Olympics Basketball 2012: 3 Things to Watch in Spain vs. China
Olympic group play has officially begun, but let's not kid ourselves; while there are plenty of teams worth watching for a variety of reasons, the basketball preliminaries are a drawn-out dance executed by the two top teams in the Olympic tournament: the talent-laden Team USA and the formidable Spanish national team.
The former will begin its preliminary schedule with a competitive game against France, while the Spaniards tee off their slate against a Chinese national team that, for the first time since 1996, will make its Olympic run without the now-retired Yao Ming.
It's highly unlikely that China will put up as much of a fight as the French, but there's reason nonetheless to tune into Spain's first official game of the Olympic season against a Chinese team that, while outmatched, isn't altogether hopeless.
Without further ado, here are a few things to keep an eye on in Spain's maiden Olympic voyage.
How Will Spain Fare Against a Stretch Big?
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Wang Zhizhi's best basketball days are very clearly behind him, but the 35-year-old is nonetheless a consistent jump shooter and an interesting challenge for Spain's tremendous crop of big men.
Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka are actually quite mobile, but that doesn't mean that pulling at least one of them out toward the three-point line won't distort Spain's team defense in interesting ways.
It's the presence of those three interior players in the lane that makes dribble penetration against Spain so difficult, and though Wang isn't exactly capable of torching opponents at this stage in his career, he's consistent enough form long range to demand defensive attention.
China's offense frankly lacks the firepower to win this game, but Wang's influence in this particular contest could set an interesting precedent going forward; if a stretch big is able to open up driving and passing lanes for China's underwhelming guard crop, what might a similar setup mean in a potential gold-medal matchup between Spain and Team USA?
How Will Spain's Pressure Defense Fare?
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Spain's roster may not be lined top to bottom with the kind of athleticism that is Team USA's trademark, but there's enough length and speed throughout to execute a fairly similar defensive strategy.
Spain's perimeter players typically throw a lot of pressure at their opponents' ball-handlers and play passing lanes expertly to prevent any easy escapes.
That's bad news for China, a team that lacks the ball-handlers and playmakers necessary to consistently create against that kind of defensive pressure.
That said, sometimes desperate, outclassed teams manage to find surprising ways to circumvent traditional defense; the Chinese guards will be forced to be more careful and creative in beating their man off the dribble and getting the ball where it needs to go, and thus could be better prepared—from a schematic perspective—than one might initially expect.
Even with that in mind, Spain's defense should help it to win this game handily. But opponents are looking for weaknesses, however minor, to exploit against Spain at this point, and China—along with every other preliminary opponent—has an opportunity to bring those weaknesses into view.
How Far Can Yi Jianlian Carry China?
Yi Jianlian is an irrelevant on the NBA scene, but a cornerstone talent for China; some of that is due to the Chinese national team's lack of elite-level talent, but that aside, Yi legitimately performs more effectively in an international setting, whether due to a comfort level with his teammates, the FIBA style or both.
That said, Yi isn't exactly a formidable defender on the block in any setting and will be put in a tough spot if forced to defend either Gasol—a likely event given China's roster construction and lack of superior options.
It should be interesting to see just how vulnerable China is to Spain's size inside, given that it not only lacks the kind of traditional bigs typically deemed necessary to battle the Gasols, but is also missing the kind of perimeter speed and athleticism that could create a contrasting style.
Team USA can afford to defend a Gasol brother with a smaller foil and force Spain into uncomfortable situations on the other end of the court, but China can't manage that alternative; even with Yi playing an elevated version of his typical game, he's simply not productive enough to strain Spain's usual rotations and lacks the strength and defensive instinct to really limit either Gasol inside.
How Yi fares defensively could offer a glimpse into how China will perform overall in group play; the Chinese have a legitimate chance to "upset" Great Britain for the fifth spot in Group B (rather than default as the cellar-dwelling sixth), but are only likely to do so if Yi can battle opposing bigs on the defensive end while still carrying the bulk of the offensive load.