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Don't Sleep on Spain as Scariest Elimination-Round Threat to Team USA Basketball

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistAugust 16, 2016

Pau Gasol helped Spain shoot its way past Argentina.
Pau Gasol helped Spain shoot its way past Argentina.Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday afternoon, Spain reasserted itself as a medal contender with its 50-point thrashing of previously unbeaten Lithuania. Two days later, it cemented its return to glory with a 92-73 win over Argentina in a game that never felt close.

Now, it moves on to the elimination stage, which begins Wednesday. This is how the tournament bracket looks, per Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver:

Ben Golliver @BenGolliver

Rio Olympics basketball bracket is set -- USA's path to gold: Argentina, then Spain or France, then CRO/SRB/AUS/LTU https://t.co/BK81fZu9mO

Against Argentina, Spain did its best Usain Bolt impression early in the proceedings—letting the opposition get out of the blocks with a nifty 8-0 run before sprinting past and leaving it in the dust. By the time the buzzer rang to end the first quarter, it had already earned a 10-point advantage, which it never relinquished.

This was not the Spain from the beginning of the group stage.

"Honestly, I don't like the situation for sure," Rudy Fernandez said Tuesday, according to the Associated Press (via the New York Times). "We lost the first two games, but I remember in London we lost two games, too.

"I trust in my teammates. ... We are very good players. We know the situation we are in. Honestly, we have a chance. We have a chance to win the next three games."

That's exactly what they did, and the disappointing beginning against Croatia and Brazil is nothing more than a distant memory. So too is a lackluster performance against Nigeria that, while it resulted in victory, did nothing to imbue the international heavyweights with any semblance of sorely needed confidence.

Smiles are much more frequent for Spain these days.
Smiles are much more frequent for Spain these days.Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Ricky Rubio (two points, four assists) isn't rolling, and his shot has deserted him (even more than normal) in Rio de Janeiro. But the rest of the team is thriving around him, particularly when Fernandez and Pau Gasol are clicking. The heretofore absent confidence is now plentiful.

That was the case Monday, and the aforementioned duo's efforts were aided by a dizzying array of contributions from nearly every member of the Spanish roster. Nikola Mirotic (10 points, five rebounds) and Sergio Llull (10 points, five assists) were the only other players to hit double figures, but underwhelming play was tough to find—Rubio's poor shooting, Sergio Rodriguez's five turnovers and Juan-Carlos Navarro's ejection for flopping may be the only examples.

But Gasol and Fernandez were the stars.

Rudy Fernandez knocked down four three-pointers against Argentina.
Rudy Fernandez knocked down four three-pointers against Argentina.Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The former was a beast when allowed to play his brand of immobile defense in a rim-protecting role, sparking Spain's offense with his passing and ability to stretch the floor. His line of 19 points, 13 rebounds, one assist and two blocks sounds terrific, but it sells his impact short.

Meanwhile, the latter couldn't miss, recording 23 points on just 10 shots from the field.

Behind those two, Spain changed its narrative. Instead of wondering whether this team can survive, we're curious about how high it can rise. That, above all else, is the biggest benefit of wiping the floor with Lithuania and then using Argentina to prove the momentum-altering result was no fluke.

Gasol and Co. will square off against France in the quarterfinals, and that seems like a winnable matchup. The French have endured struggles of their own, posting an identical 3-2 record during Group A after an unsightly blowout at the hands of Australia to open the Olympics.

As Jon Krawczynski of the Associated Press noted, Spain looks a bit better these days:

Jon Krawczynski @JonKrawczynski

Spain has definitely found another gear

Gasol is playing fantastic two-way basketball, and his passes have assumed pin-point accuracy regardless of the situation he's in. Whether he's working out of the post, lining up on the perimeter or helping in transition, he knows exactly where each teammate will be at all times.

Supporting the big man, Spain's shooters are clicking, and the defense is locked into place. It's finally resembling the medal contender it was assumed to be before the tournament began, and it'll have a chance to cement that status when it takes the court against France.

And with Team USA struggling to find its top gear, anything could happen if the cement sets and the teams meet in the semifinals.

Brazil Wins but Tourney Run Ends

Eric Gay/Associated Press

At 1-3 in Group B play, Brazil needed a victory against Nigeria to keep alive its hopes of advancing out of the preliminary round. It won, but the host's dreams of defending its turf during the elimination rounds came crashing to a halt later in the evening when Spain defeated Argentina.

