As we enter the quarterfinals of the Men's 2012 Olympic Basketball tournament, the matchups could not have been any better conceived, even if Spain had thrown a game to make them so.
The first game of the day sees an Eastern-European duel as hot Russia (4-1) takes on Lithuania (2-3). Russia's Minnesota Timberwolves duo, Andrei Kirilenko and Aleksey Shved started the tournament in impressive form, as the Russians took out four straight victories. The only thing that could stop the top team in Pool B was a buzzer beater from Australia's Patty Mills in the final pool game.
Lithuania on the other hand, have had mixed fortunes. Similarly led by their star forward in Linas Kleiza, the basketball-mad country endured losses to Argentina and France, whilst they pulled out expected wins over Nigeria and Tunisia. The highlight to date of the Lithuanian Olympic campaign has been pushing Team USA to within five points -- no doubt an achievement that will spur them on in confidence against Russia.
With that match out of the way, we turn to a Western-European battle in France (4-1) versus Spain (3-2). Both of these squads are stacked with quality talent, including a vast array of NBA players.
Spain entered London as the big favorite for Silver, seemingly with USA as their only obstacle to ultimate success. However their pool games have raised a number of questions, truly making one wonder whether Spain have what it takes to push through for a medal. Not only did they only escape with a one point victory over host nation Great Britain, but they also fell in their final two pool games to Russia and Brazil.
The fact remains though that Spain have the most formiddable front court in the tournament, with the Gasol brothers alongside Felipe Reyes and Serge Ibaka. Not only that, but they boast an array of quality guards, with their only big limitation being inconsistency. If the true Spanish squad shows up, they will live to fight through to a medal.
Meanwhile France will have other ideas, as Nicolas Batum and Tony Parker display a skillset that seemingly only the likes of Team USA can match. In fact, the Americans have been the only team successful in taking down France so far, with a win over Argentina particularly valuable.
The winners of these two European powerhouse matchups will face each other in the semi-final round.
On the other side of the draw, the South Americans form another match made in heaven, as Brazil and Argentina duke it out seemingly for the right to play Team USA in the next round. Both the South American teams display a wealth of experience and NBA talent, with a particular trademark of this game likely to be physicality.
Nene Hilario, Tiago Splitter and Anderson Varejao will no doubt enjoy enjoy the tussle with Luis Scola and Andres Nocioni in the paint. On the perimeter there will be some serious displays of firepower between the likes of Manu Ginobili, Carlos Delfino and Pablo Prigioni for Argentina, against Leandro Barbosa and Marcelinho Huertas for Brazil. Scola and Ginobili rank third and fourth in the tournament in scoring and have a load of experience at this level.
Ultimately, the experience of the Argentinians may prove to be the decisive factor in this one.
The final game of the quarterfinals may be the most free-flowing and entertaining. Both Team USA and Australia have expressed a fondness for the running, open court game, even if that may ultimately be the Boomers' downfall in this knockout bout.
Patty Mills has been in tremendous form in the leadup to this game and will no doubt be the key focus of the USA defense, who will enjoy cornering him with their athletic guards. After 39 points against Great Britain, Mills capped the preliminary round with a buzzer-beating three point shot to down Russia. That confidence will help the Boomers into the most dreaded matchup in international basketball.
Of course, USA are in some devastating form themselves -- particularly Kevin Durant. The rangey forward finished off the pool round with some of the most lethal three-point shooting seen in basketball, as Team USA disposed of Argentina. With Durant ably assisted by the likes of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul, it's not hard to understand why no one wanted to be labored with the crossover game against them in the quarterfinals.
Australia will need to heavily use their internationall experienced bigs in Matthew Nielsen, David Andersen, Aleks Maric and Aron Baynes, with the hope that their size can somehow combat the perimeter-oriented USA team. Boomers head coach, Brett Brown says that his team looks forward to the challenge:
It's a competitive situation we embrace," he said.
"We look forward to playing that level of talent.
"We have a lot of guys who want to use this opportunity as a measuring stick to see exactly where they're at.
"We look forward to continuing our good form against the world's best players.
All of the smart money will be on Team USA for this one, but the Boomers will be looking for a Mills-led explosion to pull off the biggest upset in recent Olympic basketball history. If the likes of Joe Ingles, Brad Newley and Matthew Dellavedova can hold up their end of the bargain on the perimeter, the Australians may manage to keep this close for two or three quarters. If not, we may see a very wide open scoreline.
This writer's predictions for the semi-final round are: Russia v Spain and Argentina v USA.
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