Best four days of the year. Yep. They’re here. And while you watch Doug McDermott, Victor Oladipo, Kendall Williams, Baye Moussa Keita and friends this weekend, you will be tempted to bat around their NBA prospects.
In the United States, there is only one Dream Team. It was the 1992 Olympic Team.
But here’s a little piece of trivia from someone old enough to remember. When Team USA played in the 1994 World Championship in Toronto, the team was branded “Dream Team II.” It wasn’t until after the Atlanta Olympics that USA Basketball realized there was no use in continuing that moniker.
There was one — and only one — Dream Team.
So that is the American view.
But not everyone is American.
As all knowledgable American basketball fans know, Lithuania is the country that has competed at a high level most consistently over the past six Olympics. Lithuania produced Arvydas Sabonis, Sarunas Marciulionis, Sarunas Jasikevicius, Linas Kleiza, Jonas Valenciunas, and Egle, among others.
And now a film has been made about the 1992 Lithuanian national team, entitled “The Other Dream Team.”
Here is the one sheet (cinema-speak for promotional poster). Pretty cool, eh?
Here is the trailer (cinema-speak for preview):
For more info on the film, visit the producers’ Facebook page.
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
The United States went to the locker room up 60-59 on Argentina before a 42-point explosion in the third quarter put the 2004 gold medalists in USA’s rearview for good. Seventeen of those 42 belonged to Durant, who hit five of his eight threes in the third and moved past Carmelo Anthony and into the team scoring lead (18.6) with 28 for the game.
Julio Lamas yanked his starters in the fourth as Team USA ran away for the win, 126-97.
Things got rowdy and benches cleared late in the game, however, when Carmelo rose up for a jumper and Facundo Campazzo hit him where the sun don’t shine. And I don’t mean England, in general.
Anthony made the shot and players, coaches exchanged glares, yells for a minute or two before we got back to basketball. Just a little more fuel to the fire if these two meet up again in the next phase (they’ll share the same side of the bracket).
Now the Group B champs will take their undefeated record and an achy, breaky groin into the medal rounds to play Australia, who are on a hot streak of their own.
The Aussies have won three straight, their third coming today against previously undefeated Russia. Australia was down 79-80 when Joe Ingles kicked it up top to Patty Mills who set his feet and rained in a game winning three as the backboard lit up.
Mills and David Andersen both had 13 in the win—which, from a standings perspective, means nothing—and Ingles had his best game of an already impressive Olympics with 20 points in the 82-80 win.
Lithuania fell into Tunisia’s notorious first quarter trap and got behind 18-7 after one, but big threes from zone busters Renaldas Seibutis and Simas Jasaitis held the Tunisians at arm’s length in the second half. Lithuania won 76-63 and sent Tunisia back to Northern Africa winless in Olympic play.
The hosts finally got on the board, grinding China’s offense down to a benign nub with good defensive pressure, their lone staple throughout these games. Great Britain won by a final of 90-58 as Kieron Achara, who had only seen 11 minutes prior to today, led GB with 16 points.
France finished second in Group B by beating Nigeria 79-73 on the group stage’s final day. Nicolas Batum keeps looking sharper and sharper and finished with 23 points on the afternoon.
And finally, Brazil beat Spain 88-82 to lock up second place in Group A, all amidst talk of tanking. The theory was that the loser slides down to third place and enters the medal round on the opposite side of Team USA in the brackets, thus avoiding them until a potential gold medal game.
If Spain were tanking, the front court trio of the Gasol Bros and Serge Ibaka would not have combined for 59 points. If Spain were tanking, Sergio Scariolo wouldn’t have run Juan Carlos Navarro around on his injured foot for 27 minutes, his highest tally of the tournament.
Brazil did sit Nene and the subs saw a little more action than usual, but that’s to be expected in the last game before the medal rounds between two teams that have already stamped their tickets.
A peculiar game full of conservative decisions and a somewhat muted intensity, sure. But not a tank job.
Tomorrow, Sheridan Hoops will preview the medal rounds in full. Today, it’s time to hand out some hardware. Ladies and gentlemen, the All-Group teams:
Patty Mills, PG, Australia
20.6 PPG | 4.2 RPG | 2.2 APG
Patty Mills shoots 14-of-40 (35 percent) in Australia’s first two games, averages 15.5 and they lose both. Patty Mills shoots 27-of-57 in their next three and averages 24 and Australia rides a three game winning streak into the knockout stage. The Boomers play best when both body and ball are moving quickly; Patty’s realized that when he dribbles the shot clock into single digits, neither will happen. The emergence of Matthew Dellavedova and even Joe Ingles as options at the point has freed up Patty to fill in empty spaces and maximize his utility in Brett Brown’s offense.
Vitaly Fridzon, SG, Russia
10.8 PPG | 2.8 APG | 46.2% on threes
Scoring 24 points to knock the Spaniards into second (and eventually third) place and scissor kicking his way to a game winning three against Brazil—easily this week’s most clutch moment—is enough to get you on this team. So is being the lone beacon of stability in a Russian backcourt when momentum seesaws between Alexey Shved and Anton Ponkrashov at the point.
