In 1992, Lithuania ran onto the floor of Palau Municipal d’Esports in Badalona, Spain led by Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis, both draped in the greatest warm-ups in the history of sports.
Their shirts were tie-dyed in Lietuva’s red, green and yellow and featured a dunking skeleton slapped across the middle.
Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead were behind the slick get up, and very much behind Lithuania’s cause, as the Baltic nation sought to escape the Soviet’s shadow and compete under their own flag in the 1992 Olympic Games.
Lacking funding, the Dead provided enough money to train, travel and keep on truckin’.
Sabonis and Marciulionis were outstanding and after their inevitable fall to the Dream Team, they came up against the Soviet Union, competing as the Unified Team—a blend of the very best athletes from Soviet nations that had not split off as Lithuania had one year earlier.
The Games in 1992 were just four years after the 1988 Seoul Olympics when Sabonis, Marciulonis, Rimas Kurtinaitis and Valdemaras Chomicius—all Lithuanian—made up 80 percent of a USSR starting line up that took down Danny Manning, David Robinson and the U.S. in the semifinals before knocking off Yugoslavia for gold.
Having ransacked the USSR of its top talent, Arvydas made Jerry proud as Lithuania took down its former occupants to earn a bronze medal.
The Soviet Union has since dissolved, and the Unified Team has fractured into 15 discrete shards that are all competing separately in London. Now there’s just Russia, who haven’t medaled since capturing gold in 1988, and then Lithuania, which hasn’t missed the semifinals since splitting off on their own (bronze medals in 1992, 1996 and 2000).
On Wednesday, they’ll meet again with a spot in the semifinals on the line.
To the games we go…
Russia (4-1) vs. Lithuania (2-3) | 9:00 AM EST
This matchup won’t be quite so politically charged as their first encounter in 1992. But rest assured, it will have teeth.
On the Russian side of things, Group A’s winners are set from five through two.
David Blatt has welded Sasha Kaun and Timofey Mozgov into one monstrous center that knows not to stray too far from the hoop; Andrei Kirilenko is leading this team in scoring (18.2 ppg) and still affecting the game more on the defensive end; Viktor Khryapa can singlehandedly key a comeback or stretch a lead if you leave him alone at the top of the key; and Vitaly Fridzon has been even more consistent than the four guys listed ahead of him.
And then there’s the point guard situation, where Blatt had to make a drastic decision to sit Alexey Shved against Spain, Russia’s biggest game of the group stages. He gave Anton Ponkrashov the nod, and it only took him 14 points and 11 assists to spark a point guard controversy of Sanchez-Tebowian proportions.
Blatt’s decision paid off against Spain as Russia secured first place in Group A with the win; but has he toyed with Shved’s confidence to a point where it might affect his play, or worse, Russia’s chemistry?
Lithuania sure hopes so.
Meanwhile Kestutis Kemzura will stock his backcourt with the ever-contorting face of reliability, Sarunas Jasikevicius, the 36-year-old who will run the pick and roll masterfully well into his 90s.
Kemzura also has a stable of shooters—Simas Jasaitis in the corner, Renaldas Seibutis from the wing—at his disposal should Blatt go zone, and a certified slasher in Martynas Pocius to bust things up in the middle.
Pocius is streaky, however, and much of the onus to score will fall to Linas Kleiza. He’ll have to be a little less sedentary on offense than usual to make an impact; his 12-foot post up game won’t be enough to consistently overpower Russia’s forwards, especially not with Mozgov and Kaun storming the strong side for a block.
Gibson’s Pick: Russia by 5
Sheridan’s Pick: Russia by 3
France (4-1) vs. Spain (3-2) | 11:15 AM EST
These two faced off last summer at the European Championships in Lithuania and Spain came out on top. And as solid as Pau Gasol’s play was, Juan Carlos Navarro was the one who deservingly raised the EuroBasket MVP trophy.
Those whose lone exposure to La Bomba has come in this last week might find it odd that an apparent role player overtook Pau for individual honors. If you’ve watched him dress in Spain’s colors for every summer the past decade, you’re probably wondering what the hell happened to the Euroleague’s all-time leading scorer, who’s hampered by plantar fasciitis shooting 33 percent in just three games.
Navarro’s backup, Sergio Llull, hasn’t seized the opportunity, going just 7-of-26 in these Games. Llull is a blur with the ball, but fires most effectively when things loosen up and flow freely like they do in his Real Madrid home.
