Friday, August 10, 2012

2012 Olympics: Semifinals Preview

Below we take a look at Friday's semifinal matchups. Russia meets Spain at 5pm (London time) while Team USA plays Argentina (9pm) for the second time in four days.

USA (A-1) vs. ARGENTINA (B-1):

These two teams meet again after a chippy contest on Monday. Argentina hung right with the US through the 1st half. After the halftime break, the Americans cranked it up and left the boys in light blue in the dust, 126-97.

Was going to give a quick breakdown of the USA-Argentina semifinal but won't waste too much time since Zach Lowe over at already did a magnificent job at breaking down Argentina's possible attack plan vs. Team USA.

We thought we would piggyback on some of the general themes Zach covered in his post.

Zach makes a keen observation about teams like Lithuania's and Argentina's affinity for moving spot shooters long distances (pick-n-replace) while the ball-handlers are in motion.

This is aspect of ball that is much more prevalent outside the US, and this why you see US players have difficulty with this action.

In Europe, when a ball-handler goes in motion (usually off ball screens), spot-up guys will often move way out of their original spot-up area. For example, a wing will start the play spotted in the corner, then with the ball-handler on the move, they will trace along the arc up to the top-of-the-key. Lithuania has been doing this for years. If you're not use to this action, it's very easy to lose sight of your man if you're a help defender.

Can be very tricky for US players to get use to because spot-up guys in the US tend to stay in the same confined area when the ball-handler starts to penetrate. The spot-up shooter might move a few feet either way, but they tend to stay in the general area they were in before the ball-handler started to penetrate.

Basically, international ball tends to add another element to their drive-n-kick action. NBA/NCAA ball is more about drive-n-kick to stationary shooters. Int'l ball has more drive-n-kick to players moving into their spot-up positions.

Argentina's reliance on flex-style sets dates back to the Ruben Magnano-era. "Screen-the-screener" is a key element to their offense and this action has a way of lulling defenders to sleep.

Argentina's get a lot of mileage off of cross-screen action. Keep an eye out for Scola getting easy buckets at the rim early in possessions. As Argentina is coming down the floor to set up their offense, Scola will get a quick cross-screen right at the rim, while the ball-handler (usually Prigioni) will whip a pass near the half-court line to Scola.

Those are just a few things to watch for from Argentina.

Good news for Argentina is Pablo Prigioni looks to be alright after missing some games with kidney stones. He didn't shoot the ball well vs. Brazil, but his steady decision-making was key for the victory. Pablo didn't play vs. Team USA on Monday, which might give Argentina a bit of hope that they will stay closer to Team USA this time.

Argentina didn't rebound too well in group play but surprisingly outrebounded Brazil. Delfino and Nocioni gave better effort on the boards on Wednesday and will have to repeat this on Friday. Scola needs to work a little harder on the glass than he has and would be nice if he boxed out just a little.

Would love to tell you that Argentina can keep this game competitive late into the 4th, but just not feeling it. At this point, Team USA is too familiar with Argentina.

Sure, Argentina will catch Team USA off-guard sometimes with their multiple options and counterplays offensively. But Team USA is much better prepared to face international style teams than they were five years ago (big hat tip to scout Tony Ronzone) and their margin of error is just too big for Argentina to overcome.

RUSSIA (B-1) vs. SPAIN (B-3):

When these two teams met last Saturday, Russia had to rally twice from significant deficits to beat Spain, 77-74.

Spain came out on fire and had a 20-2 lead at one point. But Russia slowly chipped away and took control of the momentum during the middle section of the game.

Then Spain wrestled back the lead early in the 4th and eventually built a nine-point lead with just under five minutes to go. But Russia fought back and closed the game on a 17-5 run.

Russia has been the best defensive unit in London. They're currently holding opponents to 39.5% overall. Russia held Lithuania to 37% shooting.

Lithuania managed to shoot 42% behind the arc, but Russia historically stymies the opponent's 3pt. shooting (currently holding Olympic opponents to 31% on 3PA).

They totally shut down Linas Kleiza (5 pts) primarily with a platoon of Vik Khryapa and Sergey Monya. Their denial made it very difficult for Kleiza to get into good scoring situations.

Russia likes to swarm to the ball when it gets below the FT line and imagine they will do this with the Gasol Bros. Russia denies well on the perimeter and challenges nearly everything.

Expect Coach Blatt to mix up his defensive alignments and his hybrid zone/man mashups have confused opponents as usual. It's very hard to decipher if they're in man or zone sometimes because they pass off offensive players so much.

Russia's size allows to pass off/switch so freely. Usually the smallest guy on the floor is 6'6 and their trio of 6'9 forwards are such versatile defenders.

Russia's done pretty well on the offensive end as well. They are currently shooting 49.6% from the field. Their offense is built to get mileage off of cuts and off-ball screens to cover for the lack of a dominant pure scoring threat.

Often like to keep the basket area clear to open up passing lanes. Russia assisted on 24 of their 28 made field goals vs. Lithuania. They currently have a 71% assisted FG percentage for through six games. Which is superb.

