U.S. on easier side of knockout bracket
ISTANBUL, Turkey -- After all the talk about who might have needed to, wanted to, tried to or managed to tank a game to end up on the easier side of the bracket for the knockout round of the 2010 FIBA World Championship, it turned out that winning was rewarded.
And probably no team benefited more from the way things shook out upon the completion of pool play Thursday night than Team USA, which has a fairly easy road to the semifinals.
Unless you ask the Americans.
Team USA opens with a game on Monday against Angola (ESPN2, 11 a.m. ET), which has won 10 of the past 11 FIBA-Africa championships and has gone unbeaten in its past 35 games in that tournament. However, it was the worst team at the 2008 Olympics, losing all of its games and finishing last in the 12-team field -- although it took great pride in losing by only 21 points against the Redeem Team.
In this tournament, the Angolans defeated Germany by four points and Jordan by 14, but they lost to Serbia by 50 and to Australia and Argentina by 21 points apiece.
"We know a lot about Angola already. They're a real athletic team, almost as athletic as we are," said Eric Gordon, who has emerged as the Americans' most prolific 3-point shooter and is second on the team in scoring, averaging 10.1 points per game.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski acknowledged he will consider tinkering with his starting lineup and his rotations, not getting too specific other than to say he will go back to making quicker substitutions, as he did earlier in the tournament.
If the Americans defeat Angola (past U.S. teams beat the Angolans by 46 points in 2004, 33 points in 1996 and 68 points in the 1992 Olympics), they will play the winner of the Russia-New Zealand game in the quarterfinals Thursday. Their possible semifinal opponents are Lithuania, China, Brazil and Argentina.
Here is a preview of all eight games in the round of 16, which begins Saturday (all times ET).
Croatia-Serbia (Saturday, 11 a.m.)
The Serbs, whose only loss in pool play was a double-overtime defeat against since-departed Germany, captured Group A by defeating Argentina 84-82 on Thursday night despite a 32-point performance from Luis Scola, the leading scorer in the tournament. They have played especially well since getting Nenad Krstic back from a three-game suspension for his chair-throwing role in a brawl against Greece in an exhibition game. And they came back from an early 13-point deficit against Argentina, getting a clutch 3-pointer from their leading scorer, Dusko Savanovic, with 18.8 seconds left to break a 77-77 tie.
Serbia has a very young and very balanced roster -- including three 23-year-olds and three 22-year-olds -- and its floor general is point guard Milos Teodosic, who plays for Olympiacos in Greece. The Serbs are coached by Dusan Ivkovic, who led Yugoslavia to the 1990 world championship title and then took over a national team program that was in tatters in 2007. They should have little trouble with rival Croatia, which finished fourth in Group B with losses to the United States, Brazil and Slovenia.
Greece-Spain (Saturday, 2 p.m.)
Undoubtedly one of the two highlight games of the round of 16 (Brazil-Argentina is the other), featuring two teams that entered the tournament as legitimate gold-medal contenders but faltered in pool play.
Spain was upset by Lithuania and France, while Greece was defeated by Turkey and Russia to finish third in Group C. The best matchups will be at the center position, where Marc Gasol will have to deal with the girth and physicality of Sofoklis Schortsanitis, and at point guard, where Spanish sensation Ricky Rubio will be matched against the quietly efficient and crafty Dimitrios Diamantidis.
The key to this game could be Spain's ability to stop two key Greek players: shooting guard Vassilis Spanoulis, who is averaging 14 points per game and shooting 53 percent from the field; and power forward Ioannis Bouroussis, a good rebounder with a strong inside/outside game. Gasol is shooting 62 percent from the field, and Rubio is ranked third in the tournament in assists with 31, trailing only Brazil's Marcelo Huertas (33) and Argentina's Pablo Prigioni (32).
Australia-Slovenia (Sunday, 11 a.m.)
While having dinner the other night with Slovenia's Bostjan Nachbar, who I got to know well during his time with the New Jersey Nets, I asked him to pick his sleeper team to win it all, and, naturally, he picked his own team.
The Slovenians went through some internal problems earlier this summer when Beno Udrih quit the team because coach Mehmed Becirovic planned to bring him off the bench behind veteran Jaka Lakovic. But Lakovic has been a clutch shooter in this tournament and forms one of the better backcourts in the field playing alongside Goran Dragic of the Phoenix Suns.
Australia finished third in Group A but lost by only two points against Argentina. Speedster Patty Mills has been its leading scorer and alpha dog, and big man Aleks Maric (who plays for the Greek club Panathinaikos) could be the X factor if he and center David Andersen can outplay Primoz Brezec. Australia is coached by San Antonio Spurs assistant Brett Brown.
France-Turkey (Sunday, 2 p.m.)
You could build a pretty good team with the French players who are not here, including Tony Parker, Joakim Noah, Mickael Pietrus, Rodrigue Beaubois and Ronny Turiaf. But Les Bleus have been doing quite well with the team they do have, the highlight being a six-point victory over Spain on the opening night of the tournament.
