It was Russia -- not Spain -- who looked like the strongest team in Group B on Sunday. Beyond that, the biggest revelations of Olympic basketball group play may need to wait as chalk dominated on Day 1.
The first day of the men's Olympic basketball tournament went more or less as scripted. Any informed observer would likely have predicted all six winners on the first day of pool play, so any surprises were limited to how relatively good or bad the 12 teams appeared in their first Olympic action. Still, with actual Olympic basketball comes a chance to analyze the contenders in action. So what did we learn?
Tournament favorite Team USA handled France with relative ease after a shaky first quarter. The United States led by a single point after 10 minutes, but ran off the first 11 points of the second quarter and the final result was never much in doubt from there. This is a supremely talented U.S. squad, but if they are vulnerable it will not be a team like France that beats them. France has as many players with NBA experience as any team in the tournament other than the Americans (France and Spain each have seven), but they don't have tremendous size. The French have the distinction of being the second-most athletic team in London -- but no one is going to beat Team USA with athleticism. It might have been more interesting had France's best players played well, but with Tony Parker (10 points), Boris Diaw (9) and Nicolas Batum (5) combining for 24 points, Les Bleus had no chance.
In the first quarter, Team USA demonstrated how vulnerable it might be if the outside shots aren't falling. The Americans were 0-6 in the first from three-point range and led by a single point. But once they got the lid off the basket the game changed completely. In the end the United States came away with a 98-71 win that saw all 12 Americans score, led by Kevin Durant with 22.
The other power team in the tournament, Spain, struggled a bit more against a Chinese team that would be happy just to advance out of group play. Spain took the lead for good midway through the second quarter, but China were still within single digits in the fourth before the Spaniards put the game away with a 97-81 victory. Former lottery pick Yi Jianlian, an NBA free agent who mostly sat on Dallas' bench last season, was spectacular in the loss, scoring 30 points and grabbing 12 rebounds while shooting 13-19 from the field and demonstrating the full array of skills that had NBA scouts drooling over him in the first place. Pau Gasol led Team Espana with 21 and Serge Ibaka had 17.
One result that was a bit surprising was the ease with which Argentina handled Lithuania, 102-79. The Lithuanians are a bit of an unknown in this tournament, arriving as they are with both aging legend Sarunas Jasikevicius, the 36-year-old heart and soul of earlier Lithuanian national teams, and young stud Jonas Valanciunas, the 21-year-old lottery pick who's expected to play a big role this summer (not to mention next season in Toronto with the Raptors). Despite a massive size advantage over Luis Scola, Valanciunas never got involved, scoring just six points with five rebounds in 14 minutes. Meanwhile, Scola lit up any and all of the Baltic bigs assigned to him for 32 points on 12-19 shooting. He drew nine fouls and went to the line 13 times. Like Valanciunas, Jasikevicius had just six points, as neither the old guard nor the young gun could save Lithuania on this day. Meanwhile, the Argentine core that is supposedly getting too long in the tooth to dominate at this level, dominated. Along with Scola's 32, Manu Ginobili scored 21 and Carlos Delfino added 20 (18 of them coming from beyond the three-point line).
In a game that was closer than most experts might have predicted, Brazil hung on for a 4-point win over Australia, 75-71. The Brazilians come to London with a trio of starting NBA big men in Anderson Varejao, Tiago Splitter and Nene -- you know the front line is solid when Nene is coming off the bench. Along with Euroleague star Marcelinho Huertas and NBA veteran Leandro Barbosa in the backcourt, it's an impressive lineup. But the Boomers led early, and pulled back within a basket with 30 seconds remaining, making their case as potentially the fourth team likely to advance from Group B. Patty Mills of the Spurs led Australia with 18 points but shot a dismal 1-9 from beyond the three-point arc.
Of the five teams grouped behind the United States and Spain that could contend for a medal as the tournament rolls on, it was Russia who looked most impressive on Sunday. Russia easily handled hosts Great Britain, 95-75, behind the inside-out duo of Alexey Shved and Andrei Kirilenko. Teammates last year with European power CSKA Moscow and and future teammates in Minnesota this coming season, Shved and Kirilenko were nothing short of spectacular against the Brits. Kirilenko led all scorers on the first day of competition with 35 points on incredible 14-17 shooting, with many of those buckets coming with ease at the end of Shved assists (he had 13 to lead the tournament in that category). Shved also added 16 points. The pair showed an on-court chemistry that should serve them well in this tournament and next year with the Timberwolves.
In the first game of Day 1, Nigeria beat Tunisia 60-56 in a contest between African nations who don't figure to make it out of pool play. The Nigerians were led by Ike Diogu (13 points) and the Aminu brothers, Alade with 15 and Al-Farouq with 10.
So did we learn anything on Day 1? The four qualifiers from Group A appear to be pretty well pre-determined, and that didn't change. The United States, Argentina, France and Lithuania will likely advance, despite 20-point losses for the European teams, but Tuesday's meeting with Lithuania will be Nigeria's chance to prove that they can threaten for a top four finish in the group.
In Group B, Day 1 winners Spain, Russia and Brazil always figured to be the top three in the group, but the fourth spot seemed to be wide open and that didn't change a bit. Both China and Australia looked surprisingly strong before succumbing to superior opponents, and meanwhile Great Britain will always have a chance to ride sentiment and home crowds to a couple of wins. The Group B schedule once again has teams from the top three facing off against teams from the bottom three on Tuesday, so it could be Thursday when Australia faces China before we get much of a feel for how the race for fourth is going to shake out. The schedulers didn't do any favors for the home team: Great Britain opens their tournament against the three toughest teams in the group, Russia, Brazil and Spain, and will most likely be 0-3 before they play a winnable game.
In the first day of Olympic competition with a new, deeper three-point line, the effects of the change were noticeable. With a few exceptions (Spain 11-19, Argentina 11-27, China 7-16) the three-point shooting on Sunday was dismal. Seven of the 12 teams made five or fewer three-pointers in their first game, and five teams shot under 20 percent from deep, with the worst of the worst being France with a dreadful 2-22 showing. The old saw that international basketball is a shooter's game was far from true on Sunday.
The Olympic basketball tournament is a strange beast, with 30 games just to whittle the field down from 12 to eight, followed by a knockout round that sees one team eliminated with each game played. Pool play can be as much about gamesmanship as it is about winning basketball, but rest assured that all of the teams in Group B want to finish first in order to avoid facing the United States for as long as possible. Team USA has a couple of relatively easy Group A games against the African squads coming up before closing group play against Lithuania and Argentina. But the real intrigue in pool play will be in Group B, where Russia looks fully capable of challenging Spain for the top of the table, and the battle for the fourth and final spot in the knockout stage (the likely quarterfinal opponent for the US) is going to be wide open.