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August 17, 2008
Olympic Recap
Round Robin, Day Four

by Kevin Pelton

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United States 119, Spain 82

Possessions: 91.5
Offensive Ratings: United States 131.1, Spain 89.4

In beating Greece Thursday, the United States men showed how far they have come since the 2006 World Championships. In crushing Spain Saturday, they reached the kind of transcendent heights not seen since at least the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and maybe not since the Dream Team rolled through Barcelona in 1992.

For the U.S. to beat Spain is not really a surprise; it's the lopsided final score that was stunning. The 37-point margin was the USA's largest of the Olympics (you could have gotten pretty good odds on that) and the third largest for any winning team in Beijing. After the teams were close for half of the first quarter, the Americans pulled away and were never threatened again.

Besides the margin, the most surprising aspect of the game was the extremely fast pace it was played at, even by U.S. standards. The 91.5 possessions were more than 10 more than in any other game in the Olympics (USA/Angola, with 81 possessions, was previously the fastest). That's very different from Spain's typical MO. Even in an overtime win against China, Spain had just 78 possessions; their other two games featured fewer than 70 possessions.

Both teams sped the game up by applying pressure defense full-court. For the U.S., that strategy was meant to rattle the Spanish guards, particularly youthful Ricky Rubio. Meanwhile, Spain had little choice but to press after falling way behind. The USA easily broke containment for transition buckets that came as easily against Spain as at any point during the Olympics. Greece and even Angola did a better job of getting back on defense than Spain did in this game.

Spain had a much more difficult time handling the pressure, committing 28 turnovers, nearly doubling their previous average in the Olympics. In 2006, the U.S. defense was able to force enough turnovers against weak opposition to overcome other weaknesses. When the USA went up against a quality team in Greece, the turnovers dried up and the defense fell apart. Not only have the U.S. men addressed those defensive rotation issues in these Olympics, they've been able to force turnovers even against the world's elite.

In the early going, Spain was able to find some opportunities inside, particularly effective forward Felipe Reyes (19 points on 9-of-12 shooting, eight boards), and shot a high percentage in the first quarter to stay within striking distance despite the turnovers. The USA quickly closed down those gaps and made life miserable with the quality of their help defense and the athleticism that allows them to get back quickly and contest shots. On several occasions, Spain got the switch it wanted putting a smaller defender in the post only to see a weak-side defender sneak in to steal the entry pass.

The U.S. completely shut down Spain's guards. Jose Calderon, Raul Lopez, Juan Carlos Navarro, Berni Rodriguez and Ricky Rubio combined to shoot 5-of-33 from the field. Spanish Head Coach Aito Garcia has used a variety of different backcourts throughout the Olympics, and whether that's because he's looking for a combination that works or hoping to throw off medal-round opponents, none of them were effective on Saturday.

For all the focus on the defense, the USA offense was awfully impressive itself. In fact, the team's 131.1 Offensive Rating was actually its best of the Olympics. Spain, meanwhile, had yet to allow more than a point per possession in Beijing. Saturday may have been the best the Americans have executed their half-court offense so far.

Spain mixed up its defenses, throwing regular zone at the U.S. to little effect. When the USA wasn't knocking down three-pointers (12 in 25 attempts, a 48.0 percent clip, far better than the team has shot yet so far in the Olympics), it was unselfishly moving the ball around to stretch and snap the zone, producing open looks in the paint. In an impressive testament to the team's depth, eight players--including previously little-used Tayshaun Prince--scored in double figures.

Clearly, if the U.S. plays like this, there is nobody in the world that can compete with them. So far, the Americans have passed every test. Still, the medal round will be different. As Mike Breen pointed out during NBC's broadcast, the two undefeated teams in group play in Athens were Spain and Lithuania, who finished seventh and fourth, respectively. I'm sure Spain wanted to win this game, and certainly wanted to compete, but other teams don't share the USA's mindset of wanting to win every game easily. If the U.S. and Spain play in the gold-medal game, as widely expected, count on a different level of intensity from Spain.