Led by Nene's 19 points, seven rebounds, four assists and three steals, Brazil quasi-clobbered Nigeria, 86-69. Indeed, the score suggested a full-on blowout, but this was a seven-point affair entering the fourth quarter—in large part because Ben Uzoh (15 points, two assists) fended off implosion on his own.

Seriously, he had people talking, per CBS Sports' James Herbert:

James Herbert @outsidethenba

the infamous ben uzoh triple-double was just discussed on an olympics broadcast!!

Brazil used a pair of offensive explosions to back Nigeria into a corner. The host pummeled its opponent 27-15 in the second quarter, then finished the final frame on a 25-12 run.

Marcelo Huertas' playmaking (12 points, 11 assists) was a pivotal part of the offensive success. He threw off Nigeria with a steady dose of pick-and-rolls and drive-and-kicks. On multiple occasions, his dribble penetration triggered a series of two- and three-pass sets, wherein Brazil used additional movement to send defenders into a rotation frenzy.

Vitor Benite, a primary beneficiary of Brazil's ball movement, pitched in 15 points. Alex Garcia added 13. But this game was very much about Nene.

He had struggled to create enough space off the block, and his jumper appeared out of whack. Against Nigeria, however, he looked five years younger, hotfooting his way toward the basket off screens, stopping on a dime off the dribble and stretching the floor ever so slightly with three made jumpers outside the paint.

For this win to mean anything, though, Brazil needed help, as USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt outlined:

Jeff Zillgitt @JeffZillgitt

With win v Nigeria, Brazil is alive for spot in quarters. Needs Argentina to beat Spain to get in. Big game for ESP. Needs win to advance.

It didn't get that help from an Argentine squad that refused to supplement its comeback efforts with extra minutes from Manu Ginobili and Andres Nocioni and opted instead to rest its veterans for the elimination stage. But at least the host nation can be proud of responding when it had its back against the proverbial wall.

Dario Saric Steals the Show

Good luck slowing down Dario Saric right now.
Good luck slowing down Dario Saric right now.ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/Getty Images

You'll have to forgive Philadelphia 76ers fans. They've had so few opportunities to feel unbridled optimism in recent years, and Dario Saric's time in Rio is exceeding even the most optimistic expectations.

The incoming rookie got off to a slow start, knocking down only one of his seven shots from the field against Spain. But since then, he's been an impact player for Croatia, helping it clinch Group B's No. 1 spot with another outburst in a 90-81 victory over Lithuania:

Dario Saric's Olympic Game Log
OpponentPointsReboundsAssistsStealsBlocks
Spain5 (1-of-7)7501
Argentina19 (7-of-16)10700
Brazil15 (5-of-11)7311
Nigeria7 (2-of-5)6021
Lithuania18 (7-of-12)6310
Average12.8 (4.4-of-10.2)7.23.60.80.6
FIBA.com

Even during that dismal outing versus Spain, Saric saved the game with a last-second block against Gasol, rotating over from the weak side to ensure an Olympic-opening upset.

"He looks ready to make an immediate impact," Jonathan Tjarks wrote for The Ringer. "He stuffs the stat sheet and plays with a combination of savvy and toughness unusual for a 22-year-old."

Sure, his jumper remains a little inconsistent. He can also get in some trouble when he tries to make tough plays in space. But the flaws are easy to live with right now; he's doing everything else well—even Eurostepping his way through multiple defenders in transition before he finishes plays around the hoop.

Saric has shown he can create his own looks and play off the ball. He's proved capable of distributing the rock to open teammates even while seeking his own shots. His creativity has been astounding, as has the simple fact that he carries himself like a star. Few players ooze confidence like he does when a few shots fall.

Of course, we have to give a few other shoutouts after this Group B matchup.

If you haven't watched Mantas Kalnietis yet, make sure you catch him Wednesday against Australia.
If you haven't watched Mantas Kalnietis yet, make sure you catch him Wednesday against Australia.Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Bojan Bogdanovic (22 points) and Krunoslav Simon (19 points, 10 rebounds, six assists) were fantastic for the Croatians, while Mantas Kalnietis continued to perform like one of the best players in the field. After exploding for 26 points and 11 assists, the Lithuanian point guard is averaging 19.2 points (No. 5 in the field) and eight dimes (No. 2) per game.

But this was about Saric's steady excellence in so many facets of the game and the legitimate excitement he's stirring in fans of his beleaguered franchise. Cue Bleacher Report's Alec Nathan:

Alec Nathan @AlecBNathan

#Fave7Films: All 7 games I’ve seen Saric play in. #FaveFutureFilms: All Sixers games featuring Saric

    

Spain-Argentina and Croatia-Lithuania sections provided by Adam Fromal.

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