Without all its weapons, Argentina still looks formidable
Is it impossible for Argentina to defeat the United States on Thursday night in a game that will determine the No. 1 seed for the FIBA Americas semifinals? No, but it will be a very difficult task.
This year's version of Team USA seems indestructible. It not only has a huge advantage in the talent department, but also, thanks to coach Mike Krzyzewski, it seems to have found a balance between NBA and FIBA basketball.
On paper, Team USA should not have problems defeating Argentina. But the same was said in Indianapolis (2002) and Athens (2004). This time, Argentina is playing without Manu Ginobili, Andres Nocioni, Pepe Sanchez and Walter Herrmann.
This means that even if Kobe Bryant stops Delfino, Argentina will find other options to score. Unlike Brazil, which could never get past the defensive scheme set up to stop Leandro Barbosa, Argentina likes to play long transitions, in order to find the best way to hurt opposing defenses.
This team also uses the whole potential of the tandem of Pablo Prigioni and Scola, who played together for Tau Ceramica in Spain. But Prigioni does not have to do everything by himself. Coming from the bench, Antonio Porta looks like a young Sanchez. He loves long transitions and half-court attacks, the keys to slowing the Americans' frantic pace.
Big man Roman Gonzalez is another serious offensive weapon for Hernandez. It is true that he is heavy, but he is also tall, left-handed and has very good moves. He is the perfect complement for Scola.
Outside shooting has been one of Argentina's key weapons in Las Vegas. Shooters are getting hotter every day, with Delfino in the starting lineup and Paolo Quinteros coming from the bench. Leo Gutierrez and Federico Kammerichs have also helped from the beyond the arc.
There is no doubt that Hernandez will try to apply a 2-3 zone system, as box and triangle defenses won't work against the talented U.S. team.
Talent-wise, Argentina is far from the United States, maybe way too far. But basketball is a team sport. And it also has an attitude component, a department in which Argentina has excelled lately.
As for the United States, it has clearly taken this tournament seriously. The team not only wants the title, it also has shown a desire to thrash every opponent, and Argentina shouldn't be the exception.
Jason Kidd is this team's boss. Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony may be the superstars, but Kidd leads the attack and controls the pace in a way that prevents his teammates from wasting necessary energy.
The South Americans have been Team USA's nemesis -- the Americans lost their invincible aura in the when they lost to Argentina in the 2002 World Championships and then went down in the 2004 Olympic semifinal. Although the United States defeated Argentina in the 2006 World Championships, in the third-place match, a win (or two) in Las Vegas could be additional revenge.
In previous tournaments, there were three key points that the U.S. team overlooked:
1) Zone defense. The physical fitness of every player on the U.S. is remarkable. Against a 2-3 zone defense, and with a quick rotation, shooters can normally take clean shots. But playing against Bryant, James, Anthony or Kidd on the outside, and Dwight Howard and Amare Stoudemire in the paint, finding the chance to shoot is no easy task. Brazil was a clear example here: its players passed endlessly looking for the gap, but they always had an American hand in their faces.
2) Tight man-to-man defense. When they are not using a zone defense, their man-to-man coverage is extremely tight and they can switch easily to double-team opponents. Their commandment is: Don't take anything for granted, don't allow any easy shots.
3) Rebound positioning. In the past, Americans seemingly had such confidence in their legs that they would only jump for defensive rebounds. But now, they have stopped staring at the rim and started boxing out. What is the result? The ball often ends up in their hands and flies quickly to Kidd to begin the transition.
Beyond getting better in these three key aspects, Krzyzewski was wise to keep the best features of previous teams: Masterful counterattacks, quick rotations for clean shots (Kobe, Redd), steep penetrations for colorful dunks (LeBron, Carmelo) and taking advantage of their physical power in the paint (Stoudemire, Howard).
In the face of these long odds, Argentina will try to hit the jackpot in Las Vegas.
It should be difficult. But as the saying goes, impossible is nothing.
Bruno Altieri is ESPNdeportes.com's basketball editor and writer.
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