Luol Deng, G, Great Britain
15.8 PPG | 6.6 RPG | 4.6 APG
Coming off a taxing, Derrick Rose-less playoff run with the Chicago Bulls, Luol Deng’s wrist was supposed to go under the knife. But as the face of Great Britain’s nascent basketball program, the London Olympics were no time to show up with a doctor’s note (or not show up at all, Ben Gordon). So he played. And he played. More possessions, more positions and more responsibilities than anyone at these games, all with a bum wrist and the added pressure of playing on the Queen’s soil. Great Britian didn’t advance, but leaving Deng off of this list would have been a disgraceful omission.
Andrei Kirilenko, F, Russia
18.2 PPG | 6.2 RPG | 2 SPG
Andrei feels like a young deer. David Blatt thinks of him as a wild horse. His tattoo artist fancies him a pterodactyl-esque warrior dragon. And while NBC’s announcers frantically pine for his increased involvement during crunch time, Kirilenko is quite all right being this team’s motor, its mortar, or even a secondary offensive weapon, crashing in for a putback right when you’ve let your eyes wander.
Pau Gasol, PF/C, Spain
20.6 PPG | 6 RPG | 1.4 BPG
Pau Gasol is so reliable on offense he’s almost invisible, with scoring totals of 21, 20, 17, 20, 25. Equally encouraging news for Spanish coach Sergio Scariolo is that Pau has been invisible to the referees as well, picking up just four fouls in 128 minutes of action. It’s not that he’s playing opossum either, as he’s blocked two shots in each of his last three games. And be scared, world: Pau’s hit four threes in nine attempts during the Olympics. Step your game up, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook (three each).
Second Team: Marcelinho Huertas (Brazil), Joe Ingles (Australia), Viktor Khryapa (Russia), David Andersen (Australia), Sasha Kaun (Russia)
Tony Parker, PG, France
15.8 PPG | 3.6 APG | 2.2 RPG
With Mickael Gelabale hitting corner threes, his man can’t cheat over to stop Parker’s drives anymore. With Boris Diaw making plays from the elbow, his man can’t hedge so hard on screens that Boris is left alone. With Nicolas Batum hitting over 80 percent of his two-pointers and nearly half of his threes, leaving him stranded is out of the question. France has gotten more across-the-board contributions than they could have realistically hoped for, and that cohesion has been key to their solid run. But when Vincent Collet really needs a bucket, it’s No. 9, every time.
Manu Ginobili, SG, Argentina
20 PPG | 6 RPG | 4.8 APG
What Diego Maradona is and Lionel Messi is becoming for football in Argentina, Manu Ginobili is for basketball. No player in these Olympics is more closely associated with his national program than Ginobili is with Argentina, his bald spot as much a part of the uniform as the colors themselves. In London he’s been nothing short of sensational, scoring at will and signing up for extra ball handling duties with Pablo Prigioni kidney stoned. If this older group wants to medal, Ginobili’s play needs to approach perfection. Going 26-of-26 from the free throw line is a Hell of a way to start.
Nicolas Batum, SF, France
16.8 PPG | 5.8 RPG | 86.4% on twos
Joakim Noah’s no-show was nearly enough for me to count France out entirely as a medal contender. In Noah, France hadn’t just lost a certain number of boards and blocks, they’d lost a second steady body behind Parker. With all eyes on Batum to up his output, France got stomped in the battle of reds, whites and blues as Batum scored just seven points on six shots. After that, Batum turned it on, leading France in scoring, rebounding, blocks, field goal percentage and three pointers made. France wanted a Robin; they got a Bat(u)man.
Kevin Durant, F, United States
18.6 PPG | 5.6 RPG | 3.8 APG
While announcers continue to praise LeBron’s occasional dormancy in the scoring column as unselfish dominance, Kevin Durant has been getting buckets. On a team saturated with All-Stars, only Durant has reached double figures in all five of Team USA’s games. While Durant scoring in boatloads won’t surprise anyone, trailing only Kevin Love (and exceeding Tyson Chandler) in rebounding might.
Luis Scola, PF/C, Argentina
20.2 PPG | 5.2 RPG | 3.2 APG
In a shortened game with only five fouls to give per person, getting to the line is key, and nobody drew more fouls in the group stage than the wily Luis Scola. With strong pump fakes and spin moves that give defenders a face full of hair, guarding Scola can’t be too much fun. Throw a deadly elbow jumper into the arsenal and it’s no wonder the 2010 World Championships scoring leader (27.1 per game) is only decimals off of the lead (Gasol and Mills are at 20.6 PPG) this summer.
Second Team: Sarunas Jasikevicius (Lithuania), Carmelo Anthony (USA), Linas Kleiza (Lithuania), LeBron James (USA), Salah Mejri (Tunisia)
QUEENS, New York — The first thing that must be said about Team USA’s surprisingly close victory over Lithuania was how strongly LeBron James played over the final 5 minutes of the game, when the Americans turned a two-point deficit into a five-point victory.
LeBron had never had a finishing kick like that in a FIBA game. Never.
