After yesterday’s early-morning marathon Point-by-Point session, I planned on either climbing back into bed or napping on the couch to the sounds of the last quarterfinal basketball game, featuring Argentina and Greece.
I don’t know if it was the Coke Zero I drank at 5:30am (something I doubt will ever happen again) or the excitement of the game, but I watched Argentina/Greece in its entirety with utter surprise.
Greece put up a good effort against the United States in their game a week ago, but the U.S. still ran away at the end — literally. Greece looked slow and tired, and I assumed Argentina would prevail by a minimum of 10 points.
Well, Andres Nocioni’s sore knee made him a non-factor, Greece showed even more determination than they did against the Americans, and 2004’s Gold Medal winner only defeated Greece by two points, 80-78.
Team U.S.A.’s least impressive win in this Olympics was a 21-point victory over Angola, so it’s tempting to assume that since the U.S. beat Greece by over 30 points, and Greece only lost to Argentina by 2, that the U.S. should probably beat Argentina by at least 20.
Of course by this logic the Boston Celtics should have swept the Atlanta Hawks in the first round of the NBA playoffs, and we all know how that turned out. If the U.S. gets too high on themselves there’s definitely a shot Argentina, an extremely passionate led by Manu Ginobili, could pull off the upset of the Olympics (all apologies to Jason Lezak). Let’s take a look at how much chance there is of that happening.
Argentina’s Olympics so far
Besides one hiccup (a 79-75 loss to Lithuania), Argentina has done about as well as many expected. They defeated Croatia by 24 points, Australia by 17, Russia by 12 and Iran by 15. That loss to Lithuania was costly however, for it put them in the U.S. half of the draw, something Ginobili lamented after leading his team over Greece yesterday.
The Argentineans sport five NBA players (technically four now, since Carlos Delfino left the Toronto Raptors to play for more money in Russia). But make no mistake; this team is all Manu, all the time. Ginobili leads Argentina in points (20.3 per game), assists (4.5 per, tied with Pablo Prigioni), and has been shooting incredibly well from the field (50%), from three-point range (17/41) and the line (94%).
Another outstanding international player is Luis Scola, who quickly became one of those “guys you don’t like playing against” in his first year with the Rockets last season. Scola has averaged 17.8 ppg and almost 7 rebounds per game in these Olympics, and if he gets some easy put-backs early we might see Carlos Boozer get extended minutes for the first time in this Olympics. Nocioni and Delfino are both decent scorers with range, although Nocioni plays defense and Delfino may be one of the lazier, more inconsistent players on the team. Fabricio Oberto is a solid center with the San Antonio Spurs due to his defense, but offensively he’s a non-factor. Unless he somehow channels his inner Tim Duncan, it’ll be hard to remember he’s even in the lineup.
How they match up
Let’s get this out of the way: if the U.S. plays defense the way they have so far in the Olympics, this game shouldn’t be a contest. Kobe Bryant is sure to request the assignment of sticking to Ginobili like glue, and with Nocioni’s health a question mark Ginobili is going to have to score at least 25 points in order for Argentina to even have a chance in this game.
Another area Nocioni’s injured knee (no word on his status, but Ginobili sounded desperate for Nocioni to play against the U.S. in his interview with Craig Sager yesterday, regardless of his condition) will hurt is in fighting the phenomenal depth the U.S. boasts. Besides the five current/former NBA players and Prigioni, nobody plays any minutes on this squad. It’s an older team almost untouched from the Gold Medal squad that went to Athens, and this Olympics is kind of a last hurrah for them.
So do they have any chance at all?
Argentina is better than they showed against Greece, but unless they catch some sort of emotional tidal wave and play the game of their lives, the U.S. should do what they have over the entire tournament: feel the other team out early, start pulling away in the second quarter with their Kobe-LeBron-Wade-Deron-Bosh lineup, and blitz their opponents in the second half. Argentina seemed old and tired yesterday, and with Nocioni at less than full strength, it’s unfair to expect Ginobili and Scola to defeat the U.S. by themselves.
Prediction: U.S. 91, Argentina 75.