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August 22, 2008
Olympic Recap
The Semifinals

by Kevin Pelton


United States 101, Argentina 81

Possessions: 79
Offensive Ratings: United States 127.0, Argentina 102.8

When the United States went on an 18-0 run early in Friday's semifinal against Argentina, and Argentinean star Manu Ginobili went out limping after rolling his ankle, it was tough to see Argentina being able to give the U.S. a game. Give the defending Olympic champions a great deal of credit for becoming the first team to weather one of those extended runs which have become the USA's signature in these Olympics and keep things competitive in a 101-81 U.S. victory.

During the second quarter, Argentina authored probably the best extended stretch of basketball we've seen against the Americans thus far in Beijing, outscoring them 29-19 in the period to cut into the early deficit. The strong quarter was fueled by a combination of foolish fouls that sent Argentina to the free-throw line for 10 of their 16 attempts in the game, and the U.S. struggling to hit from downtown against the Argentinean zone defense.

The Argentinean bench, not exactly considered a strength, came through with a pretty strong effort during the second quarter. Alfredo Quinteros knocked down a couple of three-pointers, while Juan Llanos offered solid production up front. Andres Nocioni also provided energy off the bench despite the knee injury which forced him into a reserve role and limited him to 18 minutes.

After halftime, the three-pointers began to fall for the U.S., while Argentina had a more difficult time scoring without the benefit of free throws as a key weapon. Carlos Delfino and Luis Scola, Argentina's go-to players in Ginobili's absence, really offered the team's only scoring. Still, while the USA wasn't exactly threatened, Mike Krzyzewski had his key players on the floor until the two-minute mark.

Certainly, the game was close enough that Argentina can wonder how things might have been different had Ginobili not been injured (and, for that matter, Nocioni been at full strength instead of limited to 18 minutes). Strangely, it was mostly with Ginobili that Argentina got blown off the court in the first quarter, largely because of turnovers. Argentina coughed it up six times in the first eight minutes, then settled down and had 10 over the final 32 minutes. (The USA was able to frustrate Pablo Prigioni into four turnovers, as many as he had in the entire Olympics to date.)

Even without Ginobili, Argentina scored at a decent clip. After the disastrous start, Argentina scored 70 points over the final three quarters and became the second straight team to top a point per possession against the stingy U.S. defense. Scola was the key, becoming the first big man to really exploit the USA's undersized frontline. He was extremely active in the paint and finished well at the rim, finishing with 28 points on 13-of-21 shooting and 11 boards. (I wonder again: The Spurs could find no room whatsoever for this guy? None?)

Led by Scola's effort, Argentina shot 53.3 percent on two-pointers, the best percentage the U.S. has allowed in these Olympics. Where the American defense really shut down Argentina, and where Ginobili was really missed, was beyond the arc. Argentina was 6-of-23 from three-point range, nearly a mirror image of the 5-of-22 they shot in their other Olympic loss against Lithuania. Ginobili had been averaging nearly three triples a game, Nocioni more than one-and-a-half. Combined, they had none in three attempts in their limited minutes. Carlos Delfino became the main threat for Argentina from downtown and was 3-of-10 from out there, which was not enough.

As expected, the USA was able to find opportunities to score against an Argentina defense that hasn't really shut people down in Beijing. By playing zone most of the game, Argentina invited the U.S. to win or lose the game from downtown, and the Americans--particularly Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant, who attempted a combined 17 threes, making four of them--were happy to oblige. More than 45 percent of the USA's shot attempts were from beyond the arc, the highest number in the Olympics thus far. The zone was particularly effective in the second quarter, serving not only to force U.S. misses but also, in conjunction with Argentina's trips to the foul line, to slow the game and frustrate any sort of rhythm. (Overall, though, Argentina was not able to slow the pace. The 79 possessions were just two under the USA's average.)

Even when the USA did miss from downtown, the offensive glass was the team's friend. The U.S. had 16 offensive boards in 39 opportunities. Those second chances helped the team get to the free-throw line 36 times. More importantly, the Americans shot respectably once at the line, hitting 75 percent behind a perfect 13-of-13 effort from Anthony. An overmatched Fabricio Oberto was helping send the U.S. to the line, finishing with five fouls, four turnovers, two points and no rebounds in 19 minutes of ineffective action.

This was a game in which the USA's offensive depth was on full display. While Anthony, because of the free throws, was the only player to have a big scoring night (despite shooting 3-of-14 from the field), seven players scored in double figures.

