Andrei Kirilenko makes Russia scary. Luis Scola is the craftiest big man in London. Let Pau Gasol catch the ball inside of seven feet and you’re toast. Yi Jianlian is a better player for China than he is in the NBA. And you should probably get a hand in Kevin Durant’s face.
Long before Durant circled Olympic Stadium with his newly shaved head underneath a Ralph Lauren beret on Friday night, we knew this about him.
We knew all of these things about all of these guys, and when that orange and white Molten ball shot toward the rafters on Sunday, the aforementioned quartet had no problem reaffirming those truisms.
Each led his team in scoring and to victory on Olympic basketball’s first day of action.
Yes, they’re all big names and yes, all four of their teams are among the favorites to leave London with medals, but do me a favor while digesting these performances: resist the urge to take them even partially for granted. As the past, with some help from Carlos Arroyo, has proven, all it takes is 40 Olympic minutes to flip what you know on its ear.
Just ask France, whose duo of Tony Parker and Nicolas Batum mustered just 17 points against Team USA’s rangy, spastic defense. Then go talk to Lithuania, whose historically lofty Basketball IQ eluded them against Scola’s Argentines. See how badly Tunisia’s hurting after losing by four to Nigeria, their African counterparts who weren’t even supposed to qualify for this thing.
With only a matter of weeks to train and a handful of exhibitions to gel, Olympic basketball requires adaptation between games and often between quarters. A coach should always be on his toes; an Olympic coach needs to hyperextend those toes.
As we enter the second day of games, we’ve got six winners, six losers, and 12 teams that still have a long way to go. Here’s how each side can play better:
Last Game: 102-79 W vs. Lithuania | Next Up: France
It’s easy to pick on Argentina for being old and having no bench. It is when they lose, at least. Then there are days like Sunday, when Scola (32), Manu Ginobili (21) and Carlos Delfino (20) combined for 73 points—that’s more than Nigeria, Tunisia, France or Australia scored as a team—and old feels more like experienced while praise for their starting five drowns out concerns about the team’s depth. If the Golden Generation wants to remain untarnished in their last Olympic go-round, they will need something—anything—out of their bench. Spanish League veteran Hernan ‘Pancho’ Jasen has been a lynchpin on this team for years, and his 24 minutes on the floor should yield more than a single shot attempt and two turnovers, while Juan and Leo Gutierrez (no relation) need to keep their bodies moving down low to create driving lanes for Ginobili and elbow jumpers for Scola. With Manu and Luis reeling in help defenders, the Gutierrez boys should survive off put backs and dump downs offensively. Argentina could beat almost anyone here on the strength of their starting five alone. That’s great, if you want to almost medal.
Last Game: 75-71 L vs. Brazil | Next Up: Spain
If Matthew Dellavedova only gets two 3-point attempts in 28 minutes, then there’s no way Patty Mills should be chucking nine (and hitting just one) in 31 minutes. Of all the guys playing point guard in London, only a few —Tony Parker, Alexey Shved, Chris Paul, Deron Williams — can get into the lane as creatively as Patty, who notched 16 of his 20 points from inside the arc. Mills is this team’s offensive compass, and right now they need him pointed toward the rim.
Last Game: 75-71 W vs. Australia | Next Up: Great Britain
‘Twas a tale of two Marcelos for Brazil: Huertas scored 13 and added 10 assists in the win; Machado shot eight 3s and made one. As a team, Brazil was 2-for-15 from beyond the arc and 28-for-68 overall. With the sort of looks Huertas creates off the dribble and Varejao/Nene/Splitter down low, Brazil has no excuse for a shooting percentage in the low forties, and are lucky that Australia matched them, brick for brick.
Last Game: 97-81 L vs. Spain | Next Up: Russia
The Chinese only gave it away eight times and were themselves very active on defense. Head coach Bob Donewald has a good handle on his men after two plus years at the helm, and it shows in their play, which is as spirited as it is disciplined. Beating Spain was never a possibility Sunday, just as a win against Russia is out of the question today, but if they want to pick off Australia, Brazil or the very gettable hosts, Sun Yue needs to add more than three to Yi’s 30.
Last Game: 98-71 L vs. United States | Next Up: Argentina
What does it take to get Nicolas Batum good and rowdy? Come up with that answer and you just might inherit coach Vincent Collet’s job. With Joakim Noah on the mend, there’s not a soul with French heritage better equipped to assume the role of TP’s Sidekick than Batum, yet the freshly re-upped Blazer still appears reluctant. It’s not every day that he’ll face the sort of length and aggression with which Team USA defends, so we’ll wipe his line of seven points, two boards and zero assists clean if he can keep either Ginobili or Delfino quiet and help France past a wily Argentina side in tonight’s best game.
