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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Team USA-Argentina Olympic Semifinal Preview

Watching Argentina narrowly defeat Greece 80-78 to earn the right to play Team USA in an Olympic semifinal matchup, three things came to mind:

1) Argentina is a deadly three point shooting team

Manu Ginobili scored 24 points while shooting 6-13 from three point range and Carlos Delfino added 23 points while shooting 5-8 from three point range. Ginobili is shooting 17-41 (.415) from behind the arc in the Olympics and Delfino's percentage is even better (17-34, .500). Kobe Bryant will undoubtedly guard Ginobili. Delfino does not start but he averages 23.7 mpg, so when he is on the court at the same time as Ginobili someone besides Bryant will have to step up defensively and deny Delfino any open three point shots.

2) Andres Nocioni is a key player for Argentina

Andres Nocioni scored 12 points versus Greece while battling a knee injury that forced him out of the game a couple times. Nocioni leads Argentina in rebounding (6.8 rpg) and ranks third on the team in scoring (12.8 ppg). Ginobili candidly told Craig Sager after the game that if Nocioni is not healthy then Argentina has no chance to beat Team USA. Argentina has six players who average at least 23.7 mpg, while the other six players average 10 mpg or less; their main guys are very talented--five of them have NBA experience--and have great chemistry because they have played together so long on the national team but Argentina severely lacks depth. In all likelihood, Team USA's superior manpower will wear down Argentina eventually but that will happen much more quickly if Nocioni is limited by his injury or cannot play at all.

3) Luis Scola is a beast in FIBA play

Luis Scola ranks second on the team in scoring (17.8 ppg) to Ginobili (20.3 ppg) and second in rebounding (6.5 rpg) to Nocioni. Scola is shooting .597 from the field and he poured in 37 points versus Russia in a preliminary round game. LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony will have their hands full with him defensively.

Team USA-Argentina Tale of the Tape, 2002-Present

Argentina is the only country to twice defeat Team USA since 1992, when the United States started sending NBA players to FIBA competitions. Argentina's first win over Team USA was an 87-80 triumph in the 2002 FIBA World Championship. Argentina built a 20 point lead early in the game and withstood a Team USA run that cut the margin to six in the third quarter. Ginobili led a balanced Argentina scoring attack with 15 points and after the game he said, "They had no team defense...There is not a bond like us. We know each other. We know where picks will be, when to cut for a pass. Apparently, the United States did not."

Argentina also defeated Team USA in the 2004 Olympics, 89-81. Ginobili scored a game-high 29 points on 9-13 field goal shooting, including 4-6 from three point range, and Argentina shot 32-59 (.542) from the field, including 11-22 (.500) from behind the arc. Delfino was just a bit player on that squad, but Nocioni was the second leading scorer for Argentina with 13 points. In addition to playing poor defense, Team USA also did not shoot well but even the best players have games when their shots don't go down; that is why great teams hang their hats on defense: if Team USA had held Argentina to 8-22 (.364) three point shooting then they could have squeaked out a victory. Instead, Team USA had to settle for a bronze medal (after beating Lithuania), while Argentina went on to win the gold medal.

Team USA got a measure of revenge by defeating Argentina 96-81 to claim the bronze medal in the 2006 FIBA World Championship. Dwyane Wade led the way offensively with 32 points--including 18 in the fourth quarter--and LeBron James nearly had a triple double (20 points, nine rebounds, seven assists) but the biggest difference for Team USA came at the defensive end of the court: they held Argentina to 34-75 (.453) field goal shooting and 4-21 (.190) three point shooting, a vast improvement over their 2004 defensive numbers versus Argentina. It is important to remember that this was a consolation game for two teams that both expected to contend for the gold medal, so perhaps Argentina was not quite as amped up as they were in the 2004 and 2002 meetings.

Team USA defeated Argentina twice in last year's FIBA Americas tournament. The first win, a 91-76 decision in the quarterfinal round, was Kobe Bryant's first chance to play against Argentina. He led Team USA with 27 points on 10-15 field goal shooting and he spearheaded the defense with four steals, causing ESPN's John Saunders to exclaim at one point, "You'd think this is game seven of the NBA Finals, the way Kobe is playing." Team USA held Argentina to 5-21 (.238) three point shooting in that game, though it must be noted that Argentina basically sent its "B" to the FIBA Americas tournament: NBA players Ginobili, Nocioni, Fabricio Oberto and Walter Herrmann did not play for Argentina. Still, that kind of performance in the FIBA Americas tournament by Team USA laid the groundwork for how they have played so far in this year's Olympics.

Team USA and Argentina faced each other in the FIBA Americas tournament gold medal game, with Team USA cruising to a 118-81 victory. That game was over after the first quarter as Team USA raced to a 35-14 lead. Team USA held Argentina to .434 field goal shooting and .333 three point shooting but even those numbers were inflated a bit by garbage time production. Bryant took a back seat in terms of scoring but had a game-high eight assists and led the way defensively; James scored a game-high 31 points, including remarkable 8-11 shooting from three point range.

The numbers and the history all point to the same conclusion: if Team USA plays solid defense and limits Argentina's three point shooting then Team USA should win by at least 15-20 points. The game will likely stay close for a while in the first half but Team USA's defensive pressure and superior depth will wear Argentina down eventually. The recipe for a Team USA loss is to revert to bad defensive habits, not force turnovers/missed shots and allow Argentina to hang around long enough to be able to steal the game at the end.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:42 AM

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