After an awesome opening ceremony (Yep, I’m falling on that side of the fence), lots of swimming, cycling in the rain, and scantily clad women playing beach volleyball; men’s basketball finally got underway at the London Olympics. Not that the games were easy to find, however. Those aforementioned events dominated the television schedules, and resorting to fuzzy online streams, with foreign commentary, became a necessity. It was worth it, however, as there was some great basketball on show—although I will confess, I didn’t watch the Nigeria-Tunisia game (Nigeria won, 60-56, by the way). I love basketball, but not that much.
But before I further insult someone’s national team, here are 3 things that stood out from yesterday’s opening games.
1. Putting On the National Jersey Turns Average Players into World-Beaters
This phenomenon occurs during every Olympics/FIBA Championships. Players who fly under the radar in the NBA, or who are downright frustrating to watch, suddenly perform at an all-star caliber level for their national teams. The reasons for this are fairly clear. The sense of pride players feel in representing their home countries cannot be replicated playing for a professional franchise with which they have few personal ties. Secondly, many of those players are the go-to-guys for their respective national teams, and will therefore play a far more central role in their team’s offense.
Some examples from yesterday:
A. Yi Jianlian
A perennial bench warmer in the NBA who’s currently looking for a contract, Yi has shown flashes of potential, but not a whole lot else. However, yesterday’s filling of the box-score was nothing new from the FIBA version of Yi. The former Mavs center dropped a pretty awesome looking 30-12, hitting 13 of 19 from the field, but couldn’t prevent China’s 97-81 loss to medal favourite Spain. Without Yi’s heroics, Spain’s margin of victory would’ve been even more emphatic—Yi kept China, if not within touching distance, than at least within the realm of respectability.
B. Carlos Delfino
Another frustratingly gifted player who can shoot the lights out some nights, or shoot his team out of the game on others. In yesterday’s 101-79 blowout victory over Lithuania, Delfino did the former, hitting 6 of 9 from beyond the arc to finish with 20 points. Like Yi, Delfino is currently a free agent, but buyers beware; he always looks a little better in blue and white than he does donning an NBA jersey.
C. Andrei Kirilenko
Now to be fair, Kirilenko was a consistently solid pro during his ten years with the Jazz, and will likely be a major factor on an intriguing Timberwolves roster next season. But AK47 never put up the kind of numbers in the NBA that we saw from him yesterday against Great Britain. Kirilenko finished with 35 points, and was an astonishing 14 of 17 from the field! Of course, he was playing against one of the weaker teams in the tournament (*sigh* I had high hopes for my boys), but those are great numbers regardless of the context.
2. Spain and Argentina are the Biggest Threats to Team USA
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think either team will actually beat the U.S. in a gold-medal game, but in the realm of theory, I’ll concede that it’s possible. Both teams looked impressive over the weekend, solidifying their status as medal contenders with easy victories.
Spain, as I’ve mentioned, comfortably defeated China to open their tournament with 2 points. The Spanish got contributions from a number of players, but were unsurprisingly led by their main man, Pau Gasol, who finished with 21 points and 11 rebounds. Serge Ibaka did some very Serge-Ibaka-like things, which is to say some very good things—scoring with brutal efficiency (8-11 from the field) and notching 3 blocks, while Calderon and Navarro controlled things in the backcourt. Spain will need to improve, however, especially when they come up against the likes of Brazil, who defeated Australia, 75-71, in the first game of the day.
On paper, Argentina faced much stiffer opposition, the dangerous Lithuanians— many people’s dark horses for a medal. But games are played on the basketball court, and not on paper. The Argentinians cruised to victory, exhibiting great ball movement and fantastic shooting from downtown—hitting 11 3-pointers in the game. Luis Scola, now a member of the Phoenix Suns, dropped 32 points, while Manu Ginobli put up a LeBron-esque line—21 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists, and 4 steals. Ho-hum.
In dismantling their respective opponents, both Spain and Argentina demonstrated that they pose very real, but very different threats to Team USA. Spain out-rebounded the Chinese, 35-22, and could pose major problems to the undersized U.S. front-line. On the other hand, the wily veterans of Argentina, relying on fluid ball movement and great floor spacing, could cause an upset by bettering the U.S. on the perimeter. Again, both of these scenarios could happen, but likely won’t because…
3. Team USA are so Good it’s Unfair
A couple days ago I was thinking about the ridiculous depth that the Americans possess, and was trying to come up with another 2 twelve-man rosters that could medal in this tournament. Actually, it was easier than I thought. Here are my Team B and Team C rosters—not including the players that were injured and couldn’t make the current team (Wade, Rose, Howard, Bosh, Griffinetc.)
Team USA B:
Rajon Rondo, Kyrie Irving, Ty Lawson, Joe Johnson, Eric Gordon, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Josh Smith, LaMarcus Aldridge, Andrew Bynum, Roy Hibbert
Team USA C:
John Wall, Brandon Jennings, Kyle Lowry, Monta Ellis, Arron Afflalo, Shawn Marion, Rudy Gay, Danny Granger, Amar’e Stoudemeire, Tim Duncan, Al Jefferson, DeMarcus Cousins
Okay, so if you threw Teams B and C into the Olympics, would they not finish second and third on the podium? It’s a strong possibility. Sure, Team C has some real knucklehead potential and might lose out on a medal because of it, but the point I’m trying to make is that USA basketball has an embarrassment of riches at their disposal.
But back to the U.S. team that was actually selected. They’re pretty good too.
After going unbeaten during their pre-tournament exhibition games, Team USA kept their foot on the gas, destroying France, 98-71. It was a competitive game for a quarter, (quick side note: FIBA quarters are 10 minutes, as opposed to 12) with France only a point behind after one. After that brief period of relative parity, the class of the U.S. began to show. LeBron played his favourite role of ‘power point-guard’, racking up 8 dimes, including a must-see, jaw-dropping, full-court bounce pass to Kevin Durant, who got the and-1 bucket. Durant scored a game high 22 points, while Kevin Love was solid with 14 points off the bench.
The French didn’t help themselves, shooting only 2 of 22 from beyond the arc, but part of that was due to Team USA’s ridiculous athleticism on the perimeter. With such a fluid line-up—LeBron seems to play wherever he likes, Melo’s pops up at center, and Durant can play any position 2 through 5—the U.S. will cause numerous, nightmarish match-up problems for every team in the tournament. The French, who are a legitimate medal contender with some good NBA players, couldn’t handle Team USA’s speed, dynamism and athleticism yesterday—and to be honest, I don’t think any team will. The race for silver is on.
Zach Salzmann is an avid follower of the NBA. He was born and raised in London, England, but moved to Canada in 2004. He graduated from Carleton University with a degree in History, which he mostly uses to sound smart at social gatherings. When he’s not watching basketball, much to the annoyance of his girlfriend, he’s watching something else sports related.