If France tries to out-fast Spain, we might see Good Sergio Llull after all.
The challenge for Tony Parker will be finding cracks within a compact Spanish defense that would rather watch you shoot an open jumper than drive to an semi-protected hoop.
Joakim Noah played in France’s EuroBasket loss last year, and though his absence hurts, France will throw several new weapons in Spain’s direction when they play on Wednesday.
A fiery hot Mickael Gelabale, a less-fat Boris Diaw, a more mature Nando de Colo, a healthy Ronny Turiaf and a version of Nicolas Batum that we have never seen before for such an extended stretch of basketball games.
Gibson’s Pick: Spain by 8
Sheridan’s Pick: Spain by 13.
Brazil (4-1) vs. Argentina (3-2) | 3:00 PM EST
The second half of USA vs. Argentina was the most disturbing symptom of Argentina’s unraveling that I’ve witnessed to date. No matter the power of the opponent—in this case Team USA and Kevin Durant’s superhuman third quarter—watching a score separate so rapidly after halftime with Scola and Ginobili still in uniform seemed unnatural.
Giving up 42 points in the third was embarrassing, and then Facundo Campazzo’s low blow to Carmelo Anthony added a dash of frazzled desperation.
Embarrassed. Frazzled. Desperate. Words not often, if ever, associated with this era of Argentinian basketball.
Focused, tough and together are more the trio they’re after, even though the former and latter have eluded them in London.
Their usual focus wouldn’t allow 126 points in a 40-minute basketball game and wouldn’t have resorted to a cheap shot when the wheels fell off (Campazzo is just 21 and not part of the old guard). If they were playing together, and getting sizable contributions from more than just Scola and Ginobili on a nightly basis, the wheels wouldn’t have fallen off in the first place.
Which just leaves tough. It’s a big game, which means inherently Scola and Ginobili—the Olympics’ third and fourth best scorers—will be geared up.
Coach Julio Lamas needs to throw the tough challenge out to the other guys: Carlos Delfino to hit shots; Andres Nocioni to be the bull they need him to be; and Pablo Prigioni to hurdle what must have been excruciating pain earlier in the week—kidney stones are no picnic, I hear—and get this team clicking how they were against Lithuania the Olympic opener.
Sheridan is high on Brazil because of their triumvirate of NBA-tested bigs: Nene, Tiago Splitter and Anderson Varejao.
Alternately, that’s exactly why I’m down on them.
Think about this tournament’s biggest moments: Fridzon beats Brazil, Mills beats Russia, Deng and Co.’s three 3s in the final minute thwarted by Jose Calderon’s six free throws and heady dribbling as time expired.
Perimeter scorers win these games late, and Ginobili has another classic left in those international legs. Don’t throw dirt on him just yet.
Gibson’s Pick: Argentina by 1
Sheridan’s Pick: Brazil by 3.
USA (5-0) vs. Australia (3-2) | 5:15 PM EST
Yesterday I attributed Australia’s three-game winning streak to Patty Mills’ newfound success off the ball. Much of that is thanks to Brett Brown’s confidence in Matthew Dellavedova and Joe Ingles as primary ball handlers.
It’s one thing to maintain your dribble and get into your offense against China or even Russia’s matchup zone; doing it with Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul—or both—in your grill is a different animal.
With Team USA’s interior play as its known weakness, Australia will need to get something offensively out of either Aron Baynes or Aleks Maric, who have been chipping in as a tandem quite nicely of late. A majority of Maric’s touches come when he’s pinned someone on the block, while Baynes has relied on the pick and roll (usually with Dellavedova) to notch his points off of lobs.
Neither of those scenarios will come easily against a defense that guards you out to half court.
Australia needs its escape valves to play well in the face of pressure if they want to score against the States. That means that once their guards get the offense moving, Ingles and Brad Newley need to attack from the wings and David Andersen needs one of those 3-of-3 from 3-point range starts that he had against China on Monday.
The best news for Team USA is that Australia wants to push it. Mills plays quickly and the other Boomers follow suit, living off of mismatches and open lanes created by havoc and defensive uncertainty.
Unfortunately for the Boomers, that’s just the sort of chaotic environment in which Team USA does its best work.
Gibson’s Pick: United States by 19
Sheridan’s Pick: United States by 35