Team USA will face Spain on Sunday in a rematch of the 2008 Beijing final. The Americans survived Pau Gasol’s 21 points to win a 118-107 classic and recapture the gold medal they were unworthy of in Athens four years earlier.
There was no way to tell by watching that fiercely contested final that only a week earlier, the United States had beaten the same Spanish team by 37.
And when it comes to Olympic basketball, that’s just it. Given the tight window teams have to train as a team and the wildly varying construction of their opponents, it’s not unusual to see a coach alter his rotation or even tweak his philosophy from game to game.
Even if you see the same team twice, you’ll never see the same team twice.
Settling in can be dangerous, especially against a battery with as much heavy artillery as Spain. Even with Team USA plowing through London and Spain looking more vulnerable than they have in years past, there are several scenarios that have Spain—not Team USA—wearing gold around their necks on Sunday.
Do I think that will happen? No, I don’t. But it might, if…
1. Team USA Goes Cold
This is the easiest and most obvious one to call. Given the way Team USA has been shooting, it’s also the least likely to occur. Spain plays a zone that relaxes inward and dares you to pull the trigger over an extended arm or two. They’re fine with you getting a decent look so long as it’s not your first option. So when Sergei Monya was knocking down three long ones in the first half, Spain’s defense looked lackadaisically immobile. But when the threes stopped dropping and Russia’s forwards were stifled inside, it looked a lot more impressive. Argentina approached their quarterfinal game against Brazil the same way: go under screens and make Marcelinho Huertas shoot threes. Even after Marcelinho hit several, Argentina changed nothing. Then the triples stopped falling for Huertas and it suddenly became glaringly apparent that Brazil hadn’t established anything inside with Nene, Splitter or Varejao. With Brazil down three and under a minute remaining, Huertas went with what the defense had been giving him: a three. This one closely defended, and off of one foot. He missed it, and Argentina advanced. While this scenario would be ideal for Spain, they shouldn’t count on it: Team USA hits two times as many threes per game (16.2) than anyone in the Olympics, and their 44.5 percent from downtown is tops by five points. Off nights happen. Coinciding off nights from the NBA’s top six scorers? That happens less.
2. Juan Carlos Navarro Goes Off
This one’s less exploiting a possible mismatch, more pining for the spectacular. With Team USA’s cavalcade of attackers roaming the perimeter, it’s no doubt Spain’s advantage lies on the interior. The Brothers Gasol (Pau, in particular) will have to be the focal points of Spain’s offense, and guys like Felipe Reyes and even Fernando San Emeterio need to give Spain the same tough-minded, veteran minutes they did in the semifinal against Russia (Ibaka needs to be bigger, too. More on that in a minute). I have no doubt that Pau will get his 20; but Spain needs more to win. More than their good, and more than their great. Spain needs Juan Carlos Navarro to get going. They need the man who has scored more Euroleague points than anyone since the turn of the millennium. They need the man who dropped 26 against Slovenia, 35 on Macedonia and then 27 on France in consecutive games in last year’s EuroBasket en route to an MVP award (over the Gasols, Rudy, Ibaka) and direct qualification for these Olympics. Every tournament has at least one or two La Bomba games, where how you defend him is immaterial. Where he hits every one of his world famous floaters and and baits you into every foul. Seven games deep and he hasn’t treated us to anything more than a few middling performances and a 9.2 ppg (he averaged 18.7 ppg at EuroBasket). If JCN’s got a signature performance in his back pocket, Sunday would be a good time to use it.
3. Jose Calderon Fights Fast Breaks with Fire
As each of Team USA’s opponents has walked up to the guillotine, they have been warned plainly to avoid a shootout with the Americans. Resist the urge to push the pace, and you can maintain some leverage. Sorry, but that doesnt happen. You don’t holler out to the mound and ask Nolan Ryan not to throw his fastball. You try to make contact and use his speed against him. Likewise, Spain shouldn’t run and hide from uptempo play, and that starts with Jose Calderon, the veteran point guard who’s made a career out of limiting mistakes. Jose’s greatest challenge will be to trust his talent—and the men running alongside of him—to perform at a whole new velocity on Sunday. Sergio Llull and Sergio Rodriguez teamed up for the Euroleague’s most explosive offense this season with Real Madrid, so neither is a stranger to a run and gun offense; however, both are prone to turnovers. Calderon is not. After missing the gold medal game in 2008 due to injury, Jose has a huge opportunity to be this game’s number one difference maker. He needs to trust his tools and take a few chances first.
4. Spain Lets Pau Be a Passer
The concerns about Team USA’s size aren’t so much misguided as they are misworded. It’s not height they’re lacking; it’s experienced post defenders who know how to best utilize every inch. Kevin Durant is 6-foot-11. Not short by any standards. But it doesn’t mean he’s cut out to guard All-Star power forwards like Pau Gasol for a handful of possessions at a time, either (although he did fare well against Luis Scola in the semifinals). So without a doubt, Spain will try to throw it down there whenever that option’s available. For whatever reason, the rest of the Spaniards shut it down once Pau’s hand touches the ball. Sure, there’s someone in the opposite corner hoping for the skip pass (odds are that man is Rudy Fernandez) and a guard or two is toeing the line, waiting for the extra attention to create an open look, but do you really want to count on your shooters, Spain? The same shooters that clanked their way to a 20-point first half against Russia? Those shooters need to become cutters against the United States in the gold medal game. Team USA’s suffocating pressure is Hell to play against, but its silver lining is the space it creates in the middle of the floor. Fernandez, Navarro, Llull and even San Emeterio need to slice through the lane every once in a while just in case there’s an open run at a casually guarded rim. With all eyes on Pau and Chandler as the lone watchdog, there’s a decent chance there will be room. Pau is a great passer out of the post, but when Spain falls in love with the long ball, they neuter Gasol’s ability to make plays for others.
5. Serge Ibaka Embraces the Chaos
Fans who follow Ibaka Blocka Flame with the Oklahoma City Thunder must gaze at the averages and wonder: what’s wrong with Serge Ibaka? His 7.4 points and 3.7 rebounds per game look low, as do his 14 minutes a night. Ibaka is insanely athletic and a terrific weak side defender, but offensively his inability to run pick and roll limits a Spanish offense that features Pau at the four. Therefore, in more tactical (see: low scoring) battles like today’s 67-59 defeat of Russia, Ibaka will spend much of it on the sideline. He saw just 7 minutes in the semifinal and only nine in their first meeting, a number far lower than I expected coming in. This time, I feel better about it. Team USA flourishes in a chaotic atmosphere. So does Ibaka. Seems like a natural fit to me. We’ll find out Sunday if Coach Scariolo agrees.