterfinal opponent (Russia) is so weird, there's a non-zero chance that the nation could advance. But more on Russia in a moment or three.
I remain unconvinced that Spain didn't softly tank in the fourth quarter against Brazil on Monday. Of course, I went into my viewing of the game a few hours after it happened both knowing that Spain indeed lost and knowing that Spain had something to gain by losing. I was primed to see purposeful failure. But I saw it. Spain made no real effort to slow Leandrinho Barbosa or attack Brazil's weak points. The Spaniards looked unstoppable for three quarters, then quietly caved and grabbed an easier draw. That's not nothing. It wasn't a badminton-style tank, but it also wasn't an accurate reflection of how good Spain actually can be. There was nothing shady going on, but you'd do well to weight the result lightly based on the stakes.
What's this mean about Brazil? It means that I feel they are the weakest "power" team left. Their wins over Australia and Britain were relatively soft, and though they lost very narrowly to Russia, they continue to leave a sour taste in my mouth. I'm a big booster of Brazilian basketball, and I want to believe in the burgeoning power of a new South American titan, but I remain unconvinced after group play. Leandrinho has been pretty shoddy all tournament long. Am I supposed to believe that fiery spurt to beat Spain was sustainable?
More importantly than all of that, I believe deeply in Brazil's next foe.
And that'd be Argentina, whose loss against Team USA on Monday gave them regional rival Brazil instead of Spain. Seems like a good trade for Argentina, though no one who watched Kevin Durant light London on fire will question the Argentines' motives. They just plain got beat by the Americans in the third quarter.
Argentina, though, has shown an ability to rack up points at an alarming rate, and while defense is a concern, Brazil's offense has been mediocre for a team with its talent. I trust Luis Scola and Manu Ginobili to score enough on the Brazilians to get a victory. Beyond that, Team USA looms... which likely means that the winner of the South American quarterfinal will be fighting for bronze.
Pablo Prigioni's recovery from passing kidney stones also looms large in this matchup.
These next three teams are pretty much a dice roll for me.
I don't think anyone would be stunned if the French knocked out Spain on Wednesday, but I also think that we underrate how good Spain has been in the critical moments of its recent past. Such as EuroBasket 2011, when Spain got off to a slow start in group play but pounded through the second group phase and the knockouts for gold. (Spain beat France by 13 in the championship game, by the way.)
But certainly France has had a strong tournament, and it's a bit too bad that they face Spain instead of Brazil (who I think they'd beat) or Russia (who I think they could beat). If Joakim Noah were here, this might be a different story, but I have trouble endorsing Boris Diaw, Ronny Turiaf, Kevin Seraphin and Ali Traore against the Gasols, Serge Ibaka and Felipe Reyes. France will need a superb game from Tony Parker and Nicolas Batum, who certainly have the speed and talent to exploit Spain's iffy perimeter defense. But the French will need even more to beat a Spain that's clicking, assuming that Spain clicks.
The sad part of it all is that a loss to Spain in the quarterfinals would knock France out of medal contention. Tony Parker deserves a medal for having to wear those damn goggles.
Russia dominated Group B, and failed to go unbeaten only because Patty Mills is a beast. But man, this team is weird. Its best player is a LeBron James type -- a player who does everything really well. That said, this player (Andrei Kirilenko) hasn't been an NBA All-Star in almost a decade. Can a superpower led by a player who is legitimately a mid-rung NBA player at best at this point be considered a true contender when the competition gets stiff? The only other NBA players here are Timofey Mozgov (JaVale McGee's caddy) and Alexey Shved (a relative unknown to most NBA fans, but not expected to be a star by any stretch). The really strong contenders of the recent past (with one exception) have NBA stars: Manu with Argentina, Pau with Spain. Even France (Parker) and Britain (Luol Deng) have legit NBA stars. Russia has Andrei Kirilenko, who was once great and is still good, but isn't a star.
David Blatt's a fine coach, and Russia seems to have great depth. Those seem like the sorts of factors that can get you through group play cleanly but might suffer when faced with tougher opposition in a higher stakes setting. Remember that Russia beat Spain by just three points in group play, and needed 24 points from Vitaly Fridzon to get the victory. (The other side of that coin: Kirilenko wasn't great, yet Russia beat a great team.)
Russia should zip by Lithuania, but if Spain looms, I'm picking the Spaniards. It should be a wonderful game if it happens, in any case, and as a fan of Kirilenko, I'd be happy with a Russian win. But I think Spain is stronger than it has appeared.
I've made my case for Spain above: its two losses came narrowly, it has a (recent) history of looking underwhelming against inferior foes but cranking it up to 11 in the knockout round and it has proven NBA-capable players all over the roster. Spain's frontcourt should dominate France and either Russia or Lithuania. Its' perimeter defense is a problem, but the advantage up front and the backcourt's scoring ability should cover that deficit unless Parker pops up for 40, or something.
Spain hasn't looked strong enough to beat Team USA, though. To beat this version of Team USA you almost need a perfect storm of shooters, a post scorer and lots of perimeter defense. Argentina and Lithuania each lacked the last requirement. So does Spain. So as Team USA rattled off late victories against Argentina and Lithuania, so should they against Spain.
But this is one tournament where silver is victory.
1. UNITED STATES
The most terrifying thing about Kevin Durant's explosion in the third quarter against Argentina is that there are legitimately eight other guys on the Team USA who could do that any given game. (I'm ruling out Andre Iguodala, Anthony Davis and Tyson Chandler.) Also, Kevin Durant could do that one or two more times in the team's final three games. It's unfair.
Coach K has the luxury of playing some truly ridiculous lineups and, because of the versatility of LeBron, Iguodala and Russell Westbrook, it can all make sense. Having LeBron means you can essentially play Durant at shooting guard or any frontcourt position. Westbrook's hops and rebounding allows you to play three point guards for stretches. (I desperately want to see CP3-Deron-Russ-Davis-Chandler at some point. I fear I will not see this wish granted.) Having Iguodala and a strong point guard like CP3 lets you play 'Melo and Durant together, which is otherwise a bad basketball sitcom waiting to happen.
Team USA can adjust to anything Spain, Russia, Argentina, Brazil or France throws at it. Whether Coach K effectively makes those adjustments will be decided over the next six days. But as of right now, there's no reason to pick anyone other than the Americans to take gold.
The Hook is a daily NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.