Tweet of the Night: Pau Gasol

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The self-proclaimed “beast” of the London Olympics shared this 5-minute lovefest video with the world, and make no mistake — Spain is going into these Olympics supremely confident.

However …

Pau’s brother Marc has a bruised shoulder that kept him out of the final friendly against Team USA. Juan Carlos Navarro, the team’s best guard, has plantar fasciitis and a bad back.

This is a team that is banged up, and as good as Serge Ibaka makes them, I like the Brazilians to beat Spain in pool play and finish atop Group B, which means they would avoid the Americans until the gold medal game. Brazil has the better point guard (Huertas>Calderon), and Brazil has a front line of Nene, Anderson Varejao and Tiago Splitter that can neutralize Spain’s bigs.

Furthermore, much to the chagrin of my Spanish followers, I have picked Argentina to defeat Spain in the bronze medal game. Why? In a word: Manu. He’ll be first-team all-Olympics if his ankle holds up, which it almost never seems to do in these tournaments (see 2002 Worlds, 2008 Olympics).

For more on my predictions, and the chances of Team USA losing, give a read to this epic Olympic preview that draws upon the lessons of the past to give everyone who may be overconfident back in the states reason to pause.

Gibson: Euroleague Final Four Preview

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ISTANBUL —  It’s a city so massive that it spans two continents, and even the taxi drivers have to stop and ask for directions.  The five daily calls to prayer give Istanbul a conservative soundtrack, while folks who flock to Istiklal Street by the thousands soak up a nightlife that dares even the most adventurous party-goers to keep up.

Venders hawk you through the halls of the Grand Bazaar, clamoring for your business in whichever language you’re willing to bargain; still, other locals have mastered the art of relaxation, leaning back into cushioned seats for hours at a time and pulling slowly on flavored tobacco through a water pipe (or nargile  in Turkish).

This Friday, the last four Euroleague teams standing will venture within eyesight of Asia to settle the score.  Their journeys here are as unique and varying as the Turkish megacity that’s hosting them.

CSKA Moscow bolstered their roster with NBA defects like Andrei Kirilenko and Nenad Krstic while stealing the at-times-dazed-but-never-confused, shaggy-haired assassin Milos Teodosic to run the point.  All three were voted onto either the All-Euroleague first or second teams as CSKA plowed their way to 18 wins in 20 tries.

The reigning champs, Panathinaikos, dug their heels in as the NBA signing cyclone swirled around them, trusting their core of Mike Batiste and Dimitris Diamantidis to coaching mastermind Zeljko Obradovic, the owner of eight European titles.

If you’re expecting the Greens to cower at the sight of big, bad CSKA, you’re out of luck.  Even if Moscow did take both of their regular season meetings.

Olympiacos hops the Aegean Sea to attend their first Final Four in two years.  Of the 12 players who lost to Barcelona in the championship in Paris, only Panagiotis Vasilopoulos—who hasn’t appeared in a Euroleague game this season—remains.

With their budget hacked off at the knees thanks to Greece’s economic woes, they retained a single star, Vassilis Spanoulis, around which lesser talent has aligned.  With Spanny (my pick for Euroleague MVP) carrying the load and Dusan Ivkovic monitoring the ups and downs through his thick spectacles, the Reds have landed right where nobody thought they would.

Finally there’s Barcelona, who held opponents to an historically miniscule 61.5 ppg, making them the stingiest Euroleague defense this millennium has ever seen while Juan Carlos Navarro, Erazem Lorbek and Pete Mickeal provided the offense.

And if it looks like these guys have been here before, it’s because they have.

Of the 44 Final Four teams in the last eleven years, 22—exactly half—have been named either CSKA Moscow, Olympiacos, Panathinaikos or Barcelona. For eight of those 11 seasons, one of those teams has hoisted the trophy, with Olympiacos the only one of the four left stranded at the threshold.

The last four league MVPs will all be in Turkey this weekend, too: CSKA’s Ramunas Siskauskas (2008), Barca’s Juan Carlos Navarro (2009), CSKA’s Milos Teodosic (2010 as a member of Olympiacos) and Panathinaikos’ Dimitris Diamantidis (2011).

