Argentina is not more talented on paper than the Spanish men’s national team in these Olympics. We can have a debate about Argentina vs. Russia but it’s close.
But the Argentineans could pose a bigger threat to the United States’ gold medal hopes in the semi-finals on Friday than either Spain or Russia in a potential Gold Medal matchup Sunday.
Why? Style and familiarity.
Familiarity as in this will be the third time the two teams will meet inside of three weeks (once in a tune-up game, once in group play in London). It’s hard to beat a good team three times that close together — they know your actions, your preferences and your weaknesses. They have an understanding of what they have to do — and this is a veteran Argentinian side with Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola and Carlos Delfino. They play a high-IQ, savvy game. They run multiple picks on each offensive play — they run a pick-and-roll at the top of the key where the pick setter doesn’t roll or pop but runs to set another pick for a wing player, trying to force switches into mismatches or just confusion. They have seen what works. The familiarity helps them.
Style wise, Argentina knows what to do to try and take the United States out of its up-tempo, free-flowing game. This is going to be a grinding, physical — let’s call it chippy — contest. Argentina likes to get under your skin. The USA can’t let them.
The USA has won the first two meetings because they made big runs for a quarter the Argentines could not match. The Americans are more athletic and deeper, they can do this at any time. In the first game the USA push came at the start, they owned the first quarter, but then the rest of the game Argentina chipped away at the lead, they ground the game down, they took away the transition points and easy baskets for the USA. It ended up being a six-point USA win.
On offense Argentina runs a flex-like system (think Jerry Sloan Utah Jazz) that can expose and lead to easy buckets against a USA side together for less than six weeks and still not covering each other on defense all that well. They run multiple picks with lots of action off the ball, all looking to create confusion or a mismatch. And they have veterans like Ginobili who do not make many mistakes under pressure defenses.
Think of it this way — Argentina plays the kind game that Australia and Lithuania do, but they have more talent and play it better than either of those sides.
The Americans are and should still be the favorites — it will take a perfect game from the Argentines to beat the USA… and they would still need some help. The USA had Kevin Durant raining threes on Argentina before, if he and Team USA go cold from beyond the arc in this one it could be trouble. If the shots are falling from deep the USA is virtually unbeatable.
In the two previous meetings Argentina played most of the game well but the USA’s athleticism (and in second game depth) got them big runs of points the Argentines could not recover from. That probably happens here. Probably.
But this is the last Olympics for Argentina’s golden generation, and they will not go quietly into that good night.
This could be a real test for the USA. Maybe their biggest test.