Having lost in the semifinals in the last Olympics and in the 2006 FIBA World Championships, the U.S. has to be happy to be past this round and into the gold-medal game for the first time since the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Their effort to get there could have been cleaner and easier, but so far the USA remains on track for gold.

Spain 91, Lithuania 86

Possessions: 73
Offensive Ratings: Spain 122.5, Lithuania 120.3

The first of the two semifinals proved far more offensive than expected. Even without point guard Jose Calderon, sidelined by a strained abductor muscle suffered in the quarterfinal win over Croatia, Spain had its second-best offensive performance of the Olympics at the right time. With Lithuania making 12 three-pointers at a 38.7 percent clip, Spain needed every bucket to win.

Behind the hot shooting, led by 5-of-10 from beyond the arc for Simas Jasaitis, Lithuania staked a two-point lead at halftime and led by four heading to the final period. The fourth quarter, however, was dominated by Spain, which held Lithuania scoreless for nearly four minutes to take a seven-point advantage. Lithuania cut the lead back down to three a couple of times in the final minutes, but Spain was accurate enough at the line to hold them at bay and advance to the finals.

Spain's strong offensive showing wasn't due to hot shooting. In fact, Spain was even worse than usual from beyond the arc (4-of-16, 25.0 percent) and shot an unimpressive 48.9 percent on twos. In every other facet of offense, however, Spain did very well, including just 11 turnovers (while using their own pressure to force Lithuania into giving the ball away 18 times) and 14 offensive boards in 36 chances.

The biggest key was the free-throw line. While the numbers were slightly padded by intentional fouls down the stretch, Spain went to the line 44 times, the most of any team in the Olympics thus far. Next were Russia's 37 attempts against Lithuania and Iran's 35 attempts...against Lithuania. Noticing a trend here? In the other four Lithuania games, free throws weren't a huge factor, but at times the Lithuanians have been hacktastic, and against the athletic Spanish roster, that was a major problem.

The one surprise was that Spain attempted 44 free throws and just eight of them came from Pau Gasol, a major matchup problem for the Lithuania frontline. Their big men did a reasonably good job, holding Gasol to 7-of-12 shooting (58.3 percent, which qualifies for Gasol in the Olympics as an off night) and 19 points while forcing six turnovers.

The Lithuanian big men managed not only to battle with Gasol but provide some unexpected offense of their own. Robertas Javtokas and Ksistof Lavrinovic, who had averaged a combined 15.8 points per game in these Olympics, totaled 28 points on super-efficient 8-of-11 shooting. Spain had to be stunned to see Lavrinovic, who was 4-of-21 from three-point range in the Olympics, knock down four threes in six attempts.

Lithuania needed the scoring up front because the team got a complete zero from Linas Kleiza. The Denver Nuggets forward has had an excellent Olympics, but this semifinal effort was a forgettable one. Kleiza did not score in 11 minutes of action, missing all four of his shots. Kleiza's night came to an early end when he was ejected after being called for his second unsportsmanlike foul with 4:33 to play.

Ultimately, Lithuania's offense was productive enough to win, but the team could not get enough stops against a Spanish squad that has been up-and-down at best on offense. On this night, Spain's democratic offense paid off. Rudy Fernandez (18 points), Felipe Reyes (13) and Carlos Jimenez (11) all added double-figure scoring to Gasol's team-high total and three others contributed at least six points.

The advanced stats for the teams that played in the semifinals:

Team            Gr    Diff   ORating Rank   DRating Rank    Pace

United States    B    37.4    128.8    1      92.2    1     80.9
Spain            B    13.3    112.1    7     100.9    2     72.1
Argentina        A     9.3    118.1    5     110.2    5     70.4
Lithuania        A     9.0    118.6    4     108.0    3     73.4

And here are the Four Factors on offense and defense for each team.

                                OFFENSE                           DEFENSE
Team            Gr     eFG%    OR%   FTM/FGA   TO%       eFG%    DR%   FTM/FGA   TO%

Argentina         A   0.570   0.274   0.232   0.161     0.509   0.683   0.240   0.165
Lithuania         A   0.581   0.300   0.296   0.188     0.477   0.679   0.386   0.178
Spain             B   0.497   0.386   0.286   0.169     0.521   0.755   0.236   0.215
United States     B   0.608   0.348   0.243   0.143     0.440   0.711   0.210   0.209

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 Preview (08/23)

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2008-08-26 - Olympic Recap: The Final Numbers
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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
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