Navarro has a Euroleague Final Four MVP to his name as well, Diamantidis has two, his teammate Sarunas Jasikevicius picked one up back in 2005 with Maccabi Tel Aviv and Vassilis Spanoulis of the Reds earned the same honor playing for his Greek rivals, Panathinaikos, in 2009.

(Think things might heat up if the two Greek teams meet in the finals? Nah, doubt it.)

Yes, this bunch boasts some experience.  Yet no man is immune to the encumbrance of a single elimination format where every mishandled dribble, errant pass or blown layup is magnified a thousand times its original size.  There’s no bouncing back from a game one loss; there’s no shot at redemption outside of those 40 minutes, each one oozing with a little more pressure than the last.

CSKA Moscow vs. Panathinaikos (Friday at 11:00 AM EST)

Kirilenko, Khryapa and Krstic have all been magnificent and Teodosic has lived up to his reputation as a maker of big shots and agitator of everyone, always.  But let’s not forget Alexey Shved, the revelation we’ve all been waiting for.

Twenty-three years old with wiry limbs and a bright red shooting sleeve on his left arm, the holes in his game have started to fill up just as quickly as those in his once-wispy goatee.  He’s still a little too casual with the rock, but his creativity and ability to hurt you off the bounce have reached a level where you live with the mistakes.

If Shved ever finds himself checked by Diamantidis, CSKA should swing the ball his way and let Alexey attack the six-time Defensive POY.  By no means is DD a weak link on Panathinaikos’ protective armament, but the 32-year-old has lost some lateral quickness in the past few years and Shved’s about as tough a cover moving forward as anyone not named Vassilis Spanoulis or Bo McCalebb.

In CSKA’s first win against Panathinaikos—an overtime affair—Dimitris collected five fouls and was sent to the bench as his team lost by two.  Force the Greens’ leader to defend the drive, and CSKA just might finish the season sweep.

What about Panathinaikos’ plan to stop Andrei Kirilenko?  That’s a quandary for which not even a mastermind like Obradovic possesses a solution. They don’t make kevlar for the bullets AK loads in the clip.

Even when the Greens held Kirilenko to a season-low nine points in CSKA’s 78-76 OT win back in November, AK15 peppered them for 10 boards, three steals, and five blocks.

And while some are nominating Diamantidis or Steven Smith to be AK’s moving target, there’s one man that I think is built to shake off a few stray rounds from AK: Romain Sato.  His long, sinewy arms are nearly twice as thick as Andrei’s tentacles, and the former Xavier Musketeer has drawn tough defensive assignments all season long, from Bojan Bogdanovic to Danilo Gallinari to Sonny Weems.

Kirilenko is longer (and better) than all those who have fallen before him, but only Sato possesses the strength and singular will to keep this wild horse from ambling about unimpeded, lurking in corners and creeping in for putbacks.  Sato is a potential threat on offense—far less of one since the Top 16—but Obradovic would be thrilled with a scoreless Sato if that meant an AK with a faulty trigger.

Barcelona vs. Olympiacos (Friday 2:00 PM EST)

Trying to stop Kirilenko is like throwing a net over a ghost; getting Vassilis Spanoulis out of his rhythm is not as tricky.

Stick an extra defender up top or drag your bigs in to stop penetration once he gets into the lane (which, believe me, he will if you don’t do that first thing) and force the guys around him to hurt you and you’re in business. In Olympiacos’ playoff match-up with Montepaschi Siena, the Italians crammed the interior and forced Spanoulis into looks that were contested and uncomfortable, even for him. It worked wonders: Spanoulis averaged just 1o points in those four games, six below his season average.

What makes Spanoulis’ season so impressive is also what makes the Greeks vulnerable; Vassilis’ shoulders bear far too much weight.  In Panathinaikos, he played with Diamantidis and Jasikevicius; last season with Olympiacos he had Teodosic and Theo Papaloukas; this year he has…Acie Law and Kostas Sloukas?

Not exactly murderer’s row.

Yet somehow, some way, that duo’s done the trick in the season’s second half, giving the team’s leader a little bit of relief out front.  But ‘doing the trick’ and ‘a little bit of relief’ won’t be enough to shock Barcelona. Law will have to duplicate the sort of ball he played in the playoffs while Sloukas reaches in his back pocket for the skills he wielded during the Top 16.

