Day 7: New leaders keeping the Old Continent on top of the world
TOKYO (Japan) - France, Italy, Germany, Slovenia and Spain will make up more than 50 percent of the field in the Quarter-Finals. It's the second Olympics in a row that Europe has five teams in the elite eight.
The Old Continent wasn't always so dominant, at least not in the numbers section when the elimination phase starts. Let's take 1984 as the starting point because that's when a similar format to this one was first used, with a single game elimination criteria to determine the last four standing and the finalists afterwards.
Since then, Europe has always had three or four teams in the Quarter-Finals, with a record five being set for the first time in 2000. Back in 2016 and now in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, the record has been tied with five teams making the elimination phase once again. The biggest difference compared to Rio de Janeiro is the fact that new leaders emerged.
France new elite team core is anchored by Rudy Gobert and Even Fournier
France quietly finished their part of the job on Saturday, easing away for a 79-62 win over Iran to go to 3-0 and win the group ahead of the USA. For years, French basketball was about les enfants de Zadar, the children of Zadar, reference to their golden generation which started its path back in Croatia, winning the FIBA U18 European Championship in 2000. Fans often wondered what will happen when guys like Tony Parker and Boris Diaw retire. Fans worried without reason.
Nando De Colo and Rudy Gobert already steadily roles increased over the past six years. Now Evan Fournier is taking over, playing in MVP form for the team that has the target on their backs after dominating their group play.
"To be honest, I'm not even focused on the gold medal, just the Quarter-Finals. Any team that we are going to play there will have its strengths and weaknesses, but I can't tell you who I would prefer there because we don't even know who going to be there," Fournier said when asked about being a contender.
Evan being the leader is no news, but France came here with two role players of the highest level. Both Guerschon Yabusele and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot have been rock solid in their games so far. With both being born in 1995, prepare yourself for a decade or so of them coming back to play for the squad.
"Gold favorites? I want to just say that we have good chances to be on top," Luwawu-Cabarrot said. "But we play together and have fun. This is a game. The goal is to have fun on the court and we're having it right now."
France had too much fun against the Czech Republic, and as the USA followed suit in a 119-84 win over Tomas Satoransky and his teammates the math was clear - by having -49 in points difference, the Czechs had no chance of sneaking into one of the two spots reserved for the best third-placed teams. Reaching the Olympics was a mini-miracle in itself. Not making the Quarter-Finals will not make Satoransky a depressed man.
Even with Tomas Satoransky's elite play this summer, Jayson Tatum and Team USA proved one obstacle too many for the Czech Republic to advance to the Quarter-Finals in Tokyo
"I'm proud of my teammates. If anybody would have told me that we'd be going to play against those stars on (USA's) roster, I would have never believed this," Czech point guard said, adding that this was a huge experience which could pay off soon, with Czech Republic hosting one of the groups of next year's FIBA EuroBasket.
However, even with Europe placing five teams in the next round, the way the USA reacted and played against Czech Republic is a huge warning for everybody else. They are still the defending champs. They still have so many weapons. They are still the team to beat at the Olympics.
"They are obviously playing small ball that is nowadays the game in the NBA," Satoransky said. "But a lot of other teams, European teams especially, have a lot of old school style. France were able to create some advantages in the post when the Americans were switching on defense, and if you play smart against them and push the ball inside, I think you're going to have some chances. But, obviously, the United States basketball team is still the most dominant basketball team, with the most skilled players that can individually create a lot of trouble for you. They are still the biggest favorites for me."
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Post defense was also a topic for coach Gregg Popovich. Despite a 35-point win, Popovich said his team needs to be more active early on defense, to make their opponent's entry passes to the posts more difficult and put themselves in a much better position to defend. Offensively, they don't have to worry about a thing - Damian Lillard took over against Iran, just as Kevin Durant and Jayson Tatum did it against the Czech Republic.
Durant became the all-time scoring leader for Team USA in the history of the Olympics and went all-round for 23 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists. Tatum was the team's top scorer, dropping 27 points with five of his field goals being three-pointers.
"I just told him, I said, 'act like you're playing the (San Antonio) Spurs.' When he plays against us, he always scores like 90. It seemed to work," coach 'Pop' said with a smile.
Pop already knows that his next opponent will be another European side. Either the loser of Spain v Slovenia game or Italy, who were playing in line with the "old continent, new leader" vibe of the day.
Italy looked done and dusted as Nigeria opened up an 8-point lead to start the fourth quarter. But defense was the answer as Italy matched Nigeria's physicality and held the guys in green to just one field goal over the first seven minutes of the fourth.
By the time Nigeria woke up, the best they could do was watch from the courtside as Nico Mannion knocked down a dagger triple to send Italy into the Quarter-Finals.
Mannion finished with 14 points in just 16 minutes of action, not afraid of taking responsibility in the clutch as he delivered the final blow to Nigeria in an 80-71 win.
"I think everybody is surprised with the way he's playing, he's showing everybody that he's a great player. Also, he's only 20 years old! I hope that he can help us like this in the next game, too," Achille Polonara said of Mannion. "He's a great guy, he's very happy to stay with us, and we're very happy to have him."
With Mannion taking over, with captain Nicolo Melli getting his hands dirty and picking up 15 points along the way, with Simone Fontecchio getting to double digits with ease, one could easily forget that they also have a certain Danilo Gallinari on their roster. He struggled with an apparent injury, played only eight minutes, and Italy were still out of reach for the only African team in Japan.
Mannion will be around for a long time, same as the 25-year-old Fontecchio. But with all the talks about the two of them, don't forget that Italy's defensive pressure would've never happened if the 21-year-old Alessandro Pajola wasn't on the court in decisive moments against Germany, Australia and Nigeria.
Speaking of Germany, there is no Dirk Nowitzki anymore, there are no NBA stars here. But with a lot of new faces, they still managed to upset the favorites playing at home at the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Split, Croatia to get to the Olympics. And they aren't here on a field trip. Even with an 89-76 defeat to Australia, they still managed to advance to the Quarter-Finals for the first time since 1992.
"We would have to be almost perfect to beat a very, very good team like Australia," coach Henrik Rodl said in acknowledging the greatness of this Boomer squad.
"I liked our reaction, we came back from like 10 down, we fought again like we were fighting the whole summer. Still, I think we need to be better all the time and more solid at the end of the game," Andreas Obst said in added his two cents.
Similar to what Satoransky said about Czech Republic and excitement about next year, Germans have plenty of reason to be happy with how 2021 went considering they will host one of the groups and the entire Final Round of the FIBA EuroBasket 2022.
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With new leaders in Maodo Lo, two Johanneses (Thiemann and Voigtmann), and two Wagners (Moritz and Franz), expect plenty more from the team with the Deutschland sign on their chest.
Germany will play either France or the winner of the Slovenia v Spain matchup in the Quarter-Finals, meaning there will be at least one European team in the Semi-Finals.
And yet, even with five teams in the Quarter-Finals, it still feels like gold would be a sensation for the Old Continent. It has not happened since 1988. With the much-improved play of Team USA and the Aussies still undefeated through the entire summer, they will want to keep it that way - with some help from Argentina or Japan, as the last Quarter-Finalist in Tokyo.