In which was clearly the most challenging game so far on their Olympic preparation, Team Argentina lost to Spain by 20 points yesterday, after trailing by as much as 26 in the first half and reducing the Spaniards' lead to single digits in the 4th quarter. It was the type of performance that could lead a less experienced team to despair and one that cements Spain's status as the clear-cut second best team going into the Games.
Luis Scola (18 points) and Andres Nocioni (10 first half points) came up big for Argentina, who had Manu Ginobili leading the way with 19 points and some beautiful assists. Jose Calderon and Pau Gasol led the wining effort for a balanced Spain that had 7 players in double digits.
It was a star-studded event and one both teams seemed to be using as a measuring stick. Spain came out looking down right dominant in the first half, abusing Argentina's zone defense with numerous 3-pointers and crisp ball movement. Calderon did a masterful job of using ball-screens to get free to shoot, and the Spanish stars seemed more focused that the Argentines to start the game, with Rudy Fernandez, Pau Gasol and Calderon thriving while Luis Scola and Manu Ginobili struggled.
Spain's superior bench was also on display, with Sergio Scariolo starting Felipe Reyes in place of the injured Marc Gasol and bringing Serge Ibaka off the bench along with Sergio Llul (Rockets draftee), Victor Claver (about to join the Blazers), Fernando San Emeterio (ACB star) and Juan Carlos Navarro (former Grizzly and FIBA star). At this point in time, Argentina only has one world-class level reserve in Carlos Delfino and it showed, as the offense slowed down when the stars where resting and the former Bucks wing had to carry the offense. At the end of the first half, the score was 61-35 Spain, and all the worst fears about Argentinas's lack of defense and size were materializing.
While the game was extremely physical throughout, in the 3rd quarter things got down-right chippy, with Scola and Ibaka at the center of most scuffles. Argentina seemed invigorated by those tense moments and used the rest Spain's stars were getting to put together an impressive run, based on a more organized zone D and Ginobili and Scola's immense offensive talents. Going into the closing quarter 83-67 it looked either team could come out on top, which seemed impossible after Spain's first half destruction.
A 9-0 run to start the quarter seemed to indicate Argentina would have the momentum to close the game, but Julio Lamas' team only managed to exchange buckets for the next few minutes. Simply put, Argentina couldn't close the gap and Spain couldn't widen it enough to secure the win. Then, with Ginobili on the bench, the Spaniards tighten the screws on defense and the Argentine offense went dry. With some timely buckets, Spain took control of things and pulled away to win the game by 20 points.
How was Manu?
Like I said, Manu struggled at the beginning of the game when nothing seemed to go Argentina's way. He improved dramatically in the second half, as did the team as a whole. His shot was falling, his drives to the basket where swift and effective and his mastery on the pick and roll was in full display. It wasn't even close to Manu's best, but he was at a very high level. Unfortunately, Argentina (not unlike the Spurs), needs a superlative performance from not only its stars, but also from its role players, to have a shot against such a tough adversary as the Spaniards. There is still time and, for what it's worth, Manu looked healthy and in great shape, playing significant minutes.
Argentina needs to figure things out sooner rather than later, as they are facing the U.S. team on Sunday. A win is too much to ask and frankly would probably be unproductive at this juncture. What needs to start happening for Argentina to have a shot at a medal is for the team to play mistake-free, consistent basketball, and a duel against the U.S. and its pressure defense is not a bad place to start. If the defense fails to show up, especially in transition, the result of Sunday's game could be much worse than the 20-point loss the Spaniards inflicted.