We are almost there -- the round which every team plays for: the medal games.
The Quarterfinals went mostly as expected (certainly, the results lined up with this writer's predictions). After the dream matchups, which were mostly continental rivals, we are now presented with two very heated Semi-Finals. Friday sees Spain and Russia play on one side of the bracket, with the winner to face the victor of USA vs Argentina in the gold medal game.
The two games offer quite different dynamics. USA and Argentina share some interesting history in recent years, with Argentina being the only team to have shown any true edge on the Americans at any point since the reintroduction of professionals to the USA international ranks. On the other hand, the Russia-Spain meeting is one of very mixed and somewhat unexpected fortunes.
Spain have been underwhelming at times, after entering the Olympics as the clear silver medal favorites and the team voted by most as the squad that could upset Team USA. The Spaniards' 3-2 pool performance was both disappointing and marred by claims of tanking. They then followed that up with a shot to the nether regions to France's Olympic dreams in the Quarterfinals.
Conversely, Russia came into the tournament with limited expectations, but have over-achieved. The Russians were forced to qualify for the Olympics via the 2012 FIBA World Olympic Qualifying Tournament after failing to gain entry through the 2011 Eurobasket tournament. They then stormed their way through Pool B, winning four straight games before only coming unstuck against Australia in the form of a Patty Mills buzzer-beater.
Andrei Kirilenko, Aleksey Shved and Timofey Mozgov have been magnificent for the team in red, white and blue and will certainly have to continue to do so if they are to parlay their phenomenal tournament form into an unexpected win over Spain.
Despite their lack of form in the Pool round, the fact remains that Spain are one of the deepest and most well-rounded squads in basketball. The front line of Marc and Pau Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Felipe Reyes is one of the most versatile groups of bigs to ever be put together -- size that gives teams fits. Much of the Spanish fortunes will rely on the backcourt performances of Jose Calderon, Rudy Fernandez, Juan Carlos Navarro and Sergio Rodriguez. Whilst no doubt the absence of phenom Ricky Rubio detracts from the entertainment value of Spain, the vast experience and varied talents of the firebrand guards they do have on court is undeniable.
There may be a majority of eyes this Friday focused on the latest rematch of Team USA and Argentina, but the real hope for an upset may lie with the Russians pushing their way into a guaranteed medal.
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