Taking turns being decent won’t be good enough, either. The Reds must dominate the battle of the backcourt—dominate it—if they want a chance because there’s no way Georgios Printezis, Pero Antic, Joey Dorsey and Kyle Hines are besting Lorbek, Boniface N’Dong, Fran Vazquez and Kosta Perovic in the paint. Ain’t happenin’.

For the scales to tilt in Olympiacos’ favor, Law and Sloukas need to be Spanoulis’ left and right hand, respectively.

Watching Barcelona play offense is like putting salt in your coffee.  It’s easy enough to mistake those savory little crystals for sugar on a bleary-eyed morning, and either way that caffeine’ll do the trick.  Just don’t expect it to go down smoothly.

The man responsible for the brown, salty leftovers at the bottom of the mug is Marcelinho Huertas, the Brazilian point guard who arrived from Caja Laboral to replace Ricky Rubio.  Huertas has clearly been an upgrade over Rubio—that’s not up for debate—but Barcelona Coach Xavi Pascual has shackled the creative spirit that makes Huertas one of the world’s most artistically gifted passers.

Those are the same shackles that kept Ricky from flourishing under Pascual, as Barcelona’s well-ordered offense expects its point guards to take care of the ball and nail open threes to keep defenders from packing the paint.  In his final year with Barcelona, Rubio couldn’t buy a bucket. Huertas, with his 2.4 assist/turnover ratio and 43 percent success rate on threes, was just what Pascual was looking for.

As for the viewers frustrated with Barcelona’s business-like ball, we’re simply left to wonder how dynamic ingredients like Juan Carlos Navarro, Erazem Lorbek and Pete Mickeal would all taste if Pascual let Huertas spoon in some sugar and stir.

Nick Gibson, editor of EuroleagueAdventures.com, covers Euroleague and other European basketball developments for SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear weekly. Click here to follow him on Twitter.

 

‘Melo in jeopardy of being left off Team USA?

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Carmelo Anthony will be reunited with Mike D’Antoni in early July when Team USA convenes for training camp in Las Vegas. But how long the two stick together remains to be seen.

Ken Berger of CBSSports.com reported that Anthony’s role in D’Antoni’s departure as head coach of the New York Knicks “did not sit well” with USA Basketball officials, who have always pointed to “sweat equity” as one of the key factors in who will represent the United States on the 12-man roster at this summer’s London Olympics.

Anthony has certainly put in his time, has said he enjoys FIBA basketball more than NBA basketball, and could join Dwyane Wade and LeBron James as three-time Olympians — if he makes the cut.

Anthony was Team USA’s best player at the 2006 World Championship in Japan, and he was a member of the bronze medal-winning U.S. team at the Athens Olympics in 200 and the gold-medal-winning Redeem Team at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, where he played power forward for an undersized American team.

But the 20-man preliminary Team USA roster announced earlier this year includes natural power forwards LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love and Blake Griffin, which could make Anthony superfluous.

“I don’t even think Carmelo is thinking about this, but I think it’s going to hurt him,” the international basketball source told Berger. “I don’t think he’s playing as well as the other power forwards are right now. He’s not a bad guy, but he needs to start playing better because the USA team is looking at that, and Mike is an assistant. It should not be given to him.”

The toughest team the Americans will face is Spain, and lots of folks believe – incorrectly — that Ricky Rubio’s absence will have an adverse effect on the Spaniards.

But that is not the case because of the presence of Jose Calderon and Juan Carlos Navarro, as Chris Sheridan discusses with CineSport’s Noah Coslov in the video posted above.

Rubio has torn ACL; Out for the season

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Ricky Rubio’s season is over.

We won’t see him at the Olympics, either.

A source close to Rubio told SheridanHoops.com that tests performed Saturday morning showed a torn anterior cruciate ligament in Rubio’s left knee. He was injured in a collision with Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers late in Friday night’s loss.

“There are no other tears,” the source said of Rubio’s knee.

Rubio has averaged 10.5 points, 8.2 assists and 2.2 steals for the Timberwolves, the most surprising team in the Western Conference.

