Olympic Basketball 2012: 10 Players Who Will Be Matchup Nightmares for Team USA
There's plenty from Team USA's 5-0 record in Olympic tune-ups about which to take heart. They dismantled their opponents by an average of 26.6 points per game, including a 22-point shellacking of Spain, the second-best squad in the world, according to FIBA.
But the devil's in the details for USA Basketball, as it will be when the Summer Games tip off in London this weekend.
By details, I mean the individual matchups that Mike Krzyzewski's motley crew will encounter. America may have the best basketball team on the planet, but that doesn't mean it's not susceptible to exploitation by a brilliant guard here or a bruising forward there.
In fact, Team USA's weakness on the interior, outsized dependence on outside shooting and relative lack of continuity are all holes that its competitors can and will exploit.
If not to victorious effect, then at least enough to put a jolt through the Red, White and Blue.
Here are 10 international players who figure to do just that.
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Familiarity doesn't always breed contempt, but in the case of Pau Gasol, it's apparently conducive to success against the U.S.
The four-time NBA All-Star has averaged 17.7 points and 5.7 rebounds over his last three games against Team USA dating back to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Most recently, Gasol accounted for 19 points (on 6-of-9 shooting from the field) and five rebounds in Tuesday's tilt, finding little trouble scoring against America's thin front line.
Gasol is well versed in how to handle Team USA's defenders from his time with the Memphis Grizzlies and the Los Angeles Lakers. Beyond that, he has the size and skill to torture the U.S. inside and out, as he showed while draining threes and battling inside in Barcelona.
Of course, it wasn't enough to keep Spain from getting stomped in the end, but with a little more help, Gasol and his 'mates may be able to scare Team USA should the two sides meet in the knockout rounds.
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As it happens, Pau Gasol will have more help if there's a next time.
From his own brother Marc, no less.
The younger Gasol sat out Tuesday's tune-up to rest his sore left shoulder but should be ready to go for the Olympics and, in turn, any upcoming matchup with Team USA. Marc has had his fair share of success against the Red, White and Blue, most notably pouring in 17 points and six rebounds during an exhibition in Madrid prior to the 2010 FIBA World Championship.
If you thought Pau was a load for USA Basketball's bigs to handle, just wait until you see them up against Marc, who's an inch taller and about 40 pounds bulkier than his talented brother.
Marc isn't quite as skilled as Pau, but what he lacks in finesse, he more than makes up for in bullishness on the block.
That's something the undersized Americans may well have an even tougher time handling.
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Subtract some of Marc Gasol's size and skill and add in some serious attitude (and Sideshow Bob hair), and you've got Brazil's Anderson Varejao.
The longtime Cleveland Cavaliers forward is a no-nonsense-type man in the middle who hustles after rebounds, understands the pick-and-roll, can hit the occasional mid-range jumper, plays pestering defense and isn't afraid to mix it up with anyone, especially his NBA compatriots.
He made that much clear during Brazil's 80-69 loss to Team USA in Washington, D.C. on July 16, in which he registered 12 points, 13 rebounds, two assists, two steals and a blocked shot.
Raggedy Andy may not be a force to be reckoned with in and of himself, but when properly utilized within a team scheme, he's as dangerous a weapon as there is to the U.S.
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Thankfully for Varejao (and disconcertingly for the U.S.), he has one of the world's best point guards by his side in Marcelo Huertas.
Marcelinho (as he's known) was particularly impressive in the last USA-Brazil contest. The Euroleague star racked up 11 points, 13 assists and five rebounds for his country, all the while leaving the likes of Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Russell Westbrook looking helpless to stop him.
That certainly seems strange, if not downright worrisome. After all, CP3 has long been one of the NBA's finest defenders at the point, while Westbrook has recently shown himself to have lockdown potential.
D-Will isn't too shabby either, although defense is hardly his calling card.
In any case, Marcelinho had his way with them and figures to do so again in the event that the U.S. and Brazil come to blows in the knockout rounds.
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If Team USA's guards can't contain one of Europe's biggest stars, how can they ever hope to stop one of the NBA's best in Tony Parker?
Granted, Parker isn't quite the mystery to the Americans that Marcelinho is, to say the least.
Anthony Davis aside, everyone on Coach K's club has played extensively against Parker's San Antonio Spurs back in the States. As it happens, French coach Vincent Collet runs a Spurs-like system (as in, the newer, more Parker-centric Spurs), with Parker directing traffic and torching defenses with his quickness as he does in the NBA.
