LONDON – This is the day medal dreams go up in smoke for some teams in the men’s Olympic basketball competition. Or, as U.S. Men’s Senior National Team star LeBron James put it, “every game is like a Game 7.”
For the U.S., that means three more Game 7 wins are needed to claim a second straight gold medal in Olympic competition. For the seven other teams that harbor gold (or any other) medal dreams, it’s showtime.
Wednesday’s action-packed schedule, with the four games shifting from the Olympic Basketball Arena to the more familiar, NBA-styled North Greenwich (also known as the O2) Arena, promise to deliver drama and dashed dreams for some. The only game of the four that doesn’t qualify as a blood-feud, on some level, is the final game of the day between the U.S. and Australia. That one, however, features the best scorers of pool play (Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony of the U.S. and Patty Mills of Australia) and the always-intriguing subplot of whether someone will knock off the U.S.
Game 1 — Russia (B1) vs Lithuania (A4), 9 a.m. ET
Linas Kleiza and Lithuania gave the U.S. its toughest game of the competition and will take that confidence into this matchup against a Russian team that, after the U.S., was the most consistently impressive team in pool play. The Russians won Group B by overpowering other teams with an inside-out attack that features future Minnesota Timberwolves teammates Aleksey Shved and Andrei Kirilenko on the perimeter and the unsung and underrated Nuggets center Timofey Mozgov, who outplayed Spain’s heralded frontline in Russia’s win over the reigning European champions. Russia is confident and has every reason to be. But the Russians would be wise to ignore that potential gold medal game against the U.S., a long-awaited rematch of the controversial game from 40 years ago, and stay focused on an extremely dangerous Lithuania team fixated on finishing that near upset of the U.S. (Political ramifications also will be at play in the crowd and beyond with the former occupied Lithuania 22 years removed from declaring its independence from the former U.S.S.R.)
Game 2 — France (A2) vs Spain (B3), 11:15 a.m. ET
France gets another shot at Spain after coming up short in the gold medal game at EuroBasket last year. And while France has been tremendous since opening with a 27-point loss to the U.S., Spain hasn’t looked as sharp as anyone expected. San Antonio Spurs All-Star point Tony Parker is in a groove and will have his hands full against Toronto Raptors point guard Jose Calderon in a much-anticipated matchup. But this game will be decided in the paint, where NBA regulars Ronny Turiaf (Los Angeles Clippers), Boris Diaw (Spurs) and Kevin Seraphin (Washington Wizards) of France will have to try to outplay NBA All-Stars (and brothers) Pau Gasol (Los Angeles Lakers) and Marc Gasol (Memphis Grizzlies) as well as Serge Ibaka (Oklahoma City Thunder). The wild card for France is Nicolas Batum, who has been dazzling at times here and poses all sorts of matchup problems for Spain’s swingmen. Spain needs veteran Juan Carlos Navarro, who has big-game experience and the shooting ability to take a game over when he’s locked in and healthy, to come to life on the big stage.
Game 3 — Brazil (B2) vs Argentina (A3), 3 p.m. ET
This battle of South American rivals was best summed up by Argentina’s Luis Scola (Phoenix Suns), who been a mainstay in this rivalry for years. “It’s do or die right now, you either win or you head home,” he said. “And we play Brazil a 100 times a year. It’s always a good game, always tough, always intense. They’re all physical. It’s going to be an amazing battle.” With these two proud groups locked into a one-and-done affair, you can expect the intensity on the floor to be matched by the atmosphere in the stands. Argentina has the veteran group, led by Scola, Manu Ginobili (Spurs), Carlos Delfino (Milwaukee Bucks), Pablo Prigioni (New York Knicks) and Andres Nocioni. Brazil counters with a deep roster of NBA players of its own led by Leandro Barbosa (free agent), Tiago Splitter (Spurs), Anderson Varejao (Cleveland Cavaliers) and Nene (Wizards) as well as veteran point guard Marcelinho Huertas. Argentina has the Olympic medals, but Brazil has been the more impressive team in this competition. If Brazil is ever going to unseat this seasoned bunch from Argentina and move into the upper division on the international stage, this is the time to do it.
Game 4 — USA (A1) – Australia (B4), 5:15 p.m. ET
The Boomers are fearless. Unlike some other teams in this competition that wanted no part of the U.S., Australia seems perfectly suited to challenge the tournament favorites. Mills has been a star among stars here, eclipsing Anthony’s 37-point outburst in a win over Nigeria with a 39-point effort of his own in a win over Great Britain and sinking a buzzer beater to knock off Russia on his way to the quarterfinals. Australia also has an all-important Spurs connection: coach Brett Brown is a Gregg Popovich assistant. Plus, the Aussies are the best defensive team remaining in the competition. They’ve got the attention of the U.S., particularly coach Mike Krzyzewski. “Mills has had an incredible tournament,” he said. “They play with great heart and they are extremely well coached. They probably play the best defense in the tournament.” As good as they’ve been, they are also playing the best team in the tournament. And the U.S. doesn’t come into this game with any false sense of security or entitlement. They know it’s win or go home time. For everyone.