The preliminary round of the Olympic men’s basketball tournament in Rio de Janeiro has come to an end. In many ways, the past 10 days have taught us very little – the United States looks like an overwhelming favorite; Spain, France, Argentina and a number of other squads look like medal contenders; several other quarterfinalists could end up on the podium without shocking anyone. Yet each team’s five games have revealed plenty, as well. Team USA has stumbled to its last few wins, Spain has gone from massive disappointment to continued power and plenty of other matchups look like they could go either way.
With the elimination round bracket set, it’s time to preview what lies ahead. Read on for a brief look at all of Wednesday’s quarterfinal games:
Group A No. 1 United States (5-0) vs. Group B No. 4 Argentina (3-2), 5:45 p.m. EST
Mike Krzyzewski’s team met expectations in group play by going undefeated, but the last three wins hardly qualified as impressive performances. The squad’s massive advantages in athleticism have not translated into consistent quality, and the offense has become increasingly reliant on the form of its 3-point shooting. As The Vertical’s Michael Lee wrote on Monday, it’s more sensible to expect close games than blowouts at this point. Still, the United States is the clear gold-medal favorite. Just don’t expect any aspirational rhyming nicknames this time around.
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First, they will have to top Argentina, the last team to beat the United States in Olympic play. Four members of that 2004 gold-winning squad are still active, including stars Manu Ginobili and Luis Scola. However, Argentina has been inconsistent in this tournament and would not have qualified for the quarterfinals if it had failed to beat archrival Brazil in Saturday’s double overtime thriller.
B2 Spain (3-2) vs. A3 France (3-2), 1:30 p.m. EST
These geographical neighbors and longtime rivals figure to play what should be an intense quarterfinal. Back-to-back silver medalists Spain struggled to start the tournament with losses to Croatia and Brazil and a too-close win over Nigeria, only to rebound with a 50-point blowout of Lithuania and a comfortable win against Argentina. Pau Gasol remains one of the best players in international basketball, and the roster is filled with capable NBA contributors and stars of the Spanish ACB.
France began its tournament with a disappointing loss at the hands of an Australia team that hadn’t yet emerged as a strong medal contender, but further results have been promising. Tony Parker is perhaps no longer spry enough to star for his country after a long NBA season, but Boris Diaw, Nicolas Batum and Rudy Gobert are all capable of picking up his slack to lead the attack.
B1 Croatia (3-2) vs. A4 Serbia (2-3), 9:15 p.m. EST
This is undoubtedly the quarterfinals’ most notable matchup in terms of recent political history. The chief combatants in 1990s’ Croatian War of Independence have a fraught history that has often extended to the basketball court, as detailed in the ESPN documentary “Once Brothers.” Most of the teams’ active players were quite young at the time of those conflicts, but the national memories are still fresh.
The basketball teams are interesting in isolation, as well. Croatia opened the tournament with a thrilling win over Spain that announced Philadelphia 76ers rookie Dario Saric as one of the most exciting players in the tournament. Croatia’s finish in the standings is perhaps a little misleading – a loss to Lithuania in the preliminary round finale would have sent it all the way down to No. 4 – but it has the playmakers to make some noise in the medal round. Bojan Bogdanovic of the Brooklyn Nets is Croatia’s leading scorer and a player to watch.
Serbia caught everyone’s attention in its near-upset of the United States and remains dangerous versus other opponents. Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic has emerged as one of the best players in the tournament, and ex-NBA center Miroslav Raduljica can cause problems inside, too. Point guard Milos Teodosic is a showman and excellent distributor who could be a major factor in this contest.
A2 Australia (4-1) vs. B3 Lithuania (3-2), 10 a.m. EST
The Boomers were the most surprising and second-best team of the preliminary round, taking their four wins by an average of 21.5 points and leading the Americans at halftime before losing by 10. Veteran center Andrew Bogut has been a force at both ends, and NBA championship-winning guards Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova have been stellar. There is a significant dropoff from the starters to the reserves, but that first five can play with anyone in the tournament.
Lithuania had control of Group B after a 3-0 start but faltered badly in its final games to Spain and Croatia. That inconsistency could prove problematic for a team with few notable NBA names but plenty of established EuroLeague players. Toronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas is the team’s most familiar name but contributes primarily as a rebounder and defender.
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