Coming into London, the clear favorites for the gold medal (no, duh?) were Team USA. The big contenders to create some type of upset were Spain, Argentina and France -- pretty much in that order. However, pre-tournament predictions are just those, predictions. This is why we play the games.
We have just witnessed the bronze medal game, where Russia, somewhat of a fairtytale team, went on to defeat Argentina, taking out the medal. Russia, having only gained entry to the Games via the Qualifying (aka "Wildcard") tournament, were never expected to be one of the big players. Of course, they surprised many experts by combining the skills of Andrei Kirilenko, rising star Aleksey Shved and Timofey Mozgov into a four-point winning bronze medal team, over one of the most successful teams of the past decade.
Argentina is loaded with talent. They are also a proven thing, having won big games with essentially the same team they have right now. Had a late Andres Nocioni three rattled in, rather than out, we possibly would've seen the team in white and sky blue walk away with the medal. Manu Ginobili's usual clutch play would have been deserving of it.
Instead, we see Russia pull off an upset. This will no doubt inspire Spain, as they amble into the gold medal game against the superstar-laden Team USA.
Contrastingly to Russia, Spain have entered the Games with high expectations, but a record of underachievement in the Pool games. They turned that around with a nutcracking victory over highly-fancied France and now look to use every inch of their size advantage against the Americans.
Pau and Marc Gasol are a fanastic combo of versatile centres. They are the type of big men that any team would kill for. They are also the type of pivots that Team USA doesn't really have. In really the only "weakness" for USA, they lack a dearth of quality big men, instead relying on their plethora of athletic swingmen to get the job done, as they have done in recent FIBA tournaments.
Tyson Chandler and Kevin Love will hope to somewhat neutralise the talents of the Gasol brothers and Serge Ibaka (Oklahoma City Thunder), but realistically, the game plan for USA will be to create some turnovers and get out into the open court where their athleticism can cause havoc.
LeBron James, Chris Paul, and Russell Westbrook are just a few of the numerous names that can turn an errant pass into an instant highlight reel and a demoralising dunk that is hard to reverse the tide of.
Team USA leader veteran Kobe Bryant sees the brother of his Los Angeles Lakers teammate Gasol as a key player that the Americans need to contain:
"Marc (Gasol) is really the big difference," Bryant said.
"He's improved tremendously from the last time we played them.
"His confidence has improved, his skill has improved. And that's one major difference."
The fact remains: in order to beat Team USA, you need every player on song -- not just a couple. Where the Gasol brothers need to take this team on their backs, the likes of Jose Calderon, Juan Carlos Navarro and Rudy Fernandez need to play near to the games of their lives to make the weight on those big shoulders not too heavy.
Can Spain pull off the upset? Who knows. This is why we play the games.
Either way, I'm predicting plenty of passion and entertainment.
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