25 July, 2021
07 August
6 Damian Lillard (USA)
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Day 4: Go big or go home, basketball is a bit easier when you're tall

TOKYO (Japan) - We're in 2021, so you probably know by now that basketball is a bit easier when you're tall. Teams like Slovenia, France, Australia, Germany and the Czech Republic took it to extreme levels.

The Czech Republic shocked us initially by putting together a starting lineup with Jan Vesely and Ondrej Balvin together on the court, meaning they had 14 feet of man mountains to protect the paint. Against Iran, their height gave them a way to dominate inside. Against France, a whole new level was unlocked.

That happened when Balvin knocked down two three-pointers in the first quarter. Now, for those of you unfamiliar with the towering tattooed figure in the middle, Balvin played the last 11 seasons in the strongest national league in Europe - the Spanish Liga Endesa - also known as the ACB. Over the course of those 11 seasons, Balvin attempted a total of three three-pointers and missed all of them - only to go 2-of-2 against France.

"We started the game shooting 8-of-9 from three-point range, but we knew that we would fall down in the percentage because it's impossible to keep it up through the whole game. Ondrej especially was the one making shots for us," Czech Republic head coach Ronen Ginzburg said after the game.

The numbers not only went down, they went to -2 in the elevator of the Saitama Super Arena, as the Czech Republic missed all of their remaining eight shots from deep.

One of the reasons why was the French reaction. Instead of going with a classic power forward and center lineup inside, Vincent Collet first paired up Vincent Poirier and Moustapha Fall. They then went with Poirier and Rudy Gobert, the same combination that dominated the painted area against the USA in the first game.

And although this is not the most beautiful brand of basketball, it's effective, especially against teams that are willing to switch every single sight of a screen on the defensive end. Balvin was no longer able to spread the floor and the inside of the three-point line was too crowded for anybody to dominate.

"We try to work on it every day, to make our team better," Nando De Colo said about playing with two centers at the same time.

He doesn't think the spacing is that horrible, 17 points and 8 assists serve as evidence Nando can create even in these conditions.

"This is what the coach wants sometimes, to play with two bigs on the court. This is what we talked about from the first day of the preseason. For sure, it is not the best game we can have right now, but day by day we try to put it a little bit more on the court," the guard added.

France defeated the Czech Republic by 97-77 and made their social media team click a lot of green checkmark emojis. First placed in the group, check. Place in the Quarter-Finals, check. Seeded status for the Quarter-Finals draw on Sunday, check.

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Their win also sent Australia through, because even if the Boomers end as the third-placed team in a three-way tie with Germany and Italy in Group B, they cannot be the worst third-placed team of the Olympics, meaning they are through.

Guess what? They did it by going big - again.

"Our bigs won the rebounds and extra possessions that we probably wouldn't have gotten without them doing that good. A good win, against a good team," Joe Ingles said after their 86-83 win over Italy.

The bigs in question were:
- Jock Landale with 18 points, 7 rebounds, 4 of them offensive;
- Nick Kay with 15, 7 and 4 in the same departments as Landale;
- Aron Baynes 14, 7 and 5.

Coach Brian Goorjian also had a lot of nice things to say about them, and playing the two of them together most of the time got Australia a 44-30 rebounding edge, including 16-6 in offensive rebounds and 17-5 in second-chance points. With Italy playing without a classic center, facing the Boomers was always going to be an uphill battle for coach Meo Sacchetti and his men.

"It's difficult to play against a good team like Australia. They have shooters, they know each other and then they read the defense perfectly. That's important," Sacchetti said. "Probably the key was that we missed a couple of defensive rebounds, after two of them they made shots and made a very important triple right back."

Added Sacchetti: "We played to our maximum, but it is not enough against a team like Australia."

"We need to focus on our defensive rebounding. We gave up a couple of defensive rebounds that ended up in kick out threes and layups and just easy, easy shots for them," Nico Mannion said. "And they got a lot of really good players, so if you give them easy shots, it's going to turn into momentum for them." 

The biggest part about going big? When you win the rebounding battle, you have a better chance to win the defensive battle. The bigs prevent guys like Nicolo Melli, Danilo Gallinari or Achille Polonara from grabbing the defensive rebound and pushing the tempo in transition as fast as possible.

When your opponent is not running, you have time to set your defense. When you set your defense, good things happen.

"Defensively, that's been a focus of this team, of this group of guys, of going somewhere on the defensive end of the floor and improving from what it's been in the past. Tonight in the second half, as in the last game against Nigeria, the defense was the determining factor. We just really locked them down in the fourth quarter and defended really well," coach Goorjian offered.

Going big doesn't mean you're going slow. Coach Henrik Rodl can confirm it with Germany, his extremely tall team managed to outrun a team like Nigeria and score 99 points, the most ever in an Olympic game for Germany. This beat their previous mark of 96, also set by Rodl, but as a player, against Puerto Rico back in 1992.

"I'm very proud of our guys how they came back from the 10-point deficit in the third quarter, exactly how we've been playing this whole summer campaign," Rodl said. "Guys get better when the going gets tough. They stick together, get closer, they get more focused."

Germany won 99-92 and out of the 99 points, Johannes Voigtmann, Johannes Thiemann, Danilo Barthel and Moritz Wagner combined for 59. Germans always have two of them on the floor and can go super-big by adding Robin Benzing at small forward.

But this whole going big thing isn't only literal. Team USA are the complete opposite of the aforementioned teams, opting to play small-ball with either Draymond Green or Bam Adebayo in the middle and switching everything defensively. But they had to go big metaphorically, otherwise they could've been in a lot of trouble after two games.

Gregg Popovich's roster is made for big moments and big shots. Against France, we saw a crazy situation in which all of them were trying to find an extra pass instead of going in for the kill, like we're used to seeing them go in their respective clubs in the NBA.

They talked about it, and Damian Lillard decided to lean into his aggressive playing nature against Iran. He took three three-pointers practically on his first three contacts with the ball. He made his usual long shots, finished with seven three-pointers and pointed the ship in the right direction in a 120-66 triumph.

"(Draymond Green) was just like, 'man, Damian Lillard doesn't hesitate to shoot those shots,' especially at the end of a game (against France) when I had a turnover where I tried to make a swing to the corner. The guy stunted at me and went to the passing lane, saved it and they ended up taking the lead and winning the game," Lillard said. "Draymond was just like, 'that's not what you do, you knock those type of shots, that's what we needed you to do in that moment.' We spoke about it and it was simple. I just said I should have shot it and it won't happen again."

Lillard's 21 points helped Team USA to not only defeat Iran, but to do it by a massive difference. What that means now is that the USA will finish in second place in Group A with a win over the Czech Republic. Not only that, they also have a good chance at being the best second-placed team in all three groups that would send them to the "seeded teams" pot ahead of the Quarter-Finals draw.

Wednesday was done with big teams doing big things. On Thursday, Slovenia will give us a different way of big by playing with five guys at 6'5'' or taller 90 percent of the time. And we don't need to tell you about the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 Final re-match between Spain and Argentina, and the number of big names in both frontcourts.

At the end of the day, you may not believe this, but being tall really is important in modern-day basketball.