RIO DE JANEIRO — For the second straight time in a major international tournament, it will be the United States vs. Serbia for the gold medal. And for the second time, Serbia has followed mediocre pool play results with an impressive run in the elimination rounds.
At the 2014 World Cup of Basketball, Serbia went 2-3 in pool play, beating only the two teams – Egypt and Iran – that didn’t advance out of Group A and losing to the other three teams – France, Brazil and Spain – that did. Then it beat Greece (the top seed from Group B), Brazil and France before losing to the U.S. in the final.
In these Olympics, Serbia went 2-3 in pool play, beating only the two teams – Venezuela and China – that didn’t advance out of Group A and losing to the other three teams – Australia, France and USA – that did. And now it has beat Croatia (the top seed from Group B) and Australia to face the U.S., once again, in the final.
On Friday, Serbia never trailed, beating Australia 87-61 in the second semifinal and earning their first Olympic medal in men’s basketball (since the break-up of Yugoslavia). The question now is whether it will be gold or silver.
The U.S. won the ’14 gold medal game by 37 points, but only beat Serbia by three last Friday, allowing Serbia to shoot 52 percent. The U.S. defense has shown improvement since then, but will be tested by Serbia’s passing and the playmaking (and shotmaking) of point guard Milos Teodosic.
“We gave them a pretty good fight,” Serbian big man Miroslav Raduljica said about last week’s meeting, “showed that they’re not unbeatable, and that we can play against them.”
Going to settle for silver?
“No, never,” Raduljica replied. “We are Serbian.”
Teodosic led all scores with 22 points on Friday, shooting 9-for-14 and adding five assists. The Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic shot just 2-for-7, but grabbed 11 rebounds.
Friday’s result was a disappointing one for Australia, which looked like the second best team in the tournament. It entered the semis at 5-1, with the tournament’s second best offense and second best defense, having only lost to the U.S. by 10. The Boomers beat Serbia by 15 in their first meeting (though the game was much closer than the final margin would have you believe).
But the Australia offense came up empty on Friday. The Boomers shot a brutal 6-for-29 in the first half, scoring just five points in the first quarter and nine points in the second. They trailed by as many as 31 points midway through the fourth.
Andrew Bogut and Aron Baynes combined for just 11 points on 3-for-9 shooting. Matthew Dellavedova, who had 13 assists in Australia’s first game vs. Serbia, registered just two on Friday. And Patty Mills made just one of his nine 3-point attempts.
“This definitely wasn’t what we were expecting,” Dellavedova said. “I really don’t know what happened. They played well and we didn’t.”
Australia still has a chance to earn its first Olympic medal in men’s basketball, but will need to beat Spain in Sunday’s bronze medal game.