Mike Taylor, Head Coach of the Polish National Team returns with his preview of the Olympic knockout stage games in Tokyo.
The quarterfinals are set for Olympic basketball in Tokyo and fans all over the world are focused on Saitama Super Arena. Five of the 8 Quarterfinalists are from Europe but while well-known teams like Spain and France have advanced, it is newcomer Slovenia making the countries first Olympic appearance that is capturing the basketball world’s imagination. High hopes for the Aussie’s and high expectations for Team USA add to the mix.
SLOVENIA v GERMANY
Averaging 109.7 points per game, 50 rebounds per game and shooting 62% from two-point range, Slovenia has put on an offensive show all summer. Led by Luka Doncic, Slovenia has rolled to a perfect 3-0 record atop a super-competitive Group C. Doncic’s Olympic debut was the stuff dreams are made of scoring 48 points grabbing 11 rebounds dishing out 5 assists and blocking 3 shots in Slovenia’s 118-100 win over Argentina Monday July 26th — the 48 points are the second highest single game point total behind only Brazil’s Oscar Schmidt who scored 55 points against Spain in 1988. Doncic followed up his fantastic first performance with a solid 25 points 7 rebounds and 7 assists in Slovenia’s 116-81 over Japan. But Luka’s most impressive performance may have been in the 95-87 victory over Spain to clinch first place in Group C. Doncic demonstrated his ability to make his teammates better by reading the game and making the right play. Facing physical defense, a box and 1 junk defense and double teams for 40 minutes from Spain, Luka trusted his teammates and they stepped up. Center Mike Tobey continues to shine on the short roll, running the floor and crashing the offensive boards. While opponents focus on game plans to limit Luka, the rest of the Slovenia team takes advantage as power forward Vlatko Cancar, wings Jaka Blazic and Zoran Dragic along with shooting guard Klemen Prepelic remind the world Slovenia is not a one man show. Luka’s ability to create advantages and teammate’s ability to capitalize with teamwork has made Slovenia the team of the moment. Now, in the knock-out stages, Slovenia is focused to show they are a team of destiny.
Meanwhile, Germany is also a feel-good story of this summer’s Olympic basketball. Playing without several key NBA players including Dennis Schroeder, Daniel Theis and Maxi Kleber, Head Coach Henrik Rodl and his team have played outstanding team basketball and reinforced the team over star mentality. Advancing as a top 3rd place finisher from Group B, Germany’s key victory came over Nigeria 99-92. Moe Wagner top-scored with 17 points. With an emphasis on excellent team basketball, point guard Maodo Lo has paced the Germans with 14.3ppg 6ast followed by Andi Obst 13.7ppg 46% threes and Wagner with 11.7 ppg. Also making strong contributions, big men Johannes Voigtmann (9.7ppg 8.7reb) and Johannes Thiemann 8ppg 7.3reb) have been solid. Germany can look to Spain as a model game plan to limit Luka, but a team’s personnel is the deciding factor as rosters with size and athleticism to defend him one on one and mobile big men able to switch. To this point, there has been no stopping the Slovenian scoring machine.
Now 16-0 with Slovenia, Luka Doncic has never lost with his national team. The run continues as Luka leads Slovenia over Germany and improves to 17-0 with the national team setting up a semi-final match- up with the winner of France and Italy.
ITALY vs FRANCE
After grabbing headlines with a Group A opening 83-76 win over favored Team USA, France played with confidence and momentum going a perfect 3-0 to win the group and advance. Wins over Czech Republic and Iran rounded out the first-round action for Head Coach Vincent Collet’s team. Evan Fournier’s 28 points led France in 83-76 win over USA. France played big in the front court and outrebounded USA 42-36. Fournier finished with 21 points and Nando De Colo added 17 points 8 assist as France ran past the Czech Republic 97-77 before Thomas Heurtel scored 16 points and De Colo added 10 points 5 rebounds 5 assists in the 79-62 French win over Iran. For the three games in Group A, Fournier led the scoring at 17.3ppg. Point guards Nando De Colo 13.3ppg 3.7reb 6ast 46% threes and Thomas Heurtel 10.7ppg 3ast 46% threes were excellent while big man Rudy Gobert 8.7ppg 7.7reb and wing Nicolas Batum 7.7ppg 3.7reb 40% threes made key contributions. This could be France’s best opportunity for a medal in recent Olympics and this team has played with confidence and determination throughout the first round.
