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August 24, 2008
Olympic Recap
Medal Round

by Kevin Pelton


United States 118, Spain 107

Possessions: 82.5
Offensive Ratings: United States 142.5, Spain 130.6

When FIBA votedm in 1989, to allow NBA players to compete in the Olympics, presumably they had something like this game in mind: Two elite teams getting superstar play on both sides, going back and forth with a gold-medal at stake and passionate fans cheering from the stands. The intensity level was at least that of an NBA Finals Game Seven or an NCAA Championship, though elevated because the pride of two nations was at stake. Both teams responded and delivered one of the best games the Olympics have ever seen.

Those who did not watch this game might take a look at the score and think the United States let down on the verge of completing its pursuit of a gold medal. Alas, most of the night, that was the way NBC broadcasters Mike Breen and Doug Collins presented the game, nitpicking the Americans' performance. While the criticism wasn't entirely unwarranted, it missed the point: This is a great Spanish team that won the FIBA World Championships two years ago for a reason, and it rose to the occasion to give the USA a legitimate test for the first time in these Olympics.

That this game was going to be difficult was evident right from the opening tip, as Spain burst out with a flurry of points to take an 19-14 lead at the midway point of the first period. The seventh-best offense over the course of the Olympics, going up against the best defense, somehow came up with 31 first-quarter points...yet still trailed by seven because the USA, hitting from the field when they weren't at the line during a quarter in which whistles came fast and furious on both ends of the court, put up an Olympics-best 38 points.

During the second quarter, it appeared that the game might be returning to its expected script of the U.S. having control. The Americans led by as many as 13 points during the period only to see Rudy Fernandez bring Spain back with a variety of improbable circus shots.

By the second half, the two teams had settled into a back-and-forth game, the USA continuing to lead but unable to pull away. While Spain's switch to a zone defense--and poor outside shooting against it--helped bring the U.S. offense under control, Juan Carlos Navarro was offering all the scoring Spain needed. Apparently, Navarro was saving all of his shots for the final; after a disappointing first seven games, he was huge thsi morning. Navarro repeatedly beat the USA's perimeter defenders off the dribble and avoided help defense with his soft, high-arcing floater. Navarro even ran the point for much of the second half with Jose Calderon injured and Raul Lopez glued to the bench.

The biggest threat to the U.S. came with 8:13 left to play, when a 9-0 run brought Spain within two. Mike Krzyzewski took a timeout and Kobe Bryant looked to put his stamp on the game. Bryant scored, assisted on a Deron Williams three and a Dwight Howard dunk, then hit a three. A LeBron James score finished the run that pushed the lead back to 11 points. Spain had a couple more surges in them, but the USA had the answer each time, including a Bryant four-point play that was also Fernandez's costly fifth foul.

The big surprise of the game, besides perhaps Spain's competitiveness, was the high scoring. The U.S. and Spain came into this game as the top two defenses in Beijing, with no one else particularly close. Yet neither could stop the other. For both teams, it was their second-best Offensive Rating of the Olympics, and it was far and away the worst defensive performance for the USA, which previously had not allowed more than 105.4 points per 100 possessions in a game. The back-and-forth scoring was entertaining for viewers, but had to be frustrating for the coaching staffs.

The assumption was that Spain would miss Jose Calderon, sidelined with an adductor muscle injury. That turned out not to be the case. A late technical aside, 17-year-old Ricky Rubio wasn't rattled by the opposition or the importance of the game, committing just two turnovers in 29 minutes. Spain had but 14 turnovers as a team, half of the 28 they committed in their lopsided group-play loss to the U.S. Not naturally a point guard, Navarro effectively ran the offense, finishing with 18 points and four assists.

Spain got abnormally strong production from three-point range, hitting eight threes in 17 attempts. Fernandez was responsible for five of those triples in eight attempts, many of them with a high degree of difficulty. He had 22 points in just 18 minutes of play in a coming-out party of sorts, at least on the American stage. Meanwhile, Pau Gasol was typically strong in the post, scoring 21 points and leading a charge to the offensive glass that saw Spain come up with 15 of its own misses.

As we've seen throughout the Olympics, the weakness for the U.S. defense was getting beaten one-on-one and not having the opportunity to help. Spain was able to exploit that vulnerability far more than any other team did. Their attitude was also more aggressive in terms of going right at the USA and playing physically in the paint. We did see the U.S. defense falter in areas where it had previously been strong, like closing out on shooters and defending pick-and-rolls.

To an extent, you have to wonder where this offense was for Spain the rest of the Olympics, but the talent was always there. To some extent, shots were just falling, while Atio Garcia coaching differently with gold on the line and doing more to feature his star players was probably also a factor.

