|2014 FIBA World Championship Preliminary Games|
|August 30th, 2014|
|Bilbao Arena, Bilbao, Basque Autonomous Province, Spain|
|3:30 PM Central Daylight Time|
|TV: ESPN3.com in the USA, Livebasketball.tv Internationally|
|Injury Report: All players are expected to be ready.|
|Previous Matchups: None.|
|Petteri Koponen||PG||Kyrie Irving|
|Sasu Salin||SG||Stephen Curry|
|Shaun Huff||SF||James Harden|
|Gerald Lee||PF||Kenneth Faried|
|Erik Murphy||C||Anthony Davis|
Finland's 1-6 record in preliminary matches may make them look weak. That's not the case, though. Finland's past 7 games have all been against top tier opponents (Australia X3, Lithuania X2, France, and Germany). So the fact that this arctic nation was able to pull off even one victory should be considered a sign of strength.
I know it seems strange that Finland has a decent basketball team, but they do. They burst onto the scene at the 2011 Eurobasket, which was the first such tournament to expand the field to 24 teams. Previous tournaments had featured only 16. This expansion granted Finland their first berth since 1995, and the team made the most of it. Led by young shot-creating PG Petteri Kopponen, they were able to defeat a good number of mid-tier teams with NBA talent, such as Montenegro, Georgia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Perhaps most excitingly of all, Finland was able to hold the stiff Croatian and Slovenian powerhouses to single digit victories. They accomplished it with solid three point shooting, team rebounding, and perimeter pressure.
Finland's solid run continued into the 2013 Eurobasket, where they posted an astounding 4-1 record in the first group stage. The wolves managed to benefit from some absences and disarray amongst traditional powerhouses Turkey, Greece, and Russia. In the next round, some really solid offensive team play saw them outscore Slovenia with a torrential rain of threes. Finland's run was not to last, though, as both Croatia and Spain were able to soundly punish them for having no big man inside.
I'd imagine that's pretty much how Team USA is going to handle them. Finland's roster has only changed three players since that 2011 squad. One of those changes has been to acquire Erik Murphy, a lesser known power forward. Murphy has bounced between three teams since being drafted in 2013, but at 6'10 provides much needed size for a formerly undersized Finnish team. He also has the ability to hit a three, just adding to Finland's already ridiculous ability to space the floor.
Still, even with Murphy, Finland doesn't stand a chance. Their defensive strategy hinges almost completely on turnovers, and Team USA is far more athletic and quick than Finland could hope to be. Offensively, in order for the Finns to succeed, one of three things has to happen.
- Petteri Koponen must create points on the perimeter. A lot of the time, his teammates will just iso him and hope that he can make something happen. He's a pretty streaky scorer, and I've seen him settle for bad shots when things get dire.
- Gerald Lee has to be able to create points with his back to the basket. Against a guy like Kenneth Faried, I just don't see this as possible. Lee isn't crafty enough to disrupt Faried's raw energy.
- Finland must rain threes. This is a possibility, but it's really hard seeing them both getting hot and managing to avoid turning it over at the same time.
Anyway, what are we looking for from Team USA? At this point, they should be putting teams away as early as possible and getting the players the rest they need. Games are shorter under FIBA rules, but the timeouts are much shorter as well, and every team has to play 5 games in 6 days. So wasting energy and giving big minutes to your stars isn't the best strategy.
The best way to disrupt Finland early is to force Kopponen into turnovers. Once Team USA gets out and runs, there should be no way Finland can stop them. Also, the Americans will have to be sure to keep Finland out of the post and off the offensive boards, because they can rack up a lot of cheap points with their crisp, practiced outlet passes.
Both teams should have sizeable followings in the arena. I've been in Bilbao for two days, and the hostel I'm staying at is literally booked to the brim with Finnish fans. I also attended the 2011 and 2013 Eurobaskets, and have watched them evolve from a hardcore group of 100-200 people with wolf hats to a rowdy section of thousands. Meanwhile, I've met people from all around the world who came here to cheer for Team USA, which is pretty cool to see.
Individually, Team USA has a number of storylines to follow. Kyrie Irving has started every game since Chicago, though Rose has gotten a similar amount of minutes and usage. Both of them will likely be vying for playing time with each other, and it shapes up to be the most exciting position battle. Meanwhile, Stephen Curry, James Harden, and Anthony Davis should be the main three focal points of the offensive attack. Curry is virtually unstoppable as an off-ball guard, though the Finns may try to exploit his weaker D. Anthony Davis is athletic enough to dunk on these guys untouched, and will probably stretch the floor at least once. James Harden can create points almost whenever he wants, and hides magnets in his hands that help guide them to the rim.
Look for Kenneth Faried to be a major factor defensively. Gerald Lee is a big part of Finland's offense, and he can create points against most smaller players in the post. Faried is probably too athletic for him though, and it's not like Lee has a ton of moves that extend beyond the basics. On Team USA's bench, look for bigger guards like Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan to bully their way for a few easy points inside.
Overall, this should be a fun game for a while. Finland will click for at least some stretches of the game, and they can be fun to watch when that happens. They'll eventually likely stagnate and lose the plot, effectively saving their energy for games that they have a shot at winning.
What do you think of tonight's game? Drop a comment and let us know!