Russia-USA preview: Familiar foes?
ISTANBUL -- Team USA took another day off Tuesday. Hopefully, they used some of it as a study day.
The Americans are about to be confronted and perhaps confounded by a team much like themselves, a group of youngsters in which several players operate outside of their natural positions, an enigma of a team that is tricky to decipher.
Like the Americans, they are guided by a wily veteran coach, David Blatt, an American/Israeli citizen who grew up in Framingham, Mass., and attended Princeton but has been plying his trade in Europe for the past two decades. He also dropped this bomb on the U.S. media after his team defeated New Zealand to advance to the quarterfinals:
"I hate to say it as an American, but it looks like the Russians were right," Blatt said of the Soviet Union's controversial victory in the gold-medal game at the 1972 Munich Olympics, when the final three seconds were replayed three times, with the United States losing for the first time ever in a major international competition after 63 consecutive wins. "The American team was not cheated. Funny things happened, but in reality it was fair. It was fair."
Any American who remembers that game and reads that quote has to be asking himself: "Is this guy crazy?"
The answer, perhaps, is this: Yes, he's crazy.
Crazy like a fox.
Known throughout Europe as one of the best tacticians in the business, Blatt may have been speaking from the heart. Or he may have been speaking from the back of his brain, knowing his team's chances of pulling off a monumental upset might actually be helped if he can get the Americans to start talking about the past instead of focusing on the present.
Because the fact of the matter is this: Russia is fielding a group of players that very few people outside of Russia know much about. And he, like every other coach in this tournament, knows the Americans are vulnerable against opponents they are completely unfamiliar with (see semifinal versus Greece at the last FIBA World Championship in Japan in 2006).
Russia's best 3-point shooter is Sergei Monia, who had a cup of coffee in the NBA several years back with the Portland Trail Blazers. Their biggest center is Timofey Mozgov, who will play for the New York Knicks next season but who usually comes off the bench behind Sasha Kaun, who played collegiately at Kansas.
Aside from those three, the other nine are about as well-known as the KGB's sleeper cells scattered across America. Every now and then one or two of them are discovered, but the rest operate with stealth and guile, and sometimes they do their damage before anyone notices precisely what's going on.
The challenge for Team USA in its matchup against Russia on Thursday night is to prevent that from happening. Hence, the above reference to studying up on what the coaching staff is telling them.
Like the Americans, the Russians like to get out and run, getting their shots up before the defense has a chance to hustle back and get in position.
Unlike the Americans, they are big.
Mozgov is a full five inches taller than the Americans' starting center, Lamar Odom, and he runs the floor with surprising agility and finishes around the basket with a deft touch.
Their power forward, Andrey Vorontsevich of CSKA Moscow, is four inches taller than his U.S. counterpart, Andre Iguodala. And like Mozgov and Kaun, he likes to use his physicality to intimidate opponents and knock them on their butts if that's what the situation calls for. Plus, he can step outside and knock down 3-pointers, which he did against New Zealand by going 3-for-3 from downtown while racking up a stat line of 18 points, 11 rebounds, two steals and two blocks.
"I would like to see us come and play well. I don't want to see us just give in to that onslaught that they're going to have prepared for us. It's not going to be easy because they're long, athletic, tough, aggressive, hungry. Like I said, they got great coaches -- better than me. And we've got to do a whole lot of things special to stay in the game," Blatt said. "Give me a couple days and I'll see if I can figure that out, but I'm not a magician."
Blatt has been known to mix and match his lineups willy-nilly, using different combinations of players who act as interconnected parts, all with similar abilities and similar skill sets no matter where they are positioned on the court.
The Russians will be the first big, physical team the Americans will have encountered in this tournament, and the U.S. team's success will be dependant more than any time before on their ability to use their defensive pressure to force turnovers that lead to transition baskets, or else hinder the Russians from getting into the offensive sets that Blatt first learned as a player at Princeton under the legendary Pete Carril.
The longer the Russians can keep themselves in the game, the better their chances are of forcing an equally young American team to shift into panic mode, getting away from the ball movement and player movement that the U.S. coaching staff has been trying to get them to focus on during this current six-day stretch in which they will have played only one game, against a weak Angola team.
"I played against a Mike Krzyzewski team [Army] when I was at Princeton in 1979 or 1980, and I still remember they were in the room right next to us. Then, they didn't separate them, so you could hear the other coach talking," Blatt said. "And I'm supposed to be listening to Coach Carril, but all of a sudden I hear Mike Krzyzewski say: 'WE NEED TO WIN THIS GAME!' And dammit, they beat us."
Blatt was the architect in what was probably the biggest international upset in the four years since Greece defeated the United States in Japan. It happened in the gold-medal game at the 2007 EuroBasket, when a Russia team that was severely overmatched talent-wise defeated Spain, the host team, in the heart of Madrid.
That team was led by Andrei Kirilenko and American expatriate J.R. Holden, neither of whom is playing for Russia in this summer's tournament. So like the Americans, they are playing with a relatively young and inexperienced group that has not had years together to jell as a unit the way a majority of the teams here have.
But the biggest thing for the Americans to know about the Russians is they are as fearless as they are tough. And they have an advantage in the fact they have seen the Americans play a whole lot more than the Americans have seen them play.
So when the U.S. team heads back to the gym Wednesday, hopefully they'll have gotten a head start on their homework.
If not, their quarterfinal game could suddenly start to feel more like a final examination than a pop quiz.