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August 23, 2008
Olympic Preview
Gold Medal and Bronze Medal Games

by Kevin Pelton


Gold-Medal Game: United States vs. Spain

Log5 Analysis: United States 95.6 percent chance of winning
Pace: United States 80.9, Spain 72.1
Offensive Ratings: United States 128.8 (1st), Spain 112.1 (7th)
Defensive Ratings: United States 92.2 (1st), Spain 100.9 (2nd)

It comes down to this. After two weeks, five group play games and two medal rounds, the two presumptive favorites will indeed square off in the gold-medal game. While the last 14 days may have done nothing to change anyone's opinion about the top two national teams in the world, it did plenty to affect their standing relative to each other. At the start of the Olympics, I considered Spain a slight favorite to match its 2006 FIBA World Championship with an Olympic crown. In the wake of seven U.S. victories by an average of 30.3 points per game, including a thoroughly dominant 37-point win over Spain, the Americans are now overwhelmingly favored to win this game. The stats agree with that assessment: Log5 analysis says the USA has better than a 95 percent chance of winning.

Chris Sheridan could probably give you a dozen reasons why that overstates the difference between these two teams, why the U.S. has reason to fear Spain, but looking at the numbers and considering the matchups, I'm just not seeing it.

In the best of circumstances, Spain has never been the kind of team that has given the USA problems. Many of the Spanish strengths--star power, depth, forcing turnovers, offensive rebounding--are identical to the American strengths. After the blowout U.S. win in group play, Ball Don't Lie's Kelly Dwyer made the argument that Spain is the second-best NBA-style team in the world after the USA. I think that's overstating the case a little, but the idea makes sense.

It's not as if Spain has historically had a lot of success against the U.S. They won a fifth-place game in the 2002 World Championships in Indianapolis when that disastrous mix of American players had already long since mailed in the tournament. When the teams met with something important on the line in the quarterfinals in Athens, the USA spoiled Spain's 5-0 start with a 102-94 win. In 2006, when Spain won the world title, the two teams never squared off because Greece upset the U.S. in the semifinals.

Even while going 6-1, the Spanish offense has been a major disappointment. The average team in these Olympics has scored 112.0 points per 100 possessions; Spain, even with the most efficient international scorer in the world in Pau Gasol, is at an Offensive Rating of 112.1. Spain is very good on the offensive glass and gets to the free-throw line more than an average team does, but all that work is undone by the team's inability to make three-pointers.

Every other team in the Olympics, even winless Angola and Iran, made double-digit three-pointers in at least one game. Spain is still looking to reach that mark, having topped out at nine against Germany. Spain's 29.8 percent three-point accuracy is dead last amongst the 12 teams in Beijing and the team is actually trending the wrong way, having gone 4-of-16 against Lithuania with the team's best shooter, Juan Carlos Navarro (5-of-23 from downtown in the Olympics) playing limited minutes.

Spanish point guard Jose Calderon is unlikely to play in the final after partially tearing his adductor muscle in the quarterfinal win over Croatia and sitting out the semis. That leaves the point in the hands of Raul Lopez and youngster Ricky Rubio. The two have shot a combined 11-of-44 (25.0 percent) in the Olympics. As much potential as Rubio has, 17-year-olds don't have a strong track record against the pressure applied by the U.S. defense, and Rubio struggled with turnovers in the earlier matchup.

If Spain's offense is to succeed against the USA, it will have to come down to Gasol and Fernandez, the team's two leading scorers in Beijing. Gasol certainly has more than enough ability to beat the U.S. defense, just as Luis Scola did en route to 28 points in the quarterfinals. The key is finding ways to get Gasol involved that don't allow the American help defense, so strong in these Olympics, to get involved. It was the play of those weakside defenders that helped limit Gasol to eight shot attempts and force five turnovers in the group matchup. As for Fernandez, he's the best bet to be able to exploit the USA's difficulty in defending one-on-one on the perimeter. Six of Fernandez's eight shot attempts in the last meeting were threes; he'll have to have a more aggressive mentality in this game.

