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Expert musings, insights and picks for the Men's Olympic Basketball Tournament
TOKYO (Japan) - With just days to go until the Olympic Basketball Tournaments gets underway, a FIBA pundit panel of two hop into the hot seat to make some bold Games-time predictions. For the men's tournament, our turn to a duopoly of brings us their expert musings, insights and picks from Igor Curkovic and Jeff Taylor.
A longtime intrepid reporter, Curkovic is on the ground in Tokyo, covering the men's game from inside the Saitama Super Arena for FIBA.
Joining Curkovic comes Taylor's sage voice of reason. Known affectionately as the 'Voice of FIBA,' if it's taken place on the global scale on the basketball court, Taylor's probably been there calling the action, interviewing the players and sneaking insights from coaches before and after Games.
With multiple editions of Olympics experience covering the game between the two, it's time to hear what they see in their crystal basketball - and whether you agree with their most clairvoyant takes on Tokyo 2020.
Team USA was all smiles after the Olympic Final against Serbia. Will Tokyo be so golden for them?
With the Olympics kicking off with the Opening Ceremonies in just 4 days, what are you most intrigued by going into the Games?
Igor Curkovic: If we're talking about 4s, I'm intrigued to see if the USA could go and win four straight gold medals for the first time since the 1960s. Argentina won it in 2004, it's been all US since then, despite some of the greatest Spanish, Serbian, Russian or French generations which happened in the meantime. Oh, and two more 4s for me: Pau Gasol and Luis Scola. Both are 41, both probably playing this level of basketball for the last time in their career. It's been a pleasure following them around, for sure.
Jeff Taylor: Balance. I sense this will be the most balanced Olympics since the Athens Games. I hope it will be and I think it will be. In 2004, that "tiny little island" Puerto Rico - as Larry Ayuso proudly called his homeland - beat the USA on opening day. I remember Yao Ming and China taking down Serbia and Montenegro in their last Preliminary Round game to advance to the Quarter-Finals and then an unbeaten Spain lost to a red-hot Stephon Marbury and the USA in the last eight. This tournament, similar to that one, is going to be balanced. And tough. The quality of the play of the four countries that just won FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournaments really make the field in Tokyo stronger than ever.
With a home Olympics, Rui Hachimura looks to be even more in the public eye
Taking about the Opening Ceremonies, Mills, Samad, and Hachimura will lead their countries into Olympic Stadium Tokyo. Do you think having this greatest of honor puts any additional pressure on this trifecta by the time it’s time to play?
Curkovic: Not really. We can probably talk about positive pressure because they got reaffirmation that they are doing alright in their lives and careers. If anything, it feels these three are all going to be extremely confident out there on the floor, because they know they've got the whole nation behind them.
Taylor: The only danger would be if any of the three does not come down from the clouds because I can only imagine what carrying the flag will mean for each. Having this responsibility will make the players more confident and give them an even greater sense of responsibility to be in top form and do their best.
From Nigeria and Australia having knocked off the USA in Las Vegas, to Japan taking down France to Argentina taking several recent losses, we’ve seen some unexpected (to say the least) results in the last two weeks from the preparation games. Is there anything to takeaways from these ‘friendlies?’
Curkovic: Vince Lombardi said it best, "if it doesn't matter who wins or loses, then why do they keep score?" Sure, it doesn't hurt to lose these games - other than in our Power Rankings, of course - but these are professionals of the highest level, they are competitive to the bone. Nobody wants to lose, especially not on a global stage, even if we're talking about exhibition games. All of those unexpected defeats will lead to a higher level of focus once the actual Games begin in Tokyo.
Taylor: Friendlies are supposed to be friendlies, right? They don't matter. Yet they clearly do matter. Again, hearkening back to 2004, remember how Italy defeated the USA, 95-78? The Italian players were ecstatic and it gave them an obvious psychological boost because they went on to have a great Olympics. With the USA losing twice in the Tokyo build-up, to Nigeria and Australia, it's let other teams know that this American group may be extremely talented but they are not invincible. Japan's win over France was precisely what the hosts needed, too, a confidence booster. I worry for France because they showed up in Rio five years ago tired and right now, they do not have a spring in their step.
