Mike Taylor, Head Coach of the Polish National Team returns with a preview of the medal games at the Tokyo Olympics.
Two exciting weeks of Olympic basketball have led us to Friday’s finals, a Gold Medal game between USA and France and a bronze medal game for third place between Australia and Slovenia. While France won game one in the Group stage, USA steadied the ship and steadily improved throughout the tournament — now both teams are ready for a re-match for Gold. In the Bronze Medal game, two fun teams to watch meet as Luka Doncic leads Slovenia against the Boomers from Australia. How both teams recover emotionally from the disappointment of semifinal losses and refocus for Friday’s third place game will be important.
GOLD MEDAL GAME USA vs FRANCE
Since the Dream Team dominated the 1992 Olympics, every Team USA faces unrealistically high expectations to not only win but win big. Taking some time to come together this summer, Team USA finds themselves right where they wanted to be playing for Olympic Gold. While critics have taken shots at the team throughout the summer, the team has done its job and is one win away from accomplishing its goal.
In FIBA play, many times big teams or favorites are most vulnerable for upsets in the first game of the tournament gradually improving and finding their rhythm after the opening game. We have seen Team USA improve game by game since losing to France 83-76 in the first game for both teams in Group A Sunday July 25th. After bouncing back with two wins over Iran and Czech Republic to advance to the knockout rounds, Head Coach Gregg Popovich guided USA past two contenders in a quarterfinal win over Spain and a semifinal win over Australia. Along with improved play on the floor, the team seems more settled into roles and structure.
In the first meeting, Evan Fournier stole the show top-scoring with 28 points while Rudy Gobert contributed 14 points 9 boards and Nando De Colo added 13 points 5 rebounds 5 assists. With USA up 45-37 at half, France responded with a 25-11 third quarter to build a 62-56 lead heading into the fourth. Team USA rallied behind Jrue Holiday to tie the score at 63-63 with 6:40 to play and held a 74-67 lead with 3:20 remaining. France fought back again, this time Fournier sank a clutch three with 57 seconds to go giving France a 76-74 lead. USA rimmed out three good three point looks before Nando De Colo added 2 foul shots pushing France’s lead to four, 78-74 with 21 seconds left. After a timeout, Damian Lillard slipped on the inbound play and Evan Fournier came up with the big steal which resulted in a Lillard unsportsmanlike foul. Fournier made one of two free throws before Rudy Gobert coolly sank two more foul shots as Team USA was forced to foul. Up 81-74, Lillard drew a foul shooting a three but converted only two before Nicolas Batum iced the game with two more free throws giving France the
Analyzing the first meeting, France played big lineups with front court players Rudy Gobert, Vincent Poirier, Moustapha Fall and Guerschon Yabusele providing size and physicality against smaller USA bigs Bam Adebayo and Draymond Green. As Team USA played same-sized lineups and switched 1-5, France attacked mismatches in the low post and crashed the offensive boards to capitalize on their size helping France outrebound USA 42-36, outscore USA in the paint 32-26 and outscore USA 16-7 in second chance points. Yabusele in particular made critical hustle players diving for loose balls and giving effort on the
boards. Team USA switching off the ball also led to late game defensive break-downs as miscommunications led to open shots most impactful on an end-line inbound situation that left Fournier open in the opposite corner for a big bucket. France also defended Team USA limiting the NBA stars to 36% from floor (25 for 69) and 31% from three (10 for 32). France also slowed Kevin Durant holding him to 10 points on 4 for 12 shooting including 1 for 6 three. After scoring 10 points against France and Iran in the first two Group A games, Durant has emerged as the go-to-guy and leader for Team USA averaging a team best 19ppg with 23 points against Czech Republic, 29 points in the quarterfinal win over Spain and 23 points in the Semifinal victory over Australia. While most fans focus on Durant’s scoring as a key for Team USA, his rim protection (6 blocks 1.2 blocks per game) has also made a big impact for Team USA defensively. Also playing well in the Olympic tournament, USA guard Zach LaVine is shooting 59.4% from the floor and has averaged 10.6ppg with 20 assists to only 3 turnovers. Of the late arrivals to Tokyo, only Jrue Holiday (18pts) made a significant contribution as both Devin Booker (1 for 6) and Khris Middleton (scoreless) did not impact the game. Booker in particular, seems to have found his role in the team and rhythm in the game averaging 10.8ppg including a 20-point performance on 7 for 10 shooting with 3 of 5 from three against Australia.
Depth in the back-court has been a key for Team USA and one area Coach Popovich and seem to have a better read on the team is with skillful scoring point guard Damian Lillard who has shown to be one- dimensional in FIBA play. While Lillard can create offense and give the team a hot-shooting three-point threat, opponents like France punished him defensively especially with Team USA’s switching pick and rolls. The physical Holiday and athletic LaVine has emerged as the blue-collar work unit as the tournament has evolved.