Andrei Kirilenko (19 pts, 13 rebs, 3 assts, 3 stls, 3 blks) was a terror on both sides of the court vs. Lithuania. His constant movement off the ball led to easy baskets, put-backs and drawn fouls. He's been doing this all tourney. Blatt gives Kirilenko free reign to roam around defensively likes he's a free safety. And this strategy has worked out pretty well for Russia.

Alexey Shved didn't play well vs. Spain in group play and was yanked in favor of Anton Ponkrashov. Shved is coming off an uneven performance vs. Lithuania where his shot selection and general carelessness (four TOs) outweighed some slick playmaking that set up scores for teammates. Right now, not sure what to expect from him on Friday.

Russia were quite fortunate Anton Ponkrashov (14 pts, 11 assts vs. Spain) had the best game of his national team career vs. Spain. Don't expect him to score like that the second time around vs. Spain. But he's a very creative passer

Russia loves to bring sharpshooter Vitaly Fridzon off of down screens and Fridzon hurt Spain on screen action in group play (24 pts). Fridzon will sneak back cuts in if defenders overplay him on screens.

For the fourth straight summer, Timo Mozgov (12.7 ppg, 4 rpg, 67% FG) has played quality ball for Russia. Timo has been hurting foes by finishing at a high rate off rolls or cuts. His energy has been good on both ends of the floor and his activity hurt Spain last time. Can he stay out of trouble vs. the Gasols? He'd done a slightly better job of curtailing his fouls in London and just generally playing smarter ball.

Sergey Monya has done his usual strong defensive work but Russia needs him to step up his shooting (only 3-for-17 on 3PA). He perked up vs. Lithuania scoring 10 points and burying two contested 3pts. in the left corner down the stretch.

Vik Khryapa has been shooting the deep ball better than usual (44% on 3PA) and he hurt Spain with jumpers (four 3pts.) last Saturday. Vik is coming off a strong game vs. Lithuania where he did patented Kirilenko Jr. Tremendous entry passer who acts as a point-forward who doesn't dribble all that much.

Spain doesn't have to worry about what they'll get from Pau Gasol (19 ppg, 7 rpg, 59%) as he has been one of the top players in London. Doing work in the post, knocking down jumpers (even some 3pts.) and timely passes. Pau's defense in FIBA ball has always been underrated and he was great vs. France.Pau has been an anchor on the backline

Marc Gasol has to bring more energy on Friday than he did vs. Russia last Saturday. Mozgov outplayed and outhustled Marc, which hurt Spain. Marc (14 pts, 8 rebs) showed nice effort vs. France on both ends of the floor and he can't let Moz outwork on Friday.

Spain's zone was very succesful vs. France and they need to consider some packed-in looks vs. Russia. An underrated fact about Russia is they're generally mediocre outside shooting team. They are currently shooting 34% on 3PA. Besides Fridzon, they're kind of erratic.

We mentioned this is our Olympic preview, but we'll repeat here: maybe teams shouldn't respect Russia's spacing as much as they do. Focus on sagging into the painted area and keep the backline integrity to discourage the cuts.

Spain's bigs were effective clogging the basket area vs. France. Russia makes a living with back cuts (Kirilenko & Fridzon) and rolls/cuts down the lane (Mozgov).

When guarding Russia's pick-n-roll, Spain bigs should sit back into the lane. Mozgov and Sasha Kahn are not pop threats, and are more dangerous rolling. This strategy will open up pull-ups for the ball-handler.

Shved can be a dangerous pull-up shooter, but he should be tested. Ponkrashov killed Spain on pull-ups last time they played, but that was kind of fluky. He normally doesn't shoot or score like that.

Russia's Princeton-style sets gave Spain some problems last Saturday. Obviously got beat by some cuts (Mozgov's game-winning dunk came on a slip cut with the basket area clear) but some of Khryapa's jumpers came from Spain getting mixed up from Russia's movement.

Spain needs Rudy Fernandez and Sergio Llull to harness their high-flying style in a positive way vs. Russia. Both players were disruptive and attacked well vs. France.

Spain's outside shooting (31.4% on 3PA) hasn't been up to their normal standards and they shot poorly last time they played Russia (3-for-15 on 3PA).

They really Jose Calderon and Juan Navarro to step up their efficiency. Can't fault Navarro too much for his subpar Olympics because of the bum wheel, but Calderon has been non-existent too often.

We love the way Russia plays the game at both ends of the floor. And you know were huge David Blatt fans, but not sure they will be able to beat Spain twice.

Just can't shake the fact that Spain was up 18 points early, then up nine points with under five minutes to go. Russia needed a huge offensive game from Ponkrashov and they hit 91% of their free throws. Russia only hit 61% of their FTs vs. Lithuania and they are only hitting 66% from the FT line in London (an underrated perennially problem).

Spain hasn't looked great overall but still think their superior raw talent should get them by Russia this time.


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