Spain tasted victory in the last major event - the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019
Spain are the defending FIBA Basketball World Cup champs; the USA are the three-time defending Olympics gold medal winners. In the final pre-Olympic tune-up game for both teams, the Americans overcame a sluggish start to win, 83-76. Is there any reading into the tea leaves from this game?
Curkovic: Yep. Damian Lillard wants that gold.
Taylor: Yes, maybe the promising play of Spain for much of the game was all they needed to reconfirm to themselves that they are still among the best teams. To come from behind and knock off Spain, the No. 2 team in the FIBA World Ranking Presented by Nike, should have been reassuring for the USA, who mentally could not afford another loss in the preparations. So that win was a truer indicator of what the USA should be able to do, although getting all of their players together and on time is proving to be a difficult task.
Pau Gasol has put together one of the greatest international basketball careers, one that he’s still writing today. At 41, what do you see him bringing to the Spanish team in Tokyo?
Curkovic: I watched a lot of his games for FC Barcelona to end the season, and he was more impressive than I thought he would be. Pau is still an offensive genius, he reads the defenses like a point guard, that's why he's still effective even at 41. The other part of the floor will be troubling for him, especially because he's got guys like Luis Scola, Rui Hachimura and Mike Tobey going at him in the Group Stage.
Taylor: More than anything his leadership and words of wisdom. Pau said so himself, that this Olympics is more about "transmitting knowledge, acting as a mentor." I think Argentina need that from Luis Scola as well. Unlike Spain, Argentina need Scola to do everything, with his words and his play, just as he did at the FIBA Basketball World Cup when the team made it to the Final.
Which team do you think could exceed expectations and post a surprise or two?
Curkovic: It's not a real FIBA event until I shout NIGERIA! in a question like this one. So, without further ado: NIGERIA!!!
Taylor: Because I think there is so much balance, I'm not sure anything would surprise me in this tournament. Iran and Japan looked like cannon fodder to me at the time of the draw, but with Japan beating France and also being at home, they may get an inspired effort from Rui Hachimura and pull off a surprise or two (Beware Argentina, Spain and Slovenia).
Who do the other pundits expect to do well in Tokyo that are you think may actually struggle?
Curkovic: It could be a long tournament for Argentina. They have a lot of offensive firepower, but in a group with Luka Doncic, the hosts and Spain, they can't afford to have empty minutes like they had in the exhibition games in Las Vegas. Then again, they were losing friendlies before China 2019, and look how that one ended...
Taylor: Nigeria. Okay, they raised eyebrows with a warmup game victory over the USA. But I picked Nigeria to do well at the World Cup two years ago and they did not. D'Tigers did accomplish something with a 17th place finish. They clinched a spot in the Olympics as the best African team. Having witnessed up close the Achille Polonara, Simone Fontecchio and Nico Mannion show in Belgrade, where Italy won a FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament and having seen the Schroeder-less Germany pull together and prove the doubters wrong by winning their OQT in Split, and knowing that Australia are a gold medal contender - this could be a short event for Nigeria Then again, the third time could be the charm. Remember they played at the London and Rio Olympics, too.
Which player are you most excited to watch at the tournament and why?
Curkovic: Damian Lillard, because I haven't missed a single Portland Trail Blazers game since 2012. And Luka Doncic. Because. That's the explanation, because he's Luka.
Taylor: I am mesmerized by Luka Doncic, his feel for the game and how he raises the play of his teammates. I used to wonder who could possibly be the second coming of Michael Jordan and was left disappointed because there never was another MJ. But with Doncic, it's as if he's fallen from heaven as a gift for all basketball fans. It's his joy for the game, and his all-around skills, be it shooting, passing. I'm not missing any of his games.
Finally, who do you have occupying the steps of the podium?
Curkovic: USA, Australia and Spain. With my track record, that probably means the USA, Australia and Spain are not winning anything in Saitama Super Arena...
Taylor: This is such a difficult question because of the balance in the tournament that I mentioned before, but I'll go with Australia beating Slovenia in the Final and the USA taking bronze.