With Brazil up 74-72 and six seconds remaining, it seemed as though Russia wouldn’t waltz into their meeting with Spain undefeated after all. Then Vitaly Fridzon took a pass from Alexey Shved in the corner and heaved up a prayer.
Russia: still perfect.
All Spain had to was dispose of the fledgling hosts and our heavyweights would meet in the ring as planned. But threes from Dan Clark, Nate Reinking and Luol Deng in the final 28 seconds cut the Spanish lead to a single point with five seconds left. Then Jose Calderon, who had already hit six free throws in the last minute of play, caught the inbounds and eluded lackadaisical British defenders as he dribbled out the clock.
Spain: still perfect.
But on Saturday, only one of these teams will escape from The Marshmallow with a 4-0 record and first place in Group A.
Let’s take a look at all six match ups, and see if I can do a little better with my picks (5-1). Only missed the spread on USA vs. Nigeria game by 56.
Tunisia (0-3, 6th) vs. France (2-1, 3rd) | 4:00 AM EST
Kidney stones are to Pablo Prigioni as Drake and Chris Brown are to Tony Parker, and unless Tunisia can get one or both of the beefing pop stars a Tunisian passport by Saturday, Parker might just break off another 27-point performance.
Now that Parker’s cozied up to his new goggles, it looks like only the fog within them can slow the Belgian-born Frenchman down. Luckily for Parker, whose scoring has escalated from 10 to 17 to 27 in his first three games, he doesn’t have to do it all himself anymore.
Boris Diaw is playing leaner than he looks (tape delay adds 20 pounds) and got within eating distance of a triple double against Lithuania: 10 points, 6 boards and 8 assists. Add Ronny Turiaf’s general being-everywhere-at-onceness to that paint and the absence of Joakim Noah’s ponytail isn’t as heartbreakingly obvious as I thought it would be.
Mickael Gelabale’s super(sonic) dreads, on the other head, are sorely missed. Truly one of the classier heads of hair we had in our sport, gone. But he’s hit 5-of-10 threes in these Olympics, so Vincent Collet probably endorses the tightly sheared look.
Now, if France could only solve the riddle that Luis Scola could not: Salah Mejri.
The Pick: France by 28
Lithuania (1-2, 4th) vs. USA (3-0, 1st) | 9:30 AM EST
Martynas Pocius never had the Duke career he envisioned, suffering more injuries and playing fewer minutes than he’d have liked in his four years (one redshirt) in Durham.
And by foregoing his fourth year of eligibility in 2010, he also missed out on a Blue Devils national title. Instead of sticking around, he returned home to basketball-mad Lithuania to play for Zalgiris in Kaunas, where he made the jump from student to celebrity. He smiled and drank milk in television commercials, wore scarves on billboards and saw his face at the local McDonald’s.
Had he not left Tobacco Road for Kaunas when he did, Pocius (POTE-seuss) says he wouldn’t have made the Lithuanian team that beat Serbia for a bronze medal in the 2010 World Championships.
Now, he’s representing his country in the Olympics, and going up against the man who gave him a college scholarship, Mike Krzyzewski.
If Marty looks like he did against France—slashing to the rim, finishing with his left and knocking down his first six shots (three threes) off the bench—Coach K might have to ask himself, if he hasn’t already, why Pocius spent more time in Cameron Indoor with his warm-ups on than off.
The Pick: USA by 18
Nigeria (1-2, 4th) vs. Argentina (2-1, 2nd) | 5:15 PM EST
All Nigeria has to do to improve is lose by 82 points. Doable.
Let’s hope Ike Diogu and the Aminu Bros (Al-Farouq and Alade) saw Salah Mejri throw Luis Scola on the school bus the other day. Scola is ripe for the picking if you can face up and get him on his heels with a pump, and his brethren don’t appear hellbent on helping these days.
Nigeria has the athletes to compete with Argentina, but nowhere near the know-how. As you probably noticed against Team USA, they’re not too big on “running plays” or “passing.”
There have been several triple double scares so far from the likes of Luol Deng, Viktor Khryapa and The Boris Diaw Burger, but nobody would have pegged the 5-foot-10 Facunda Campazzo as a trip-dub candidate.
The 21-year-old darts around the court like the offspring of Lionel Messi and Pepe Sanchez, and when Pablo Prigioni’s kidney stones [cringe] knocked him out of the line up, Campazzo came in and replaced him admirably with 12 points, 9 rebounds (again, 5-foot-10) and 7 assists.
