The Olympic basketball tournament enters the medal round on Friday, with Spain taking on Russia and the United States facing Argentina. The winners will square off in the gold medal game on Sunday. Here are a few observations on the first two weeks of action in London.
1. Patty Mills could be the latest inspired international signing by the Spurs
Mills doesn’t fit the mold of most of the Spurs’ foreign success stories (Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker) in that he went to college in the U.S. But he could still prove to be a capable backup/eventual successor to Tony Parker if his play over the last few months is any indication. Mills scored 34 points and added 12 assists and 5 rebounds in the Spurs’ regular season finale against the Warriors (granted, the Warriors were in full-on tank mode at that point) and is the leading scorer so far at the Olympics, at 21 points per game. Though his Australian squad got blown out in the quarterfinals by Team USA, Mills more than held his own, tallying a game-high 26 points on 10-for-20 shooting (4-for-9 on threes). While his FG% isn’t eye-popping, it should be noted that the U.S. made stopping him their top priority because Australia’s second- and third-leading leading scorers were Joe Ingles and David Andersen (who averaged 5 ppg in 103 NBA contests). Mills also had 18 points and 7 rebounds in a four-point loss to Brazil that had no business being that close and helped key an Aussie upset of Russia on August 6.
2. Andrei Kirilenko has looked dangerous
Timberwolves general manager David Kahn took some flak for signing the 31-year-old Kirilenko, who played in Russia last season, to a two-year, $20 million contract in the offseason. After being named Euroleague MVP, Kirilenko has led Russia to the semifinals at the Olympics, putting up 19 points and 13 rebounds (and remember, Olympic games are only 40 minutes) in Russia’s 83-74 quarterfinal victory over Lithuania. Perhaps more impressively, Russia unexpectedly topped a group featuring Brazil and Spain, the two-time defending EuroBasket champions. Kirilenko has averaged 18 points (fifth) and 1.5 blocks (third) in the tournament and could provide a reliable veteran presence for a Minnesota team that figures to improve next season once Ricky Rubio is fully healthy.
3. Argentina can play . . . but that doesn’t mean they’ll beat the USA on Friday
Argentina has looked great at times in this tournament, with Manu Ginobili and Luis Scola combining to average 39 points per game through six contests. But they’ll need a massive effort from those two, as well as big efforts from Carlos Delfino, Pablo Prigioni and pretty much everyone on their roster if they are to overcome the U.S. and advance to the gold medal game. Argentina played the U.S. close, losing 86-80 in Barcelona on July 22, but in group play at the Olympics, it was a different story as the U.S. dominated, 126-97. Argentina had something in common with every other NBA team in that one in that it had no answer for Kevin Durant (28 points, 8-for-10 on threes) and LeBron James (18 points, 5 assists, 7-for-12 FG). Argentina might have the team chemistry advantage, but the 2012 version of Team USA is not the same as the dysfunctional 2004 squad that Argentina bounced in the semifinals en route to the gold medal. With James in there facilitating the action and shooters like Durant on the outside, Argentina really doesn’t have much of a chance as long as the U.S. plays smart team ball (though with Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant involved, this isn’t a guarantee).
4. Carmelo Anthony drops 37 points and shoots 10-for-12 on threes . . . in one of the biggest blowouts ever
Anthony may be one of the NBA’s best scorers at the end of games, but he has an abysmal track record in the playoffs, making it out of the first round once in nine playoff appearances. Which makes it all the more ironic that Anthony can light up Nigeria in an 83-point blowout (he did all that in less than 15 minutes of playing time!!!) but struggles mightily when it comes to leading a team to victory in a playoff series. His success at the Olympics has shown Anthony’s greatest strength as a player—which also happens to be his greatest weakness. He can score a ton, but he’s not a super-efficient scorer and, more importantly, doesn’t help a team in any other area of the game. James could score as much as Anthony does, but he creates more points (and wins) for his teams by helping out in other areas – making the extra pass, defending the other team’s top threat, knowing when to pass up the tough shot. That’s the biggest difference between the two, but on a squad like Team USA it’s hard to tell, since Anthony’s flaws are hidden by the collection of talent around him.
5. LeBron James is still the world’s best player
Okay, not really much of an observation, but it’s been awesome to see James do all the stuff he does with the Heat (read: everything) like his 11-point, 14-rebound, 12-assist game against Australia in the quarterfinals. It can be difficult to appreciate James when you’re rooting with every fiber of your being for him to fail, but watching him in the red, white and blue has been a liberating experience and has allowed us to see him for his exceptional talent and nothing more. Argentina, Spain and Russia can draw up whatever strategy they’d like, but James can beat you in so many ways that it’s going to be nearly impossible to stop him and the other extremely talented Americans.