For the U.S., then, handling Tony Parker will be akin to a baseball player trying to hit Mariano Rivera's cutter—they know exactly what's coming, but can they do anything about it?
We'll find out on Sunday morning, when Team USA opens group play against (you guessed it!) France.
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The same goes for Parker's San Antonio teammate Manu Ginobili, who's had his own habit of tormenting Team USA for years now.
Ginobili was a key member of the Argentine team that upended USA Basketball and went on to win gold at the Athens Olympics in 2004. In a sense, then, he was responsible for bringing about the revolution that saw Jerry Colangelo and Coach K assume the reins of the program.
Not that the Americans should necessarily thank Manu for his services, though he's a joy to watch nonetheless.
For basketball fans, anyway. Not so much for Team USA, which saw Ginobili slice and dice his way through its defense on the way to a 23-point performance amidst Argentina's near-comeback in an 86-80 loss on July 22.
Argentina's forwards (specifically Luis Scola and Carlos Delfino) may seem more worrisome to Team USA since their strengths parallel America's on-court weaknesses.
But Ginobili is still Argentina's best player and, evidently, the one who gives USA Basketball the biggest headaches.
As well he might when he dashes his way through the Red, White and Blue on Aug. 6.
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Lest you think Ginobili is the only multi-talented wing to have tormented Team USA this summer, take a gander at what Luol Deng did to his American adversaries earlier in July.
The Chicago Bulls All-Star piled up 25 points, four rebounds and four assists for Great Britain during an exhibition in Manchester, England. This despite being far and away Team GB's most credible threat and having the likes of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala come at him throughout the game.
Of course, Team USA still won by 40 points, and to face his NBA peers in London, Deng would have to help Team GB finish no worse than fourth in a group that also features Spain, Russia, Brazil, China and Australia.
Frankly, few in the Association would ever mistake Deng for an offensive dynamo. He's more than capable of hitting shots, to be sure, but is best known for his defensive abilities on the perimeter.
That being said, there's no denying how well he played against the Americans, and if there is, indeed, a weakness on the wing to be exploited, then Deng will be ready to do so a second time.
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We'll have a better idea as to whether or not the wing is the thing to beat USA Basketball on Sunday, when Nicolas Batum joins Tony Parker's French team on the floor at the Olympic Park against Team USA.
Batum is the sort of talented, athletic and versatile player that Coach K has in abundance at his disposal.
That would seem to make the prospect of containing Batum that much more a cinch, though Ginobili and Deng might argue otherwise.
Whether it be as a spot-up three-point shooter or a two-man-game partner with Parker, Batum has the look of a player tailor-made to torment Team USA from the perimeter. He figures to make Sunday's Olympic opener rather interesting for both teams, at the very least.
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As long as we're talking about talented wings capable of terrorizing the U.S. on the hardwood, we'd be remiss not to at least mention Andrei Kirilenko.
The former Utah Jazz and reportedly soon-to-be Minnesota Timberwolves swingman is Russia's most lethal weapon, given his all-around skill set and his intimate knowledge of how to handle NBA royalty. His production fell off noticeably over his final few seasons in Utah, but AK-47 seemed to get his groove back last year, when he earned Euroleague MVP honors while playing for CSKA Moscow.
Kirilenko's recent experience with FIBA rules, combined with confidence derived from past success against Team USA (18 points, eight rebounds and four assists during an exhibition in 2008), makes him a threat to rack up some serious stats and keep Russia in the game should his country go head-to-head with its old Cold War adversary after the group stage.
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Perhaps no single player is better equipped to take advantage of Team USA's weaknesses than Linas Kleiza.
At 6'8" and 245 pounds, the Denver Nuggets turned Toronto Raptors forward is big and brawny enough to bang bodies inside, where America is at its weakest. Kleiza can play with his back to the basket and sports a keen understanding of how to use his particular density to his advantage.
That being said, the strength of Kleiza's game might actually be on the perimeter, where he's more than capable of draining threes from behind the FIBA line. On the whole, it's as if FIBA's rules were written specifically for Kleiza's game.
Lithuania has a solid roster around Kleiza as well, with the likes of Sarunas Jasikevicius, Martynas Pocius, Darius Songaila and NBA rookie-to-be Jonas Valanciunas populating head coach Kestutis Kemzura's squad.
Still, nobody should expect tiny Lithuania to beat mighty America, unless there's a spelling bee of names involved.
But if Kleiza comes to play on Aug. 4, then David may well have his day against Goliath on the court.