25 July, 2021
07 August
77 Luka Doncic (SLO)
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Day 5: Defense wins championships, offense wins fans all over the world

TOKYO (Japan) - Sergio Scariolo must be worried about fighting Slovenia for the first place in the group. But at the same time, he's probably smiling and coming up with a masterplan in the background.

Because, for once, Scariolo could do with a tournament where his team isn't the one on the front pages. Spain are only low-key favorites, compared to the ones who brought the noise in the Saitama Super Arena, teams like France, Australia or even their group rivals, Slovenia. And Spain being behind the curtain should be a worrying sign for all other teams in the world.

"When they are ready, they are the best defensive team of the Olympic Games. They showed today that they are better than us," Argentina head coach Sergio Hernandez said after losing 81-71 to Spain.

It was a re-run of the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 Final, and the path from Beijing to Saitama could be renamed to The Ricky Rubio Route, because the Spanish point guard once again took over. He set a new career-high for the national team with 26 points. His previous record? The 20 points he had against Argentina in the 2019 Final.

"Ricky's on a great level now," Hernandez said.

Rubio had a massive game against guys like Facundo Campazzo, Nicolas Laprovittola, Luca Vildoza and Leandro Bolmaro. Backcourts don't get a lot deeper than that, but it doesn't seem to matter to Rubio who's playing on a whole new level.

"Wait. Have you not seen him two years ago!?" Sergio Llull laughed about it, reminding people that FIBA Ricky is tricky.

"I should probably come to retire in Asia," Rubio joked after being asked about his elite level at the Beijing 2008 Olympics, the World Cup 2019 and now the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

With Rubio doing the damage on the offensive end, Spain's defense once again won't get the credit. But from watching Spain play over the years, you know there's something special brewing when guys like Rudy Fernandez, Victor Claver, Willy Hernangomez and others are willing to get their hands dirty and play for the team. One minute? One minute. Thirty minutes? Thirty minutes.

It's a complete switch from the vibrant Spanish offense that we were used to seeing in all those years with Sergio Scariolo at the helm. But even the defensive-minded Spain had trouble with Luis Scola, the 41-year-old in his fifth Olympic Games, playing against Pau Gasol, another 41-year-old in his fifth Olympic Games.

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"That's beautiful sports history, these two guys deserve it, for their values, for their love for this game, their commitment with their teams, either clubs or national teams, and for their desire to show the way," Scariolo said. "To lead by example many generation who came after them and who are trying to learn. I mean it's going to be a sad moment right at the end of these Games, when they will say goodbye. But the basketball world should be able to retain them within its family, in any other role that might suit them." 

But from glowing and being reminiscent when talking about Gasol and Scola, the Spanish playcaller quickly turned to serious when asked about his next opponent. Because he's set to face the sweethearts of the entire world. Slovenia's offense up against Spain's defense. Doesn't get any better than that!

"They had two games, beating their opponents by an average of around 25 points - and these were good rivals that they faced," Spain head coach said. "We'll just have to plan and execute our plan as best as possible, without losing our identity." 

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Slovenia's identity was too much for Japan on Day 5. Luka Doncic flirted with a triple-double - we only had two of those in the history of the Olympic Games - and finished with 25 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks to lead Slovenia to a 116-81 win.

"They play at a pace of 96 possessions per game. I don't think that's ever been recorded in FIBA basketball," Japan head coach Julio Lamas said.

"Over the last 30 years, I don't think I've seen anyone dominate in a single tournament the way Luka Doncic is dominating now."

Slovenia are playing absurd basketball right now. It's not just Doncic. It's the running of Zoran Dragic, who had 24 points on 13 shots, it's the calmness of Vlatko Cancar (16pts) from deep when others create for him, it's the leadership of Klemen Prepelic (12pts, 5ast, 4reb) off the bench, it's the team spirit and the chemistry that sees the entire delegation jump up and down and lose their mind as Aleksej Nikolic got on the scoreboard with a late three-pointer against Japan.

That one by Nikolic meant that Aleksander Sekulic had 12 different scores. His team scored 118 and 116 in the nation's first two games at the Olympics. In Tokyo, the Junaki are being the Croatia from 1992. Yugoslavia from 1996. Lithuania or France from 2000. Argentina or Italy from 2004. Spain from 2008 or 2012. A likeable team with unlimited potential. A team that all the other coaches and players are being asked about.

"We showed our power together as a team, having 27 assists and 54 rebounds says something about this team, and I'm very proud of them," Sekulic said beating Japan. "They played hard for 40 minutes to build the lead we had at the end." 

With both Slovenia and Spain through to the next round, one might assume they will relax and rest the starters. One would be wrong - group winners will be seeded in the draw for the Quarter-Finals on Sunday. Loser is in danger of falling to the unseeded pot, which means a much tougher opponent in the elite eight phase of the Olympics.

And while Slovenia and Spain provide us with a clash of styles, Argentina and Japan will provide us with a clash of brothers. Argentina head coach Sergio Hernandez and Japan head coach Julio Lamas are as close as two colleagues can get. Lamas was Hernandez's assistant in Beijing 2008, Hernandez was Lamas' assistant in London 2012, both times with Argentina.

Now, they are stuck at 0-2 and need a win to have a chance of picking up one of two tickets for the third-placed teams in their groups.

"No matter what happens in that game, Julio will remain a friend. More than a friend. Like a brother," Hernandez's said as his eyes lit up talking about the upcoming matchup.

A crazy day awaits when they take the court. But until then, the men have a day off, followed by a wild day with the final four group phase games on Saturday.