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August 21, 2008
Olympic Preview

by Kevin Pelton


With the semifinals of the 2008 Beijing Olympics set for Friday, let's take a look at the Log5 probabilities for who will win Friday and each possible finish. These should be familiar to regular Basketball Prospectus readers, as Ken Pomeroy has used Log5 analysis during the NCAA Tournament and conference tournaments for several years. These are calculated based on Pythagorean winning percentages (using 14 as the exponent; 16.5 is the NBA standard, but scores are lower in international play).

Team             Final   Gold  Silver  Bronze    4th

United States    95.8    92.5    3.3     4.1     0.1
Spain            61.0     3.6   57.4    18.1    20.9
Argentina         4.2     2.4    1.9    55.8    39.9
Lithuania        39.0     1.6   37.5    21.9    39.0

Brackets matter tremendously in international competition, and this is no exception. While Argentina rates as the second-best team over the course of the Olympics, they have a very small chance of reaching the gold-medal game because of the matchup with the USA. Had Argentina won its group, they would be a favorite for silver. However, the separation among the other three semifinalists besides the U.S. is not enormous.

United States vs. Argentina

Pace: United States 81.2, Argentina 69.0
Offensive Ratings: United States 129.1 (1st), Argentina 121.0 (3rd)
Defensive Ratings: United States 90.5 (1st), Argentina 107.0 (4th)

Between exhibition games and their six games in Beijing so far, the U.S. men have beaten every major international foe except one: Argentina. Their chance comes now in a rematch of the 2004 Athens semifinal, a game won 89-81 by Argentina, which would go on to win gold. The USA had a chance to avenge that loss in the bronze-medal game of the 2006 FIBA World Championships, bouncing back after losing to Greece in the semifinals to defeat Argentina handily by a 96-81 final.

How can Argentina succeed where everyone else has failed thus far and not only give the U.S. a game but pull the upset? It starts with pace of play. Nobody has been able to slow down the USA thus far. The slowest American game came against Germany, with 77 possessions. That ties Argentina's fastest game of the Olympics, and four of Argentina's games have been played under 70 possessions, including 65.5 in the quarterfinals against Greece.

The obvious part of controlling tempo against the U.S. is taking care of the basketball and getting back on defense to prevent the easy baskets that energize the USA's offense and defense. Australia did a pretty good job of doing that on Wednesday, but preventing fast-break points is not sufficient. Slowing the game also means forcing the U.S. to work against a set defense while playing at a deliberate pace on offense, and no one has been able to do that yet. With its veteran-laden lineup and a smart, reliable point guard in Pablo Prigioni, Argentina may stand the best chance. Besides the USA, only Australia has turned the ball over on a lower percentage of their possessions than Argentina has (15.9 percent).

I'd expect Argentina to be able to score against the U.S. in the halfcourt. Again, only the U.S. and Australia have been more effective offensively on a per-possession basis. Since their dismal opener against Lithuania, the Argentineans have posted an Offensive Rating above 120 in every game. The key is three-point shooting. Argentina has made more threes than anyone else in Beijing and is second in three-point percentage. Since shooting 5-of-22 against Lithuania, Argentina has made 44.6 percent of its tries from downtown.

The USA's defensive philosophy has been to allow threes, but contest them. Opponents have shot more threes against the U.S. than against any other team (partly, it should be noted, a function of other factors like the fast pace, the team's strong interior defense and the need to come back after falling behind early) yet they have made them at a 28.6 percent clip. Nobody is close to the Americans in terms of three-point defense, though they were not tested as much in Group B, with the best shooting teams (Argentina, Australia and Croatia) all in the other group. This will be the toughest challenge yet to the U.S. perimeter defense.

One tactic I'd like to see Argentina Coach Sergio Hernandez try early and often is sitting center Fabricio Oberto, who figures to have a tough time matching up with the more athletic U.S. big men, in favor of swingman Carlos Delfino. That strategy would depend on Andres Nocioni being healthy and able to swing to power forward; he banged his knee in Argentina's win over Greece and was limited in the second half. If Nocioni is at full strength, he can match up with the U.S. power forwards as part of a lineup that gives Argentina three great shooters with which to spread the floor.

The big individual matchup will be a repeat of the Western Conference Finals, with San Antonio's Manu Ginobili squaring off against L.A. Lakers guard Kobe Bryant. This time, Ginobili is healthy and playing outstanding basketball. Ginobili is perfectly equipped to take advantage of the USA's biggest defensive weakness, allowing dribble penetration. However, a motivated Bryant--freed of the offensive responsibility he has in the NBA--could make life difficult for Ginobili with his size, quickness and smarts. If that's the case, Argentina will have a hard time keeping up.

I have a tough time seeing how Argentina can stop the U.S.'s offense. None of the matchups are particularly troublesome, but Argentina has been the weakest defensive team of the four that have advanced to the semifinals. Oberto and forward Luis Scola are not big-time shot-blockers, and teams have been able to score on Argentina inside. That spells trouble against a USA team that has done a terrific job of finishing throughout the Olympics and seems to only be getting stronger in terms of their half-court execution. Aesthetically, the American offense in the first half against Australia wasn't exceptionally pretty, yet at halftime the U.S. had 55 points despite struggling from downtown. When the threes fell at the start of the second half, it was game over in a hurry.