While most attention has been on other teams, Italy has quietly been very good in Tokyo. Head Coach Meo Sacchetti has done outstanding work with next-generation talent for Azzura. Italy beat Germany 92-82 behind sharpshooting from Simone Fontecchio who hit 5 for 5 from three for 20 points. After the opening victory over Germany, Australia edged Italy 86-83 on Wednesday July 28th. Fontecchio was again in top form with 22 while Golden State Warriors guard Nico Mannion added 21. Finishing up the first round, veteran forward Nico Melli scored 15 points with 5 rebounds and Achille Polonara added 13 points with 5 boards in Italy’s second win, 80-71 over Nigeria.
These two European countries with excellent basketball tradition will compete for 40 minutes in an excellent game but France’s experience and guard play will make the difference. Look for France to edge Italy and advance to a semi-final matchup against Slovenia and Luka Doncic.
USA vs SPAIN
The next meeting between two Olympic basketball rivals, USA met Spain in the Gold medal games of 2008 and 2012 and in the 2016 semifinals. As Spain’s Golden Generation slowly phases out of the national team, they would love nothing more than to beat the USA and finally put a Gold Medal in their already filled trophy case. The teams met in Las Vegas during preparation, where Team USA edged Spain 83-76 with Spain playing zone much of the second half. Damian Lillard was a key in that game scoring 19 points with 6 assists. For most of the recent years, FIBA World Ranking has held USA and Spain as 1 and 2 and Spain showed their class winning the World Cup in 2019 in China where Team USA finished 7th. This Olympic quarterfinal match has a deep history and both teams have a lot on the line.
After opening with a loss to an underrated French team, USA responded with resounding wins over Iran and Czech Republic. Kevin Durant became Team USA’s all-time leading scorer (currently 339 points) passing Carmelo Anthony (336 points) in the 119-84 win against Czech Republic and the team steadied the ship to finish 2-1 and advance from the 2nd place of Group A. Team USA will always have high expectations and external historical comparisons to the Dream Team so any loss — even to a high-level, experienced and deep French team — will cause concern. What USA does not need is excuses about coaching, the Spurs system or even the FIBA basketball. Now is not the time to focus on problems or short-comings or discuss opinions about the team. Now is the time to maximize this group and play the best basketball possible. Losing to France, defensive mistakes down the stretch and passing up open shots threw Team USA out of rhythm as Evan Fournier and France erased a 7-point deficit in the last minutes to take the win. Jrue Holiday (12.3ppg 4.7reb 54%threes) was a bright spot against France scoring 18 points with 7 rebounds 4 assists. In the last two games, Damian Lillard (13.3ppg 40% threes) stepped up with 21 points 5 assists and 7 made three pointers in the 120-66 win over Iran while Kevin Durant (14.3ppg 5reb 4.3ast) led the way with 23 points 8 rebounds 6 assists against Czech Republic. Jayson Tatum (16.7ppg) also is in top form adding 27 points on only 16 shots including 5 of 6 three’s against the Czechs. The Czech win was also important because it showed Team USA can gradually overcome adversity and beat an opponent after they trailed 25-18 following the first quarter and held a small lead at half. In the second half, Team USA’s rolled to a 72-41 finish completely dominating play. For the game USA hit 20 of 42 threes (47.6%). Chicago Bulls guard Zach Levine (11.3ppg 5.3ast 54% threes) was also good against Czech finishing with 13 points and 5 assists. One way Team USA can be at their best is by applying defensive pressure to create transition opportunities however this is not the strength of the current roster. Team USA has played with like-sized lineups and switched a lot defensively. For every team, these Knock-out stages are one game at a time but Team USA and Head Coach Gregg Popovich have all they need to take out the challengers one by one. The real test can be how the team responds to adversity — individually or together.
Spain finished in 2nd place in Group C after a hard-fought loss to Slovenia where they limited Luka Doncic and had plenty of opportunities to win. Head Coach Sergio Scariolo devised an excellent game plan against Doncic where the Spaniards double teamed the Slovenian star, were physical with him, drew charges in the paint, played zone and even box and one. The game plan worked as Luka picked up 3 first quarter fouls and the team’s rhythm was clearly disrupted. Later, a strong start to the third quarter sparked by Rudy Fernandez (12 points 4 for 9 threes v Slovenia) gave Spain a 12-point lead, but Slovenian center Mike Tobey and teammates stepped up to trim the deficit. A strange late technical foul against Spain for 6 men on the floor seemed to disrupt their rhythm and with Spain down one, two Ricky Rubio looks did not go down. Overall, Spain was the first team all summer in meaningful games to put themselves in position to win. The loss was important for quarterfinal seedings which results in the match-up with the USA.