In my preview, I laid out a number of things that had to happen for Spain to win: 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. All the offensive parts of that came to fruition, but Spain could not get enough stops.

The USA did go through a rough shooting patch against Spain's zone during the third quarter. As has been the case throughout the Olympics, however, poor shooting (and success by zone defenses) was short-lived. The U.S. came up with big triples in the fourth quarter; for the game, the team shot 46.4 percent, and the 13 American threes were the most in the Olympics. Things were no better for Spain when the USA worked the ball inside, where the team hit 70.3 percent of its twos.

Dwyane Wade secured the mythical Olympics MVP trophy with another brilliant performance. Wade had 27 points on 9-of-12 shooting and four of the 10 U.S. steals. Bryant's shot selection was occasionally iffy--including the four-point play that paid off handsomely--but he scored 20 points and also handed out six assists. Everyone else contributed as well, with Jason Kidd the only USA rotation player not to score at least six points.

As the three-year experiment by USA Basketball has drawn to a close, it has to be considered an unequivocal success. Not only did the U.S. build a true team that played as such in the Olympics, it also did a great deal to change the perception of international basketball in this country. How much the gold meant to the American players was evident during the game, afterwards and during the medal ceremony. At the same time, this final is a reminder that USA Basketball can do everything right and still be threatened or even lose. The rest of the world has reached that level.

By the time the 2010 World Championships roll around, we'll have a new set of rules, as FIBA adopts the NBA's rectangular key, pushes the three-point line back from 20'6" to 22' and adds an NBA-style restricted charge circle. The changes mean players schooled in the American rules will face less of an adjustment. A number of players have expressed interest in continuing with the national team, while young players like Kevin Durant and Greg Oden are likely to emerge as part of the core.

If we're lucky, USA Basketball's approach and the growth of other teams will mean we can come to expect more thrillers. This gold-medal game, however, will be tough to beat.

Argentina 87, Lithuania 75

Possessions: 74.5
Offensive Ratings: Argentina 117.6, Lithuania 100.2

Who needs Manu Ginobili? With their star on the sidelines in an Argentina polo and jeans, knocked out after injuring his ankle against the USA in the semifinals, the Argentineans still claimed the second medal in their history by beating Lithuania 87-75 in the bronze-medal game.

In part, Argentina benefited from deserved good luck. Both of these teams depend heavily on threes, so when Lithuania could not find the range, shooting 6-of-23 (26.1 percent), their worst performance of the Olympics, that spelled major trouble. By contrast, Argentina had 11 triples in an identical 23 attempts for 47.8 percent accuracy. I say deserved because it was a similar off night from downtown that cost Argentina in a loss to Lithuania in the opening game of group play.

Maybe because of the threes, maybe because of lingering disappointment from the semifinals, maybe because Sarunas Jasikevicius wasn't quite himself after getting cut in the early minutes or maybe because Andres Nocioni was healthy, Argentina seemed to have more energy throughout the game. Until Lithuania made a run in the fourth quarter to make things interesting, Argentina was in control almost the entire way.

Nocioni was excellent, offering energy, outside shooting and matching up well with Lithuania's seemingly-uninterested Linas Kleiza. Still, this night belonged to Argentina's new generation. Carlos Delfino led all players with 20 points and 10 rebounds, comfortably filling Ginobili's role as go-to player on the perimeter. Luis Scola got Argentina off to a quick start and finished with 16 points on 7-of-14 shooting before fouling out.

With Ginobili, Nocioni and Fabricio Oberto sitting out, Delfino and Scola led Argentina to second place behind the USA in last summer's FIBA Americas Championships. That seems to have built a lot of chemistry between them and Pablo Prigioni, the point guard who was a backup in 2004 when Argentina won gold and has stepped in as a starter this time. He rounded out the group with another typically heady performance--six points, seven assists, five steals and zero turnovers in 34 minutes. I'd never heard of Prigioni two weeks ago; he's quickly become a favorite over the course of the Olympics.

The other factor in Argentina's favor was another surprisingly solid effort from the bench. Leonardo Gutierrez and Pablo Quinteros offered 11 points apiece in 32 total minutes, hitting six three-pointers. So much for Argentina's lack of depth.

For Lithuania, Rimantas Kaukenas (14 points) and Ramunas Siskauskas (15) were the lone two players to find a groove on offense. Kleiza, so good at times in the Olympics, followed up his scoreless semifinal with five points on 1-of-5 shooting. Jasikevicius, wrapping up what could be his last Olympics at age 32 after playing a key role dating back to 2000 in Sydney, had a tough night. He scored nine points, but shot 4-of-12 from the field, missed all four of his three-point attempts and turned the ball over four times.

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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Olympic Recap (08/26)

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2008-08-24 - Olympic Recap: Medal Round
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