China 59, Germany 55

Possessions: 66.5
Offensive Ratings: China 88.8, Germany 82.2

For the hosts, in a real sense this was their Olympics. With a win, China could clinch a spot in the quarterfinals, while a loss would leave them needing to upset Greece. With all that on the line in front of a highly enthusiastic crowd, China held on for a four-point win that was probably the biggest in the nation's men's basketball history.

It wasn't pretty, not with the two teams combining to shoot 30.9 percent from the field. The fourth quarter was the only one in which both teams scored in double figures. Both teams saw their lack of depth exposed, putting heavy pressure on superstars Yao Ming (25 points and 11 rebounds) and Dirk Nowitzki (24 points, 17 rebounds, but 7-of-20 shooting and seven turnovers). Nowitzki nearly single-handedly kept Germany in the game in the fourth quarter, scoring 11 of the team's 16 points. China got combined 3-of-25 shooting from Liu Wei, Wang Shipeng and Zhu Fangyu. For Germany, everybody besides Nowitzki, Chris Kaman and Pascal Roller totaled eight points on 2-of-22 shooting. Yikes. What's surprising is both teams had been as good or better on offense than defense before the game.

China has already met the expectations from their Olympics, though it's not inconceivable that they could make some noise in the medal rounds, especially as Yao continues to round into game shape.

Lithuania 86, Croatia 73

Possessions: 63.5
Offensive Ratings: Lithuania 137.1, Croatia 112.9

By beating Croatia, Lithuania remained undefeated at 4-0 and clinched the top spot in Group A. Croatia continues to score points at a strong clip--nobody else had posted an Offensive Rating of better than 101.2 against Lithuania's stingy defense--but cannot stop anyone. The Croatians have the worst defense of any of the eight teams headed to the quarterfinals. Actually, Croatia played strong defense in the first and third quarters, but Lithuania roared back with 28 points in the fourth period to turn a four-point deficit into a relatively easy win.

Mindaugas Lukauskis paced the Lithuania attack, scoring 20 points on 7-of-9 shooting, including a trio of three-pointers. Lithuania was 11-of-20 from downtown as a team, getting four more threes from Linas Kleiza, who scored 19. By contrast, Croatia was 5-of-17 from three-point range. With his teammates shooting so well, Sarunas Jasikevicius was content to play distributor, finishing with nine points and six assists.

Croatia is likely locked into third in Group A, which would mean a quarterfinal matchup with Spain. It's impossible for Croatia to move up because of tiebreakers, while Croatia would have to suffer a stunning upset to Iran and see Australia beat Lithuania to drop to fourth and a date with the U.S. in the quarters.

Australia 95, Russia 80

Possessions: 75.5
Offensive Ratings: Australia 125.3, Russia 106.0

The big upset of the day saw the Boomers punch their ticket to the medal round by defeating the reigning European Champions with relative ease. Australia led by 11 after a quarter and 16 at the half. There was little sign that the Aussies were ready to break out, having struggled on defense and beaten only Iran in their first three games. However, Andrew Bogut shook off a rough start in Beijing to score 22 points on 8-of-13 shooting and pull down eight boards. Veteran point guard C.J. Bruton scored 22 points himself, handing out six assists in 30 minutes of turnover-free ball and four other players added at least eight points. At their best, the Boomers can be very difficult to stop on offense with a variety of different threats.

Russia still has a game left against Argentina, but with no chance of advancing, their Olympics are effectively finished. The Russians will go home very disappointed, having struggled so much just a year after beating Spain in Spain to win Euro 2007. Andrei Kirilenko may wear the goat horns, having struggled at the free-throw line in a winnable game against Lithuania and then shooting 1-for-10 against Australia. Viktor Krhyapa shined in defeat, scoring 21 points on 7-of-8 shooting and making all six of his tries from three-point range.