Previously, Ricky Rubio 20 points 9 assists in an 88-77 opening win over Japan and followed up with another strong floor game with 26 points 5 rebounds 4 assists in an 81-71 win over Argentina. For the tournament, the recent Cleveland Cavaliers addition Ricky Rubio is averaging 21.3ppg 7.3ast while shooting 44% from three. Other important contributions for Spain come from shooting guard Segio Lull 9ppg, small forward Rudy Fernandez 6.7ppg 4reb, power forward Victor Claver 8.7ppg 5.7reb and the Gasol brothers with Pau Gasol producing 8.7ppg 5.3reb and Marc Gasol 7.7ppg 4.3reb 4.3ast.
Spain can play big in the front court against Team USA and have the personnel to attack USA switching defense. The team can play through Rubio on the perimeter or Marc Gasol as a post. Facing team USA before in big Olympic games, Spain has the experience to dig deep and compete. Spain has seen the talent and scoring ability from team USA before. In this pressure game, I believe the Spanish depth of system and team structure gives them an advantage. Look for Coach Scariolo to change defenses to disrupt team USA rhythm and really focus to make Team USA defend in the half-court.
In a classic Olympic quarterfinals game, expect Spain to control the tempo and make Team USA scorers work. If Spain can defend the three-point line and keep USA out of transition, look for Spain to edge team USA in a fantastic finish. I expect Spain to advance to the semi-finals where they will face the winner of Australia against Argentina.
AUSTRALIA vs ARGENTINA
A pre-tournament feel-good pick, Australia came to Tokyo to play delivering a perfect performance going 3-0 to win Group B. A balanced, experienced team with strong guard play, the Aussie’s received great production from San Antonio Spurs point guard Patty Mills 21.7ppg 5.7ast and Utah Jazz wing Joe Ingles 10.3ppg 4.3reb 3.7ast. Team leader Mills led the way to an 86-83 win over Italy with 16 points 6 assists before scoring 24 points with 6 assists in the 89-76 win over Germany. Underrated big men Nick Kay 14.3ppg 6.3reb and Jock Landale 13.3ppg were also positives for Head Coach Brian Goorjian’s team all the more important after big man Aaron Baynes was lost for the tournament due to a neck injury. Landale, a rising player for Australia’s front court scored 18 points against Germany while Kay chipped in 16 to the win. Perimeter players Dante Exum 6.3ppg 4reb 3.3ast, Mathisse Thybulle 8.3ppg 3reb 2.3ast and Matthew Dellavedova 4ppg 2.3ast all defend and play their roles well. The Aussie’s “play for your mate” mentality has them hungry and focused to achieve a big result in Tokyo this summer.
After a fantastic World Cup 2019 run which saw them finish second losing to Spain in the finals, Argentina advanced as 3rd place from Group C. The team opened with a hard-fought 118-100 loss to Slovenia who were powered by a historical Olympic Debut performance from Luka Doncic. Focused to bounce back, Argentina stormed to an early lead but Spain then beat Argentina in their second game 81-71. Facing the tough Group C competition and schedule, Argentina did not find their rhythm until game three, a 97-77 win over Japan which could kick them into gear. Head Coach Sergio Hernandez can point to a team total of 27 assists compared with 11 turnovers against Japan. Guard play is not only a strength of Argentina but also a beauty. Featuring three outstanding playmaking guards Facundo Campazzo 16ppg 6ast, Nico Laprovitolla 13ppg 4ast and Luca Vildoza 3.7ast, Argentina is fun to watch and tough to stop. Basketball legend 42 -year-old Luis Scola, now the 4th all-time leading scorer in the Olympics is shooting 44% from three as part of his team-leading 19.6ppg. Scola posted a double double of 23 points 10 boards against Japan while Campazzo added 17 points 11 assists and excellent forward Gabriel Deck scored 16 points on 7 for 10 shooting. Argentina has not played their best basketball yet this summer and the team has great experiences to draw from.
In a fun game to watch, as both top-level back-courts go head-to-head, Australia’s three point and free throw shooting makes the difference as Patty Mills leads the Aussie’s to edge Argentina and advance into a semi-final matchup against the winner of Spain – USA.
PATHWAY TO THE MEDAL PLATFORM
SLOVENIA vs FRANCE
SPAIN vs AUSTRALIA
Photographs courtesy of FIBA.basketball