Spanish basketball has wasted no time in attempting to gain an advantage on Team USA, its chief and perhaps only rival in the 2012 London Olympics. Spain lost the gold medal game to the Redeem Team in 2008 in Beijing, with the contest getting quite tight in the second half before Kobe Bryant put it away. During that game, which is memorable for any number of reasons (including starting just before 3 a.m. ET), there were a couple of apparent travels by Team USA members that went uncalled. Spain complained. Loudly. For a while.
And lo!, Spain is already talking about those travels. In fairness to the Spaniards, they are being asked about that 2008 game -- this doesn't seem like an unprompted "Hey y'all, remember when the Americans STOLE the gold?" screed. But in some ways, it does appear rehearsed.
The Spanish players held court with the media on Monday ahead of Tuesday's exhibition against Team USA, a game that promises to showcase two teams trying desperately to win without showing any playsets they might actually use against each other in the Olympics.
Most players demurred on the officiating question when prompted by the reporters. But Rudy Fernandez, Juan Carlos Navarro and Victor Claver all nodded toward the issue behind the issue. Fernandez's comments give the best example of this. Via Jorge Sierra at HoopsHype:
Well, that's water under the bridge. It's true that there were some missed traveling calls but that's in the past. We have to focus on the London games and hope the games are called with FIBA rules and not NBA rules.
What's notable is that Spanish coach Sergio Scariolo made a nearly identical comment: that he hopes the officials call the prospective gold medal rematch by FIBA rules and not NBA rules. These comments copy what Spanish players, including veteran Raptors point guard Jose Calderon, said in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 gold medal game: that Spain would have won if the referees would have called the game according to FIBA rules.
Of course, the refs should have called the game under FIBA rules because it was a FIBA game. But the rules on traveling aren't actually terribly different in the NBA and FIBA. It's just that NBA officials tend to be looser with their interpretation. The typical NBA player is much more athletic than the typical FIBA player, and so gauging the lightning-quick moves in play when Team USA is on the court pretty difficult. When you have two teams playing at different speeds -- and despite its talent level, Spain is nowhere near as quick or athletic as Team USA -- a loose interpretation likely favors the faster, more difficult to "catch" team.
That's a built-in advantage for Team USA. Spain is trying to undo the advantage by pointing out the discrepancy in the calls. It's a fantastic little chess move, rehearsed or not. Doing so this far in advance of a game between the teams that actually means something -- heck, we aren't even assured that Spain and Team USA will meet in the tournament! -- is even more effective. The Spaniards are priming the pump. They are getting it in the FIBA leadership's minds early, virtually assuring that it will be addressed with game officials as Team USA prepares to suit up. It's straight-up Phil Jackson.
Of course, making this an issue so early could also work against Spain by preparing Team USA for a more tightly called tournament. The Americans are good enough to adjust and still be the best team on the planet. They don't need jump stops, crab dribbles or shuffles to get to the hoop. Several of them (including LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden) can just fly there if they want. We've seen it happen.
Regardless of what actually happens, bless Spain for introducing American fans to a level of international play in which strategy and storylines like this actually matter. It gets awful boring going on and on about how dominant Team USA will be. To have a real rival raises the entertainment level of the proceedings. Even though we all typically despise having to talk about referees, in international play, we'll take it.
The Hook is a daily NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.