Last Game: 95 -75 L vs. Russia | Next Up: Brazil
Andrei Kirilenko played a nearly perfect ballgame. Fourteen of his seventeen shots found the bucket for 35 points in all to go with four boards, two steals and three blocks. Yet on the same court, and in that same Russian jersey, British coach Chris Finch saw something that should have been far more disturbing than AK’s dominance: a point guard. Finch watched as 23-year-old Alexey Shved orchestrated a dynamic Russian attack and finished with 13 assists; as a team, Great Britain only had 10. Luol Deng, Pops Mensah-Bonsu and Joel Freeland had 61 of the team’s 75, but without a point guard that can get the defense on its heels, we’ll never see that three-headed weapon properly deployed.
Last Game: 102-79 L vs. Argentina | Next Up: Nigeria
Lithuania rammed their head into a brick wall on Sunday, and the wall didn’t give. Instead of setting a pick to get past it or passing around it, they lowered their shoulders and rammed harder. Bad idea. This wall was made of aging Argentines who would rather pop a forearm in your back than follow you closely on a cut through the lane. Still, Lithuania couldn’t mobilize their offense against Argentina’s flatter feet, and a stagnant, discombobulated attack was the result. Kestutis Kemzura needs to figure out the best way to create one on one opportunities for Linas Kleiza without slowing down Lithuania’s pick-and-roll game, which can be as potent as anyone’s with 36-year-old Sarunas Jasikevicius handling the ball. Kemzura will dip deeper into his bench than any coach here, so the earlier he figures out which combinations give Lietuva the best shot at winning, the better.
Last Game: 60-56 W vs. Tunisia | Next Up: Lithuania
Derrick Obasohan has always had an itchy trigger finger, but the Nigerian swing man (from Texas, actually, but you get it with none Americans on the roster) might want to take an extra breath before firing up the next one. Obasohan shot 1-for-6 and scored just six points on Sunday, 10 fewer than the 16 he averaged in last summer’s African Championships, where he led Nigeria in scoring. With Ike Diogu and the Aminu Bros (Marc and Pau Who?) forming an increasingly formidable frontcourt, some buckets from Obasohan could move Nigeria into contention for a quarterfinal spot.
Last Game: 95 -75 W vs. Great Britain | Next Up: China
Let Sunday’s shellacking go to show that it’s impossible to beat Russia if you can’t force their guards into mistakes. If you give Shved and Vitaly Fridzon too much room to breathe on the perimeter, stopping Russia will be next to impossible. If Kirilenko and Viktor Khryapa are getting consistent touches inside the arc, it’s bedtime. If Anton Ponkrashov can have a mini resurgence, or at least a return to legitimacy in London, then Russia will have something few other teams can boast: a 6’8″ point guard that can see over your press. Might come in handy in, oh, I don’t know, a gold medal game against the States?
Last Game: 97-81 W vs. China | Next Up: Australia
It seems as though the task of replacing Ricky Rubio has coaxed a group effort out of the Spaniards, as eight players had at least two assists for the 2006 World Champions. Pau Gasol had a double-double, Serge Ibaka had one of his better games in a Spanish jersey with 17 points and three blocks and Juan Carlos Navarro looked healthier than he has all summer on his way to 14. But on the other end, China’s Yi Jianlian used post ups, midrange jumpers and a steady diet of baseline drives to torch Spain for 30 on 13-of-19 shooting. They got past China in spite of Yi’s dominance, but Spain better figure out their approach to defending versatile forwards before Linas Kleiza, Nicolas Batum, Andrei Kirilenko and half of Team USA show up for layup lines.
Last Game: 60-56 L vs. Nigeria | Next Up: United States
The reigning African Champions sent Nigeria to the line 31 times and only took five free throws themselves. If you were wondering how Nigeria shot 33 percent from the field and still walked away the victors, that should answer your question. Tunisia’s best shot at an Olympic win is now behind them.
Last Game: 98-71 W vs. France | Next Up: Tunisia
It would be a real treat to see the United States run a play other than Wait For Teammate To Gain Head Of Steam On Baseline, Throw Ball In General Vicinty Of Rim, but until they meet someone who’s ready to challenge them physically and apply adequate pressure on USA’s ball handlers, Coach K might not need to call much else. The line on tonight’s game (10:15 p.m. London time start) is 56!