David Stern traveled to London earlier this week, arriving at the North Greenwich Arena for the start of quarterfinal play. Despite the presence of numerous NBA players throughout the XXX Olympiad, the images of Stern sitting next to Jerry Colangelo, the architect of the current United States squad (and one of the reasons the U.S. has only lost one game in six years of international competition), served as a dual reminder for the U.S.: Not only were they representing their country in the Games but also the Association.
This afternoon’s Olympic semifinal between the United States and Argentina (tip-off’s at 4 p.m. ET; Russia and Spain play in the other semifinal at noon ET) will be the final match pitting Argentina’s “Golden Generation” — Emanuel Ginóbili, Andrés Nocioni, Luis Scola, and Carlos Delfino — against the Americans. The story lines surrounding the game should focus on the sunset of a team that defeated the U.S. and perhaps the only national team to consistently give the Yanks fits. During the exhibition slate in late July, it was evident Argentina did not have the talent, or depth, to compete with the U.S. in this tournament. However, with the exception of perhaps Lithuania, no team in the Games has been so utterly fearless of matching up with the Americans. Ginóbili relished the opportunity for at least one final showdown, and Scola’s job in the NBA is to battle bigs like Kevin Love and Tyson Chandler nightly: Doing so in London is not a problem.
Even during a competition highlighting each country’s talent on the court, though, the NBA has to have the spotlight; traveling with Stern was impending news of a blockbuster trade. Dwight Howard would join the Lakers, playing in the Western Conference for the final year of his contract, and allowing Kobe Bryant (and potentially Pau Gasol) to push for a final championship run. As news of the trade began to build, one could practically hear attention spans begin to shift from London to Los Angeles.
How much of a threat is Argentina to the U.S. attaining gold? Of all the teams in the Games, Argentina does present the most risk, but based on coach Mike Krzyzewski’s game plan so far during the tournament, it’s clear how the U.S. will proceed. Despite overwhelming evidence that fielding a lineup with at least one big is statistically advantageous, expect the U.S. to go small often in the tilt. Sports Illustrated’s Zach Lowe analyzed some of Argentina’s most popular offensive sets, and the team predominantly uses a motion offense that relies on back and cross screens to create confusion and easy scoring chances. While the plus-minus data for both Love and Chandler shows the bigs are efficient, they do struggle defending screens — Who switches? Do we stay home? — and the small lineup offers Krzyzewski more versatility with the team’s defense.
Following the Australia victory, NBA.com’s John Schuhmann made a cogent point: For the first time during the Games, Krzyzewski had begun to deploy including Deron Williams and Chris Paul together. Before the quarterfinals, the on-court lineups indicated how the staff wanted to use each guard; Williams was on the second unit to always push the pace. Miss or make, the U.S. would run with Williams at the 1. However, while Paul did run often, his purpose was to drive and kick, setting up easy looks for Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony from beyond the arc. Using them together, though, shows the Americans intend to pressure opposing defenses to get stops in both the full court (which is essentially impossible, unless Argentina decides to send no one to the offensive glass and hustles back after every missed shot) as well as prevent half-court probing. Williams is very skilled at getting to the bucket, and Argentina’s help defense will leave the Yanks open.
Argentina has some Olympic observers worried of a potential upset, but unless Argentina managed to find a few additional six-foot-eight expats with fantastic conditioning living abroad in London, the likelihood that Argentina slows the Americans’ sprint to gold is very low.