At the other end of the floor, sure U.S. ballhandling negates the strength of Spain's defense, the ability to force turnovers (more than even the USA forces on a per-possession basis). The other strength is defensive rebounding. To state the obvious, that's not as important when shots are going through the nets, as was the case for the U.S. offense in the last meeting.

Spain tried both man-to-man and zone defenses against the USA in group play; neither was effective. The Americans were particularly hot from beyond the arc that day, hitting an Olympics-high 48.0 percent of their threes. They can't count on a repeat of that, but zones have yet to prove effective against the U.S. for extended stretches. Against a man defense, as Henry Abbott noted at TrueHoop, the USA's size on the wings becomes a major asset.

Here's another way of considering the dominance of the U.S. If you took the team's worst offensive game of the tournament (against Greece, somewhat surprisingly) and worst defensive performance (against Australia) and put them in the same game, the USA would still win by about nine points. So Spain has to dramatically improve on one or the other or both, and I just don't see that happening. That's not to say Spain can't put things together; the talent is there. However, a lot of things would have to go right along the lines of a big game for Gasol, the best three-point shooting of the tournament, poor three-point shooting by the U.S., a relatively even turnover battle and an edge on the glass. Failing that, the USA wins gold, and probably without being seriously tested at any point in the Olympics.

Bronze-Medal Game: Argentina vs. Lithuania

Log5 analysis: Argentina 50.9 percent chance of winning
Pace: Argentina 70.4, Lithuania 73.4
Offensive Ratings: Argentina 118.1 (5th), Lithuania 118.6 (4th)
Defensive Ratings: Argentina 110.2 (5th), Lithuania 108.0 (3rd)

Sunday's undercard is a rematch of the very first game in Beijing for both teams. That game ultimately set the tone for Argentina. Because of the loss to Lithuania, Argentina finished second in Group A. That meant a nailbiter in the quarterfinals against Greece (while Lithuania walked all over China) and a matchup with the U.S. in the semifinals instead of more beatable Spain.

When these two teams are at full strength, they're highly similar. Both have very solid offenses which rely heavily on the three-pointer, while both are also strong at the defensive end of the court. Argentina has been ever so slightly more effective over the course of the Olympics, but basically Log5 calls it a tossup.

What the numbers don't reflect is that it seems unlikely Manu Ginobili will be able to play after hurting his ankle and not returning against the USA, while Andres Nocioni remains limited by a sore knee. That hampers two of the top three Argentinean perimeter threats. When neither Ginobili nor Nocioni is on the floor, Argentina becomes essentially a two-man offense, with Carlos Delfino and Luis Scola using the majority of the team's possessions.

Lithuania has enough physical big men to keep Scola from going off, though both he and Delfino may be able to take advantage of Lithuania's occasional propensity to send teams to the free-throw line over and over again.

With the exception of their inexplicable 37-point loss to Australia, Lithuania has been very consistent from three-point range in the Olympics, making at least 38 percent of their attempts in every other game. It's been a variety of different shooters who have gotten hot, but Lithuania has enough quality marksman that at least a couple of them will be on.

What Argentina was able to do in a strong defensive effort against Lithuania in the group matchup was shut down Sarunas Jasikevicius. Jasikevicius did hand out eight assists, but Pablo Prigioni's defense helped force five turnovers and caused Jasikevicius to shoot a poor 2-of-10 from the field.

Unless Lithuania struggles from three-point range, a limited Argentinean squad doesn't figure to have enough firepower or depth on offense to keep up. That makes Lithuania the favorites to reclaim the bronze they owned in 1992, 1996 and 2000 before losing the bronze-medal game to the U.S. in 2004.

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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2008-08-29 - Olympic Recap: Team Overviews
2008-08-26 - Olympic Recap: The Final Numbers
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

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