As the defending Olympic champs, Argentina isn't prone to panicking or backing down in the face of a challenge. If it's a close game down the stretch, Argentina, with a clear go-to player and more international experience than anyone, might have the upper hand against a U.S. team that hasn't played a close game yet. Still, that scenario is unlikely. I see them being able to contend for two-and-a-half quarters or so, with the U.S. leading but Argentina still within striking distance. The big USA run could happen midway through the third quarter when the group of Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh gets in the game and gives the U.S. an energy boost.

Lithuania vs. Spain

Pace: Lithuania 73.5, Spain 72.0
Offensive Ratings: Lithuania 118.4 (5th), Spain 110.4 (7th)
Defensive Ratings: Lithuania 105.6 (3rd), Spain 97.8 (2nd)

The first of two semifinals gives us an interesting matchup of Europe's two remaining squads. Lithuania and Spain met two years ago in the FIBA World Championships, with Spain winning easily 89-67 in the quarterfinals. Since then, however, Lithuania has been on an upswing, taking third in Euro 2007 to secure an Olympic berth and going 5-1 so far in Beijing. Aside from a rout at the hands of Australia in a game that had no impact on the medal round, Lithuania has been very strong, showing the ability to win with either offense or defense.

Spain, meanwhile, is the enigma of these Olympics. We still don't entirely know what to make of Aito Garcia's squad. We'll see if Garcia tightens his rotation--and I use that word loosely in this case--with so much at stake and a team every bit Spain's equal on the other side. The scouting reports based on Garcia's career at the club level seem to indicate that he will continue to use a variety of players and lineups. That's seemed to make it difficult for Spain to find offensive continuity, though the team has been excellent at the defensive end of the floor.

When Lithuania has the ball, there are two key areas to watch: Three-point shooting and turnovers. Lithuania is only one three-pointer behind Argentina for the most made in the Olympics and hits threes at a 40.6 percent clip. Sarunas Jasikevicius, Linas Kleiza and Ramunas Siskauskas have all made at least 10 threes in the six games, and all are shooting better than 45 percent from downtown. Spain simply can't match that shooting from beyond the arc, having shot 30.4 percent on threes. Trading twos for threes is a tough proposition--those hits from long distance can bring Lithuania back from a deficit. On the other hand, if those threes are off, Spain is far and away the best defensive rebounding team in the Olympics, so Lithuania cannot count on second chances.

To get off a three-point attempt, Lithuania will first have to hang on to the basketball. They've turned it over on 18.5 percent of their possessions, worst of the teams that got out of group play. That plays right into Spain's hands. Only Australia has forced turnovers at a higher rate than Spain has. Add it up and the potential is there for sloppy basketball to undermine Lithuania's offense.

For Spain, the key will be defending Jasikevicius, the Olympic veteran who nearly upset the U.S. with a buzzer-beating three in the semifinals in 2000 in Sydney. Still an elite point guard at 32, Jasikevicius leads all Olympians with 5.5 assists per game. He also turns it over 3.2 times a night, so he can be vulnerable to miscues, and Spain is sure to pressure him. This could be a perfect matchup for Ricky Rubio, who has the size and quickness to hound Jasikevicius and make it difficult for him to initiate Lithuania's offense.

When Spain is on offense...well, your guess is as good as mine. Eight players average between 4.7 and 10.8 points, and they and captain Carlos Jimenez are about equally likely to be on the floor at any given time. The lone constant is Pau Gasol, and even Garcia's democratic offense can't hold the 2006 World Championships MVP down. Gasol is second amongst Olympians in scoring at 19.5 points per night while shooting 70.6 percent from the field. Robertas Javtokas and Ksistof Lavrinovic figure to be tasked with defending Gasol, to which I say good luck. They're as likely as anyone else besides the USA to be successful against the Spanish big man.

A big part of Spain's lackluster play in the Olympics can be tied to point guard Jose Calderon, who has shot 40.0 percent from the field and has more turnovers (eight) than assists (seven). That's hard to believe coming from a guy who posted one of the best assist-to-turnover ratios in NBA history last season. It certainly would also help if Juan Carlos Navarro, who has made just 21.7 percent of his threes thus far, could find his missing stroke.

For all the criticism of Spain's play, even within this column, the team is right where it wants to be at this point of the Olympics--in the semifinals with a potential showdown with the U.S. in the gold-medal game looming. Lithuania presents a more difficult challenge than Croatia did in the quarterfinals, a similar team but one that is weaker on defense and more inconsistent on offense. Still, Spain should have enough talent to pull out a much closer outcome than when these teams met in 2006, and move on to the final.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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Olympic Recap (08/20)
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Olympic Recap (08/22)

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2008-08-24 - Olympic Recap: Medal Round
2008-08-23 - Olympic Preview: Gold Medal and Bronze Medal...
2008-08-22 - Olympic Recap: The Semifinals
2008-08-21 - Olympic Preview: Semifinals
2008-08-20 - Olympic Recap: Quarterfinals
2008-08-18 - Olympic Recap: Round Robin, Day Five
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