It was always someone else doing the heavy lifting in those rare instances when the Americans were in peril, with one case in point being the gold medal game against Spain four years ago in Beijing when it was Dwyane Wade carrying the team down the stretch.
The second thing that must be said is that Team USA’s vertical vulnerability was exposed in this game.
With no shot blockers on the floor when Tyson Chandler was on the bench, the rim was unprotected. And whenever Lithuania got to the basket, there was no last line of defense.
Also, the Americans were outrebounded (42-37) for the first time in the tournament.
The third thing that must be said is that y’all must endeavor to someday eat a plate of Kaldunai, a Lithuanian dumpling of mystery meat covered with bacon bits and served with sour cream.
See that picture of a bowl of Kaldunai?
(Apologies for the blur. Had some Euroschmutz on my phone camera lens). That was my first serving.
I reloaded and knocked down a second dish of those bad boys as I watched the game at a Lithuanian-American tavern that opened 3 hours early and served nothing but Kaldunai to a crowd of about 10 people — all of whom, myself excepted, were openly cheering for Lithuania to pull off what would have been the biggest upset of the entire Olympics — no matter what beach volleyball aficionados might say.
Fourth, if you ever need to sample a bottle of Lithuanian beer, you now know where to go — the generically named Avenue Restaurant in the Glendale section of the world’s most international city.
There is a beautiful but camera-shy bartender who works on weekends, and you may even run into Mr. Romas Kezys (pictured above with his son Edward), who hails from Vistytis, Lietuva, and whose sons own the restaurant. (The Lithuanian-American patrons seemed quite American, right down to the New York accents, but they had no shame in cheering for the team in green and yellow on a steamy Saturday morning when those who awoke early were rewarded).
Prior to the riveting USA-Lithuania game, Russia came back from a 20-2 deficit to defeat Spain. It was one of those games that had an only-in-FIBA dynamic to it when Pau Gasol went to the line for two free throws with 5 seconds remaining and Spain trailing by two. As the referees handed him the ball for the first shot, the game clock inadvertently began to run. So they blew the whistle, took the ball away from Gasol and spent 2 minutes resetting the clock.
Then, Russia coach David Blatt called a timeout to further ice Gasol, who has a history of missing big free throws in big games against Russia (he missed six of ‘em in the fourth quarter of the gold medal game of Eurobasket ’07 in Madrid as Spain was defeated at home by those very same Russians).
When they finally got back to business, Gasol clanged the first shot off the rim, missing badly. He made the second, but Spain was out of timeouts and had to go fullcourt with 3 seconds left after Vitaly Fridzon made two from the line for Russia. The inbounds pass went to Marc Gasol in the backcourt, and he appeared to have no idea what to do before finally deciding to fling a shot from near the opposite foul line that never had a prayer.
But back to the US-Lithuania game, which has given the rest of the world renewed hope — no small thing after Team USA’s 83-point beatdown of Nigeria made it seem like the gold medal was a fait accompli.
Yes, the Americans did what they do best. They forced 23 turnovers (six by Sarunas Jasikevicius and seven by Mantas Kalnietis) but converted those miscues into just 26 points. And when they had to run a set offense, they often looked disjointed and indecisive – until they gave the ball to LeBron at the top of the key for a series of late of clear-outs that the NBA champion capitalized on.
“I feel like it was my time to step up offensively,” James said. “I have kind of been doing everything else, which I am OK with. I am here to do the little things, whatever the team needs in Coach K’s perspective. Like I told you guys, I can also score. I am blessed and happy. I was able to make a few buckets down the stretch.”
The patrons in Queens sat in their seats and clapped in appreciation as the game ended, proud but somewhat pissed off that their team hadn’t come through in the final 5 minutes. But with the exception of two shaggy-bearded youngsters who spoke Lithuanian throughout the game as they sat to my right, these folks were all as well-versed in NBA basketball as any other Americans, and they knew that they had run into a buzzsaw known as the new LeBron.
He showed us all something in the NBA finals, and he showed us some more on Saturday morning.
There are times when he cannot be stopped, but there are also times when the road to the gold medal game will get a little bumpy for coach Mike Krzyzewski’s crew.
“So far in the tournament things have come easy to us because we’ve been hitting so many shots,” Krzyzewski said, “and today because of the defense sometimes I think we passed up on shots because of guys hitting so many, you want to see them hit again instead of taking your shot. We can play better, but we played against a terrific team today.
“We had 17 steals that didn’t translate to the number of points that they should. Usually we get some momentum but today we got steals but not the points. It showed great resolve on their part that when they did make a mistake, they recovered quickly and didn’t have their head down. We beat an outstanding team today and had a lot of game pressure on us and we came through, and I am proud of them for doing that.”
See you Monday from yet another bar in Queens, the next one an Argentinian establishment. And a special shoutout to Rita Stankeviciute of the newspaper Lietuva Rytas for pointing me in the proper direction for a little taste of Lithuania so close to home.
Chris Sheridan is publisher and editor-in-chief of SheridanHoops.com. He has covered every version of Team USA since 1996, at the Olympics in Atlanta, Sydney, Athens and Beijing, as well as the World Championships in Indianapolis, Japan and Turkey. Follow him on Twitter.