Nicolas Batum and Mickael Gelabale have played well, but Boris Diaw (34 percent shooting, 2-for-14 on 3-pointers) has not. They will have their hands full with a Turkish squad that is one of only three undefeated teams, and the Olympic Dome will be filled with 15,500 Turks vocally supporting a team that handled Greece, Russia and China with relative ease, playing its lone close match against since-departed Puerto Rico.
The team has been led by Ersan Ilyasova of the Milwaukee Bucks (shooting 60 percent on 3s) and big men Semih Erden and Omer Asik, both of whom were second-round NBA draft picks in 2008. Hedo Turkoglu is only fourth on the team in scoring (9.9 ppg) and is shooting only 32 percent, but he has been a floor general from the point forward position with a team-high 20 assists.
Angola-USA (Monday, 11 a.m.)
You never know quite what you are going to see from the Americans on any given night -- other than the offensive brilliance of Kevin Durant, the NBA's leading scorer last season. They are still adjusting their rotations and roles, and one has to wonder whether coach Mike Krzyzewski is holding back Kevin Love as his secret weapon.
This is the biggest mismatch of the round of 16 (the Americans are 35.5-point favorites), and it'll only be a matter of how long the Angolans can keep things close -- although Tunisia, probably the worst team in the tournament, managed to be within four early in the third period before the Americans pulled away.
What other teams will be watching is how well the Americans shoot against the zone, because that has been the key factor in almost all of their international losses over the past eight years -- to Greece in 2006, to Puerto Rico, Lithuania and Argentina in 2004, and to Argentina, Yugoslavia and Spain in 2002.
Angola features the oldest player in the tournament, 39-year-old guard Miguel Lutonda. It advanced from Group A by defeating Jordan and Germany.
New Zealand-Russia (Monday, 2 p.m.)
When you draw up a list of all the great players who are sitting out this tournament, Russia's Andrei Kirilenko -- the MVP of the 2007 EuroBasket -- has to be included. But American/Israeli coach David Blatt's squad has fared well without him, losing only once -- to Turkey -- and defeating Greece on Thursday night to end up on the better side of the bracket.
All of Russia's games have been close, none decided by double-digit margins, and incoming New York Knicks rookie center Timofey Mozgov has shot 63 percent from the field, second best in the tournament. Russia also is getting efficient production from center Sasha Kaun (61 percent shooting, 12.6 ppg) and small forward and ex-NBAer Sergey Monya (14-for-28 on 3-pointers).
New Zealand is more of a one-man show, as guard Kirk Penney (25.4 ppg) was leading the tournament in scoring over the first several days before Argentina's Luis Scola overtook him. The Tall Blacks enter with a three-game winning streak, having defeated Lebanon, Canada and France (by 12) after losing to Lithuania and Spain. Old favorite Pero Cameron, king of Indianapolis in 2002, is still with them. But NBAer Sean Marks has retired from international competition.
China-Lithuania (Tuesday, 11 a.m.)
The bookmakers consider this one the second-biggest mismatch in the round of 16. Lithuania is listed as a 13.5-point favorite against a China team that won only once in pool play, against Ivory Coast, but advanced on a three-way tiebreaker after Puerto Rico lost its finale against Ivory Coast.
Yi Jianlian is third in the tournament in scoring (22.5 ppg), one of only four players who averaged at least 20 points in pool play (the others are Scola, Penney and Iranian center Hamed Haddadi). Lithuania, which is undefeated at 5-0 like the U.S. and Turkey, will have the support of its rabid fans and comes in with a ton of confidence after having defeated Spain and France in pool play.
Lithuania plays as a team, but its go-to guy is Linas Kleiza of the Toronto Raptors, who is averaging 17.4 points and a team-high 6.8 rebounds. Center Donatas Motiejunas (Benetton Treviso), one of the top international prospects for the 2011 draft, is not playing for Lithuania. NBA washout Martynas Andriuskevicius is its 12th man.
Brazil-Argentina (Tuesday, 2 p.m.)
This game between two bitter, longtime rivals features one of the better subplots of the tournament, with Brazil being coached by Ruben Magnano -- the architect of Argentina's gold-medal-winning team at the 2004 Olympics and the 2002 runner-up team at the world championship (when the Argentines were robbed of the gold medal by a non-call at the end of regulation against Yugoslavia).
After losing Andres Nocioni to a sprained ankle on the eve of the tournament, Argentina has been leaning heavily on the low-post skills of Scola, who Brazil will defend with Tiago Splitter and Anderson Varejao.
Brazil will try to force an up-tempo pace as it did in its two-point loss to the United States, and it could come down to who gets a better game from its backcourt -- Marcelo Huertas and Leandro Barbosa of Brazil, or Pablo Prigioni and Carlos Delfino of Argentina.
Said Magnano: "Without a doubt, it is going to be a clasico on our continent."