After Spain dropped its first two games in Rio — to Croatia and host Brazil — it was easy to overlook the two-time defending silver medalists. No Marc Gasol, no Serge Ibaka, an aging Pau Gasol and team core — maybe this Spanish team wasn’t as good as anticipated. A lackluster win over Nigeria didn’t change that perception.
However, since that moment Spain has been the best team in the Olympics — beating Lithuania by 50, Argentina by 19, and then France by 25.
Friday Spain becomes the toughest test the USA has faced in Rio.
Winner of the game (2:45 Eastern on NBC Sports Network) moves on to the gold medal matchup, loser to the bronze medal game. Here are five things to watch in USA vs. Spain.
1) How well is Pau Gasol moving? We learned yesterday Gasol has a calf injury that had the Spanish coach saying he was questionable for the biggest game of the Olympics. Everyone — particularly Team USA — expects him to play, but if Gasol is limited so is Spain. Gasol is the Spain’s leading scorer and rebounder — 17 points and 8.7 rebounds per game. They need him to be special. Gasol’s game has never been based on explosive athleticism, but if he is slowed he can be taken advantage of. Watch to see how he is moving — particularly on defense.
2) Can the USA get stops? The USA’s offense has at times been stagnant and predictable — and predictable is defendable. Still, because of the ridiculous talent gap between the USA and its opponents, the Americans have put up points. The real problem has been at the other end. Teams with guards who can handle pressure, and teams that run motion offenses and cut hard off the ball — particularly backdoor cuts along the baseline — have given the USA trouble.
Well, guess how Spain plays? They start three guards in Ricky Rubio, Sergio Llull, and Rudy Fernandez — one NBA and two NBA-level guards who are not going to just cough the ball up. With them there is Gasol and the Bulls’ Nikola Mirotic, two bigs both capable of hitting the three. Then the five of them (and the Spanish subs) are in constant motion. If the USA doesn’t communicate, if they lose focus on their guy in the corner while ball watching, the USA is going to get eaten alive. This is the best offense the USA has faced, the Americans need to play their best defense.
3) How long does Mike Krzyzewski stick with his starters? The USA’s starters — Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson (and sometimes Paul George), Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, DeMarcus Cousins (or sometimes DeAndre Jordan) — have not been impressive in the USA’s biggest, toughest games. The starters can hurt teams with the three ball (when it falls for them), but they don’t defend and lack grit. The bench has played better. Remember how the USA quickly found itself down 10 to Argentina last game until Paul George entered?
Here’s a great stat from NBA.com’s John Schuhmann from USA vs. Argentina: The lineup of Kyle Lowry, Jimmy Butler, George, Durant, Cousins was +20 (35-15) in nearly 12 minutes of play. The rest of the USA lineups were 70-63.
If things don’t work early, Coach K has to go to his bench quickly. Lowry isn’t a great defender, but he’s been better than Irving in Rio. Butler and George are excellent defenders, Durant is long and plays well in a team defensive system, and Cousins is a big and athletic body in the paint. I’d suggest changing up the starting lineup some, but if not Coach K has to switch to whatever lineup does work sooner rather than later this game.
4) Is Kevin Durant being the best player in the Olympics? Last game against Argentina, an aggressive and attacking Durant took over on offense for stretches — he was shooting over and Eurostepping around every defender the South Americans threw at him. The USA needs that guy again. Durant leads the USA in scoring at 18.5 points per game on 62 percent shooting. But it’s more than that — he is the single best player in Rio. Straight away. I love his instincts to want to play within the team system, but he is one of the two best scorers on the planet earth, and the USA needs him to play like the unstoppable offensive force that he can be. There is nobody on Spain who can defend him, and if they send double teams at him he knows how to find the open man — and frankly, he can score over the double anyway. KD needs to be MVP KD on Friday.
5) Can the USA expose older, poor defenders of Spain? Even when he’s healthy, Gasol doesn’t move all that well on defense anymore and can be exposed on defense. Nikola Mirotic has played fantastically for Spain in Rio and is a floor spacing big that will get buckets against the Americans, but he is not a good defender either. A number of other guys Spain rolls out — Fernandez, Sergio Rodriguez, Jose Calderon, Juan Carlos Navarro — are older and not exactly fleet of foot. If the USA moves the ball, runs good pick-and-roll action, and just plays as a team these guys can be exposed defensively.
If the USA falls back into its habit of isolation/hero ball, they can be defended. It’s that simple.