Just slightly more than the 0.5 points, zero rebounds and 1.5 assists per game he averaged in the first two.
The Pick: Argentina by 25
Russia (3-0, 1st) vs. Spain (3-0, 2nd) | 6:15 AM EST
On the latest Euroleague Adventures podcast, I helped break down these 12 Olympic teams into tiers. In the end, we settled upon five, and Team USA was all alone at the top.
The occupants of tier two will square off Saturday in group play’s sexiest match up. When the fog has settled in London, Team USA’s biggest threat will have emerged.
Russia is playing a cleaner, more dynamic style of ball right now than the Spaniards, who aren’t a third as dangerous without Juan Carlos Navarro sprinting past screens and launching one-footed runners from 20 feet out. Pau Gasol is this team’s rock, but Juan Carlos Navarro is its shovel; a scoring blitz from La Bomba can dig Spain out of a deficit just as quickly as it can toss dirt on the other guys’ grave.
Fernando San Emeterio will likely start at the three again while Rudy Fernandez plays the two next to Jose Calderon in the backcourt. The roster shake up will at least give Spain the size it needs to compete with Russia’s lanky rotation players, even if San Emeterio has never really carved out a role on the national team.
Serge Ibaka should see his Olympics high in minutes played on Saturday—20, 17 and 12 in three games thus far—because of the trouble Spain has had trouble dealing with strong, versatile forwards in these Olympics. Yi Jianlian ripped them for 30, Joel Freeland for 25.
Andrei Kirilenko is better than them both, and Viktor Khryapa has a fairly good chance of leading Russia in assists if Spain puts a smaller body on him. Ibaka will be key.
And if the Mozgov Cocktail explodes in the lane, let’s hope the Gasols bring their flame retardant jerseys. Tiago Splitter did not, and Timofey burned him for 18 points on 8-of-9 shooting.
The Pick: Russia by 2
China (0-3, 6th) vs. Brazil (2-1, 3rd) | 11:45 AM EST
Brazil has a tendency to play down to weaker opponents and get up for the stronger ones; it’s why three games against Australia, Great Britian and Russia have yielded margins of four, five and one despite those teams’ wildly varying pedigrees.
China is undoubtedly weaker but Brazil is prone to slow starts, so a few flicks of Wang Shipeng’s wrist (seven threes against Australia) could give China an early lead before Brazil steadies the wheel.
Of Brazil’s ballyhooed NBA bigs, none of the three have been particularly impressive.
Splitter’s usually steady defense failed him against Timofey Mozgov and Russia and he’s still avoiding the bump whenever he goes up (weakly, I might add).
Nene is taking fadeaways out of triple teams as if paying homage to recently departed Wiz teammate, Andray Blatche.
Anderson Varejao has pestered opposing centers and surely made some new enemies among GB fans with his histrionics, but statistically speaking Varejao has taken a step backwards in points, rebounds and field goal percentage every game and has only shot two free throws the whole tournament.
Leandro Barbosa has played smarter ball in his last three halves and Larry Taylor has emerged as a possible bench cog, but Brazil will only medal if their big men hoist them onto the podium.
The Pick: Brazil by 17
Great Britain (0-2, 5th) vs. Australia (1-2, 4th) | 3:00 PM EST
Joel Freeland’s 25 points and 7 rebounds against Spain surprised some folks. After all, this was Spain he was manhandling, supposedly the toughest front court in the tourney.
But I’ll tell you who wasn’t surprised: Spain.
With the exception of Jose Calderon and Pau and Marc Gasol, every player on the Spanish national team played in the Spanish ACB League last season (Serge Ibaka and Rudy Fernandez both played for Real Madrid during the lockout, and Rudy is returning next season). That means they’ve all gone up against his Unicaja Malaga team and seen the wreckage he can cause when his eyes are wide.
Luol Deng is going to get after it without much coaxing, so Chris Finch’s game plan should include getting Freeland involved quickly and repeatedly.
He’s got a quickness advantage over both Aleks Maric and Aron Baynes and should be able to take David Andersen down to the block, drop his hips and throw a hand up.
If Great Britain’s guards can blend patience with cognizance of Freeland’s existence, then Saturday’s effort might not fall so painfully short.
The Pick: Australia by 5