HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS (NEW JERSEY BUREAU) – The FIBA Americas Championship 2011 will be decided on Sunday in Mar del Plata, Argentina, but to most people involved, the most important games of the tournament take place 24 hours earlier. Saturday evening’s semifinals will determine the Americas’ two representatives at next year’s Olympics in London.
But the losers of Saturday’s games can still dream about walking with their nation at the Olympic Stadium next July, because they will be placed in a 12-team, last-chance Olympic qualifying tournament earlier in the month. The top three finishers in that tournament will earn the last three spots in the Olympic field, but Saturday’s losers will have to compete for those spots with four teams from the very competitive EuroBasket tournament that wraps up next weekend, as well as Venezuela, who qualified by finishing fifth in this one.
The four teams still alive separated themselves from the pack early. They finished with a cumulative record of 19-1 against the other six teams in the tournament, with the Dominican Republic’s one-point loss to Canada the only blemish.
Brazil (7-1) vs. Dominican Republic (5-3) – 6 p.m ET
Brazil took the top seed away from Argentina with an impressive victory over the hosts on Wednesday. That, along with a blowout of Puerto Rico the following night, earned them the right to play the Dominican Republic, which has looked all along to be the weakest of the four semifinalists. But Brazil’s only loss came at the hands of the Dominican last Friday when Brazilian point guard Marcelo Huertas committed 10 turnovers.
Huertas isn’t well known among NBA fans, but he’s the key to Brazil’s offensive attack. He and Tiago Splitter are a dangerous pick-and-roll tandem, because you can’t leave either alone and Brazil has plenty of shooters to spread the floor and complement them.
The Dominican Republic will lean heavily on Al Horford, who is averaging 18.6 points and 9.1 rebounds in the tournament. Horford is complemented on the inside by “El Limpiacristales” Jack Michael Martinez, who has five double-doubles in eight games.
But if Brazil packs the paint and keeps Horford out of the post, he’ll need help from the perimeter. The Dominican Republic is shooting just 32.7 percent from 3-point range for the tournament, but they were 8-for-13 from downtown (Francisco Garcia was 4-for-5) in their win over Brazil.
Argentina (7-1) vs. Puerto Rico (6-2) – 8:15 p.m ET
A few days ago, Argentina looked unbeatable in this tournament. Their veteran core was back together and playing dominantly on both ends. But then Andres Nocioni sprained his right ankle on the opening tip against Brazil on Wednesday and the Argentina offense, which torched Venezuela a night earlier, seemed to follow him back to the locker room.
The hosts recovered to win easily over the Dominican Republic the next night, and they’re still the favorite to win the tournament, but Nocioni’s status for Saturday’s semifinal is questionable. And they’re certainly not as unbeatable as they looked before Wednesday.
Luis Scola is the tournament’s leading scorer at 19.4 points per game, but Argentina’s offense is about finding the open man, no matter who he is. They’ve assisted on 57 percent of their field goals, the highest rate in the tournament, and all four NBA players on the roster are averaging in double figures.
Puerto Rico has three NBA players on their roster, but one has played significantly better than the other two. In the league, Carlos Arroyo is a conservative, pass-first point guard. But on the FIBA stage, he’s dynamic and aggressive, averaging 13.9 points and 3.6 assists in the tournament.
J.J. Barea, on the other hand, has yet to get comfortable in the Puerto Rico offense. He has shot just 34 percent from the field in the tournament, including an atrocious 2-for-21 from 3-point range.
Puerto Rico lost their inside presence, Daniel Santiago, to a foot injury on Tuesday. So for them to have any hope against Argentina, they will need a big game inside from Manuel Narvaez, as well as the outside shooting of Alex Galindo.