Argentina 97, Iran 82

Possessions: 69.5
Offensive Ratings: Argentina 139.0, Iran 117.7

Iran got something of a moral victory by giving the defending Olympic champions a pretty decent game. Having scored no more than 91 points per 100 possessions in the first three games, the Iranian offense found a bit of a groove, the team shooting 47.0 percent from the field and committing just 13 turnovers. Hamed Hadadi led the way with 21 points and 16 rebounds, a nice statement game as far as his potential as concerned.

Alas, Iran was powerless to stop an Argentinean offense that has been locked in since the opening loss to Lithuania. Manu Ginobili scored 32 points on 10-of-14 shooting to take over the honors as leading scorer at the Olympics. Luis Scola added 20 and Argentina shot 55.4 percent from the field while taking care of the basketball to the tune of six turnovers. Don't be fooled by Argentina finishing second in its group: This is a team that's ready for the medal rounds and could face the USA in one semifinal.

Greece 102, Angola 61

Possessions: 69.5
Offensive Ratings: Greece 150.3, Angola 86.1

After the loss to the U.S., Greece took out its frustrations against a hopelessly outmatched Angola squad, putting together the best offensive performance of the Olympics by any team. Ioannis Bouroussis typified the hot shooting, scoring 22 points on 9-of-9 from the field...in 13 minutes. ten of the 11 Greek players who saw action scored at least six points. Angola got another solid effort from Eduardo Mingas (23 points, 10-of-18 shooting), but does not have nearly enough firepower to keep up and will go home winless barring a stunning victory over Spain on Monday.

As for Greece, losing their finale with China might not be such a bad thing. The winner of that game takes third place in Group B, which would mean facing Argentina in the quarterfinals. The loser gets Lithuania, as well as a potential semifinal matchup against Spain instead of the U.S. Lithuania has played very well here in Beijing, but it would be understandable that Greece might prefer to play them rather than Argentina. This kind of gamesmanship is often frowned upon in American pro sports, but you regularly see it in international play and it wouldn't be at all surprising to see the Greeks rest some players against China.

Looking at the overall team statistics, three teams have separated themselves from the pack. And, because of the size of their beating at the hands of the USA, Spain is no longer one of them.

Team            Gr    Diff   ORating Rank   DRating Rank    Pace

United States    B    34.0    123.6    1      90.6    1     82.3
Lithuania        A    18.9    118.7    4      98.6    2     74.2
Argentina        A    18.7    118.9    3     102.3    3     69.6
Greece           B     9.2    115.6    6     105.0    4     70.5
Australia        A     7.3    121.7    2     114.0    9     72.2
Spain            B     0.3    103.8    8     106.2    6     73.8
Russia           A    -2.5    108.7    7     112.0    8     70.6
Germany          B    -4.1    103.2    9     106.6    7     66.3
Croatia          A    -5.7    115.8    5     122.4   10     66.2
China            B    -7.2    102.6   10     105.6    5     69.6
Iran             A   -37.4     93.9   12     129.2   11     71.5
Angola           B   -38.2     95.1   11     135.5   12     70.6

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%

Angola           B   0.460   0.227   0.169   0.178     0.648   0.660   0.304   0.150
Argentina        A   0.573   0.268   0.251   0.157     0.478   0.720   0.196   0.162
Australia        A   0.556   0.321   0.243   0.142     0.617   0.732   0.220   0.226
China            B   0.473   0.295   0.253   0.184     0.489   0.691   0.180   0.162
Croatia          A   0.538   0.393   0.293   0.189     0.591   0.695   0.253   0.167
Germany          B   0.500   0.267   0.230   0.193     0.462   0.731   0.264   0.126
Greece           B   0.566   0.308   0.252   0.184     0.512   0.738   0.207   0.177
Iran             A   0.489   0.336   0.226   0.254     0.603   0.638   0.170   0.129
Lithuania        A   0.576   0.285   0.288   0.171     0.442   0.687   0.342   0.190
Russia           A   0.523   0.262   0.217   0.162     0.529   0.677   0.354   0.200
Spain            B   0.474   0.374   0.251   0.190     0.556   0.765   0.202   0.200
United States    B   0.610   0.265   0.235   0.147     0.438   0.673   0.241   0.242

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 (08/18)

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