France will not sneak up on Team USA a second time. Entering the first game with respect for the French current and former NBA players, Team USA will be on alert after the loss. Evan Fournier has been outstanding all Olympics and continues to hunt shots like a man on a mission. Look for Team USA to defend him with more focus in particular to be “clean” (mistake free) when defending Fournier off- ball screens. Reducing the defensive break-downs will go a long way in defending the three-point line. Another area of focus will be on the two outstanding French point guards Nando De Colo and Thomas Heurtel who played key stretches of the game together against Slovenia in the semifinals. Nicolas Batum has been excellent for France scoring, rebounding and blocking shots. Role playing wing Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot emerged as a key player in the win over Slovenia using his athleticism defensively to hound Luka Doncic and then burying a couple of big threes for France. Another athletic French guard, Frank Ntilikina did not play in the first game but has seen limited minutes as the tournament has progressed and could be ready for more of an impact in the Gold Medal game.
TEAM USA lost to France once — it will not happen again. Look for defensive adjustments and improvements from game one to game two specifically more attention to detail defending Fournier off- ball screens and a plan to stay out of defensive disadvantages from switching 1-5. Playing big worked once for France, but TEAM USA will be prepared for the re-match. A more settled and focused Team USA plays a solid 40-minute game to overcome the heart-felt effort from France and win their 4th straight Gold Medal.
BRONZE MEDAL GAME SLOVENIA vs AUSTRALIA
Luka Doncic has captured the imagination of the basketball world by leading Slovenia, a country of just over 2 million people, on a magical run to the top realms of the international basketball. Although the story-book ending was denied by a Nicolas Batum block in the final seconds of a fantastic semifinal finish against France, what Doncic has done this summer is spectacular averaging a triple double of 24.2ppg 10reb 10ast 1.2stl 1.2blk on 47%fg and 32.6% three shooting. Triple Doubles are nothing new to Luka who has recorded 36 triple doubles in his young 3-year NBA career with the Dallas Mavericks. However, historically, in Olympic play stuffing the stat sheet is something special that has only been done twice since FIBA began keeping full box scores in 1970. The Doncic triple double in the 90-89 semifinal loss to France was only the third triple double in Olympic basketball history. July 27th, 1976 Alexandr Belov of the Soviet Union, best known for sinking the controversial game winning shot in Munich in 1972 for the USSR when officials called teams back onto the floor to replay the final seconds against Team USA, posted the first triple double in Olympic basketball history with 23 points 14 rebounds and 10 assists against Canada in Montreal. LeBron James notched a triple double for Team USA in the London Olympic games of 2012 with 11 points 14 rebounds and 12 assists against Australia.
Now 17-1 after the heartbreaking loss to France, how Slovenia recovers from their dream derailed will determine if the team takes home an Olympic medal. Head Coach Aleksander Sekulic has designed an offense run through Doncic that has produced a starting five of double figure scorers with sharpshooting Klemen Prepelic 15ppg 2.8ast 38% three, naturalized center Mike Tobey 13.8ppg 11.6reb 63%fg, Denver Nuggets power forward Vlatko Cancar 13.8ppg 4.4reb and hard-playing wing Zoran Dragic 13ppg 3.2reb all enjoying excellent Olympic tournaments. Experienced wing Jaka Blazic also has been good for Slovenia on both ends producing 9.2ppg 4.3reb and drawing opponent’s best player for a defensive assignment each game. Expect Slovenia to rally the troops and come out with a strong team effort against Australia.
The Aussie’s can also be expected to recharge themselves and respond with an excellent team effort powered by their “play for your mate” mentality. After posting a perfect 3-0 mark in Group B, Australia hammered Argentina 97-59 in the quarterfinals setting up a semifinal game against USA whom they had beaten earlier in a preparation game in Las Vegas mid-July. Running to an early lead, Australia allowed Team USA to trim the deficit heading into halftime and then the Americans exploded for a 32-10 third quarter to take control and cruise to a convincing 97-78 win.
In the Bronze medal game against Slovenia, Australia has perimeter match-ups to challenge Luka Doncic as superior defensive stopper Matisse Thybulle could draw the assignment on a cross match or long and lanky Dante Exum could defend the Slovenian star. While the Aussie’s do have the size, Head Coach Brian Goorjian and staff must devise their PnR game plan v Doncic with their big men in mind. Boomer bigs Nick Kay Joc Landale and Duop Reath will all be challenged by the play-making, court-vision and feel from Doncic. While the perimeter matches up well, Australia bigs must find a way to impact the ball.
Offensively, Australia has multiple playmakers in scoring guard Patty Mills and secondary playmaking win Joe Ingles. The Aussie’s play fast and play together and will lay it all on the line for an Olympic medal.
I anticipate an up-tempo game with lots of action from both teams. Look for a high-scoring game with both teams trying to out-score the opponent on their way to a Bronze
Doncic leads Slovenia to a high-scoring win and posts another Olympic triple double as Slovenia closes their remarkable run with a Bronze medal win over Australia.
Photographs courtesy of FIBA.basketball