U.S.-Spain preview: Big bodies, quick guards to confront Team USA

8/16/2008 - NBA

BEIJING -- During the past two seasons they've spent as teammates in Toronto, Chris Bosh and Jose Calderon have often chatted during their downtime about the differences and similarities between Team USA and the Spanish national team.

One particular story stuck in Bosh's head.

"It was about how they all cried when they won the world championship," Bosh said.

That happened two years ago in Japan, on a night when not a single American player was inside the Saitama SuperArena to witness Spain's pulverization of Greece in the gold medal game, a night when Pau Gasol hobbled into the celebration on crutches with his broken foot encased in a plaster cast, injured in a semifinal victory over Argentina.

Spain was No. 1 that evening, while Bosh was packing his suitcase for the long, disappointing flight back home, the bronze medal in his baggage, his only reward for six weeks of hard work and dedication. During the following two years, on Raptors' team flights, in hotel lobbies and at practices, the topic resurfaced from time to time.

"We talked about how they like doing things, what they do when they get together, what their team process is -- how they hang out together and stuff like that, about China, comparing and contrasting stories and styles and all that stuff," Bosh said on Friday, adding that he poked fun at Calderon -- and at former Raptors teammate Jorge Garbajosa -- for shedding those tears of joy.

"I'm not a crier, but those guys are emotional, and that's a great thing," Bosh said.

Not only are they emotional, but the Spanish are talented, too -- talented enough to have gone undefeated through their first three games of these Olympics, handily defeating Greece and Germany, but needing a 14-point fourth-quarter comeback to triumph over China in overtime.

The core members of the team -- Calderon, Garbajosa, Pau Gasol, Juan Carlos Navarro and Carlos Jimenez -- are spending their seventh consecutive summer competing together (Rudy Fernandez and Felipe Reyes are with Spain for the fifth straight year), and their collective résumé includes a victory over the United States at the 2002 world championship, and a loss to the Americans in the quarterfinals of the 2004 Athens Olympics after they had gone 5-0 in pool play.

Saturday (10:15 a.m. ET) marks the first time in four years that they have competed against Team USA, with first place in Group B at stake.

"We know it's a very important game," Garbajosa said. "We have been talking about the game for the last month, but we know if we win or we lose, it's just going to be one point [in the Olympic standings], just like Germany or Angola, but we're excited about this game. We will play a good game. We will try to beat them. For sure we will play 100 percent."

Said Calderon: "We're going to see what is our level. But [beyond] that, it's not really important. The important game is going to be played later. We've got to wait, play and learn, and we've got to be smarter than them. We're going to play like us, we're going to see what is our level, what is their level. Like I said, the important game is later, but we're going to play for the win. We want to have the first spot in the group."

The winner of the Spain-U.S. game -- the Americans are a 14½
point favorite -- should end up with a more favorable matchup in the quarterfinals next Wednesday against the fourth-place team from Group A (where Lithuania (3-0) currently is first, Argentina and Croatia (2-1) are tied for second, and Australia and Russia (1-2) are tied for fourth.

Kobe Bryant said he will be getting the defensive assignment on Rudy Fernandez -- although that might not happen at the outset, as Spanish coach Aito Garcia Reneses has been juggling his lineup unpredictably. For instance, he has twice used Raul Lopez as the starter and then benched him for the rest of the game after five-minute stints, and he has been giving additional backup point guard minutes to 17-year-old phenom Ricky Rubio over Calderon.

Garcia Reneses' rotations have confounded the American scouts and coaching staff, who believe he is using his juggling act to keep opponents off-balance from a preparation standpoint.

"I think he feels he can win any game he goes into, and he can beat any team in the other group, but I think [Saturday] he's going to play heavy minutes for Calderon and those other main guys," chief U.S. scout Tony Ronzone said. "I think he's going to zone us, mix it up and see what in his bag of tricks will work against us. He understands that, that game matters, but it also doesn't matter. Put it this way: they're going to junk us [Saturday]."

One key for the Americans will be keeping the Gasol brothers, Marc and Pau, from getting the ball deep in the low post, where both are highly effective. Team USA will use a variety of tactics, including pressuring the guards far from the basket so they are not able to feed soft lob passes down low, occasionally fronting the Gasols, other times trying to get underneath them and push them outside of their comfort zone of 6 to 8 feet.

The Americans are familiar with Pau Gasol's game from his time in the NBA, but this will be their first look at Marc Gasol, whose conditioning (he's gone from chubby to muscular) and his low-post game have developed considerably over the past two years.

"He [Marc] is more physical, just from his size," Bryant said. "I think skill-wise they both have incredible skill. Pau's a better shooter, but around the basket they both use their left hand, right hand, good touch, great passers -- a lot of versatility for bigs."

Pau Gasol is shooting 63 percent from the field over Spain's three games, averaging a team-high 17.7 points, and Fernandez is its second-leading scorer at 13.3 points per game. Spain has shot 36 percent from 3-point range (Team USA is at 29 percent) and has outrebounded its opponents by an average of eight per game.

"You have to be smart against Spain, you can't just pressure them," Bryant said. "You have to be smart about where you force them, when you pressure them, because they can cut you apart. Their guards have a lot more quickness than Greece's guards, they're quick as hell, clever and crafty, so you've got to be careful around them."

So while Thursday's 92-69 victory over Greece was a fulfilling step on Team USA on its so-called road to redemption, Saturday's game will be a better test of its skills against the reigning world champion -- a team with so much passion, so much togetherness, that tears fell from their eyes two years ago.

Should be a good one, but keep one thing in mind: These two teams are the favorites to be playing for the gold a week from Sunday -- and that's when a truer measure might be taken of which team is better.

Chris Sheridan is an ESPN.com Insider. He has covered the U.S. senior national team since the 1996 Olympics. To e-mail Chris, click here.