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The Final Four

Update [2007-8-28 19:16:55 by ClipperSteve]:I was wrong about the format of the tournament when I first posted this. Hat tip to John R for pointing it out. The opening round eliminated 2 of the 10 teams, the second round (where we are now) has teams playing all four advancers from the OTHER pool (so in all teams play 8 of the 9 other teams in the tournament during these phases) and after the second round, the top 4 teams advance to the semi-finals, where it FINALLY gets down to single elimination. The top two finishers qualify for Beijing directly - 3rd place through 5th place qualify for a final chance to qualify for Beijing. Confused? I know I am. I'll try to correct the most egregious factual errors below, but hopefully the basketball stuff is still salient.

You think the NBA regular season is pointless?  How about pool play in the FIBA Americas Tournament?  20 games in order to eliminate 2 of the 10 teams, and then you do it all again before you start a single elimination round.  So you go from playing games that barely count at all to games that kind of count to games that are do or die.  Apparently the transition was too much for Brazil.  The odds on favorite to secure the second Olympic berth at the beginning of the tournament, they were 3-0 in pool play the first round when they met the US on Sunday.  Perhaps they were hungover from that drubbing, or maybe just not that good, but now they are out, after getting they were beaten badly by Puerto Rico, who was a mere 1-3 in pool play the first round.  You can't blame Barbosa, who has been the best player in the tournament not wearing a Team USA uni.  He scored 34 in the loss.  But where was Nene?  He has at times looked like a future all star for the Nuggets, but he has been significantly worse than Tiago Splitter for the Brazilians in Vegas.  The Nuggets are paying him and Kenyon Martin close to $22M to share the power forward spot next year.  Yikes.

Tonight's games The semi-finals are the real point of the tournament.  Since two teams get Olympic berths, the semi-final winners are both bound for Beijing.  Tomorrow night's The final is merely for the Championship of this tournament, and of course no one much cares about that.  Unless Canada can come up with an upset, So far, it looks like the US will have to contend with an Argentine squad next year, which is bad news for them, but good news for basketball fans.  Rest assured that Ginobili and Oberto and Nocioni will play in that one if they are healthy.

Isn't it time for Argentina's coach to get some credit?  When Argentina was winning World Championships and Olympic Gold Medals playing a beautiful, flawlessly executed brand of basketball it was always "Those guys have the advantage of having played together since they were on the Junior National Team" and "You just can't throw a bunch of guys together and expect them to execute that way."  Well, guess what?  Different guys, same execution.  These guys can play, and Sergio Hernandez can coach.

The Mexico game exposed some of the same flaws the US team had in 2006.  Let's face it - they gave up 100 points to a bunch of guys who couldn't make it in the D-league.  And where did those points come from?  Open threes and pick and rolls; it's all Greek to me.  The second quarter looked like the worst case scenario of what this team could be - Kobe forcing shots, no one playing defense, poor rebounding, no offensive continuity.  I know, they still won by 27.  But it looked like Llamas ate half of Mexico's team.  Those guys were not good.  Check out Chris Sheridan's column for more of the bad news.

Puerto Rico has some terrific guards:  Carlos Arroyo, JJ Barea and designated shooter Larry Ayuso, a former Trojan.  I can't imagine that they can actually compete given their bigs, but Coach K's tendency to go small will help them.  I'd be inclined to play Stoudemire and Howard together and just pummel them inside.  Rest assured they watched the Mexico game and will run pick and roll all game long.  Arroyo is one of the players who can be terrific or horrible.  But if you let him get on a roll, he could give the US fits.

As I predicted 7 weeks ago, Tyson Chandler is the 12th man.  Of course, then I thought that Bosh would be on the team.  Without Bosh, and with Chandler reduced to 4 minutes against Mexico, the US is playing two bigs.  Myself and others have railed against the illogic of starting Carmelo at the 4.  Well, forget that for a moment.  Against Mexico, Stoudemire, Howard and Chandler combined to play 42 minutes of a 40 minute game.  Carmelo played 20 minutes.  So, with Tayshaun Prince hurt, for 18 minutes yesterday, someone else was playing the 4.  Obviously this goes way beyond the question of whether or not Carmelo Anthony is a legitimate 4.  He's friggin' Karl Malone compared to Mike Miller.  In case there was any confusion, let me just say:  I DO NOT GET IT.

Jax suggested that the presence of Mike D'Antoni on the coaching staff was influencing the style of play, and it's a great point: I have no doubt that it's true.  But Phoenix' style is dictated by their personnel.  Furthermore, as John R has pointed out, it's a high risk, high reward type of approach to play small and shoot lots of threes.  It's the way you play when you're not really sure you have the best talent, and it has failed Phoenix in the NBA playoffs for three seasons now.  When you have the BEST talent, you play a conservative game plan, right?  The US personnel and game plan are absolutely perfect to win lots of meaningless games by 50, and then lose one that counts by 3.  A bigger, more traditional lineup, would win by 15 to 20, every game.

Final thought - when you watch Kobe play defense like he did against Barbosa, do you say 'Wow, what a great player.  He's really doing what it takes for his country.  I admire that.'  Or do you say 'Why the hell doesn't he play defense like that in the NBA?  He should be ashamed of himself.'  It's the Kobe Bryant Rohrshach test.  I don't think I need to tell you where I come out.