Yesterday's action pitted two traditional European powers against two upstart teams from nations that have no Olympic basketball history. Though many were rooting for the underdogs, the teamwork and familiarity among the stable European teams managed to overcome the upstart newcomers.
Though the European teams might have proved themselves superior for now, it's interesting to see how the basketball world is changing, with good talent starting to come consistently from the Carribean and Africa. Now, I know you could make the argument that a lot of these players are American born, but they're playing with nationals on the team and giving them valuable experience. My point is, these teams are only going to get better moving forward, and soon we'll be seeing World Championships and Olympics that are less like Rugby World Cups, where a few teams dominate, and more like FIFA World Cups, where many teams have a chance at glory.
This game is a perfect example of why team basketball usually wins over individual talent. You've got two team, both pretty much equally matched in terms of talent level and ability, but only one of them had played together for any extended period of time before this tournament. On the floor, they might look like they'll make a competitive game at first glance. But Russia's points just came so much easier.
While Russia would hit threes by rotating around to the open man, Nigeria would try to hit threes in the face of their defenders. Russia would play great conservative defense, keeping the lane closed while leaving nobody on the perimeter open. Meanwhile, Nigeria, in the words of the great commentator Jeff Taylor, looked "lost" on defense. They weren't closing out on shooters, they kept getting confused by the most simple of offensive plays, and they were far too quick to pressure. At one point, I remember a Russian guard just waltzing through the lane untouched, despite the entire Nigerian defense being within the three point line and no pick being set. It was just ridiculous.
Don't get me wrong, Nigeria did a good job of playing their game early on, and kept the game semi-competitive throughout. They got a good number of steals, ran the break just as well as the Russians, shot some of their best percentages of the tournament, and controlled the boards. But when you can't distribute the ball, you go through long periods of drought, making it hella hard to win a game. And I'm not saying Nigeria can't distribute the ball, because they have done it before. They just need more time with each other if they're going to be an effective unit.
Nigeria came to within 6 mid-way through the fourth, but the outcome was never in doubt. It came after Anthony Skinn dubiously pushed a Russian player for an easy score in the lane, and Russia immediately responded with an and one play. Nigeria would never get within closer than 7 for the remainder of the game.
Russia got a heck of a game from Alexey Schved, who finished with 22 points, and Vitaly Fridzon had another lights-out performance, shooting 62.5% from the floor. And of course, Andrei Kirilenko put in his usual work, finishing with 19 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, 4 steals, 5 turnovers, and 4 fouls. I'm glad I'm not a radio announcer. Nigeria had five scorers in double digits, led by Ade Dagunduro and Ike Diogu, with 16. Diogu also impressed with 14 boards.
With the win, Russia advances to the Olympics and is guaranteed a spot. With the loss, Nigeria falls to the third place game, where they will take on the Dominican Republic for the final Olympic spot.
Below: Lithuania Defeats the Dominicans!
The well-oiled offensive machine versus the one that constantly needs a push start. The Dominican Republic has gotten off to bad starts all year, and today's game was no exception. Despite taking 9 more shots from the floor, 6 more shots from the free throw line, and committing 4 less turnovers, the Dominican Republic didn't even manage to come close to beating Lithuania.
The Dominican Republic isn't as disorganized as the Nigerians are, but they don't really have the overall talent level of Lithuania. And they simply didn't get the game they needed out of Al Horford or Francisco Garcia. Horford shot 27% from the floor, and Garcia only shot 7 times. Yack Michael Martinez continued to be a workhorse down low, and the team did a good job of getting to the line. But the main players failed to deliver.
Defensively, the Dominican Republic was even more of a disaster. When Lithuania wasn't burning the Dominican Republic from outside, they were pick and rolling them to death inside. The game was pretty slow early on, so the Dominicans were able to stay within range, but once the game opened up in the third, they didn't stand a chance against the excellent Lithuanian shooting attack.
Lithuania had five guys in double figures and two with 9, led by the normally somewhat unassuming Jonas Maciulis, with 19. The Dominican Republic was led by Yack Michael Martinez with 13 points and 10 Rebounds.
With the win, Lithuania advances to the Olympics and is guaranteed a spot. With the loss, the Dominican Republic falls to the third place game, where they will take on Nigeria for the final Olympic spot.