The rookie from Spain was considered the co-leader in the running for Rookie of the Year honors, along with Kyrie Irving of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Rubio’s injury means the Spanish national team will likely use Juan Carlos Navarro at the backup point guard behind Jose Calderon in the Olympics.

Not that it will be anything new.

With Rubio struggling at Eurobasket last summer in Lithuania, coach Serge Scariolo used Rubio for only 7 minutes in the gold medal game against France.  Navarro ran the point and was named the tournament MVP.

I covered that tournament in September, and Rubio was not even a factor in looking ahead to Spain’s chances of defeating the United States in the 2012 London Games. 

So yes, the loss of Rubio is devastating to the Timberwolves in the short term.

For Spain, it is a loss that won’t make much of a difference in London. As chronicled on this site by Barcelona-based correspondent Nick Gibson, Navarro is a very worthy option to anchor Spain’s backcourt.

Mitnick: Update from Israel on Fran Vazquez (Magic) and Erazem Lorbek (Spurs)

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TEL AVIV, Israel — Regal Barcelona put on a defensive clinic in Tel-Aviv against Maccabi in a round of 16 showdown between two of the powerhouse teams in the Euroleague. Barcelona’s stable of big men and heady guard play were too much for Maccabi to overcome, giving the Spanish squad a big 71-57 road victory.

Barcelona’s frontcourt features two NBA prospects in Erazem Lorbek and Fran Vasquez, whose combination of size and skill was too much for Maccabi. With Sofoklis Schortsanitis limited to 8 minutes due to foul trouble, Lorbek and Vasquez were able to dominate the paint.

Lorbek was quietly included in the George Hill trade over the summer, and could end up being a big piece of the San Antonio Spurs’ future.

He has excellent footwork, a great outside shot and is one of the craftiest inside players in the game today.

After being selected in the draft lottery in 2005, Vasquez has remained overseas, opting to hold off his debut in the NBA. Against Maccabi, Vasquez showed excellent mobility, great movement off the ball, and his excellent pick and roll defense helped prevent Maccabi from getting into their offense.

Vasquez pondered coming to the NBA this season, but with the uncertainty of the lockout, he opted to play at least one more year in Spain. If the Magic can retain Dwight Howard, Vasquez should be able to step in and fill the gaping hole behind Howard since Marcin Gortat was traded to Phoenix last season.

This hard fought game last Thursday epitomized the enormous difference between the NBA and the Euroleague. Throughout the first three quarters of NBA games, teams often take shots early in the clock as they catch their defenders sleeping early in possessions. However, in this game, almost every shot for both sides came with less than 5 seconds left on the shot clock.

Both teams gave incredible effort on defense, and it was obvious that both teams spent a great deal of time over the past week preparing defensively. Click here for the box score.

For better or worse, European coaches focus more on playing team basketball than showcasing individuals. Maccabi (9-3) gave minutes to all 12 players and Barcelona (8-4) used 11 in a game that was close until the last two minutes. Barcelona’s Juan Carlos Navarro, the leading scorer in Euroleague history, came off the bench, despite being the leader of the team. No one player took more than 10 shots, and there didn’t appear to be any isolation plays for any player not named Keith Langford.

The NBA obviously is head and shoulders above European basketball in terms of talent, but there are only a few NBA teams that come with the preparation and execution that both of these teams showed.

Why don’t more NBA teams who don’t have a dominant star player go with a more European approach?  It would seem that in absence of a big star, during a tightly-packed 66-game season, it would be a good idea to spread around the minutes and opportunities to make your team less predictable, build chemistry, and keep the legs fresh, similar to what Hubie Brown did during his time with the Grizzlies.

These types of match-ups may not bring the same type of entertainment as the Bulls-Heat game last Sunday, but the level of execution brought by both teams are a joy for basketball purists.

AJ Mitnick is an American currently living in Israel and working for Maccabi Rishon Lezion of the Israeli Basketball Super League. A recent graduate of IDC Herzliya, Mitnick also maintains a  basketball blog, http://mindlessdribble.net, and is pursuing a professional basketball coaching license from the Wingate Institute in Israel.