25 July, 2021
07 August
79 Ricky Rubio (ESP)
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USA and Spain renew Olympic rivalry and other captivating Quarter-Finals

TOKYO (Japan) - When the Quarter-Finals for the Men's Olympic Basketball Tournament start on Tuesday, one showdown more than any other catches the eye.

It's the battle between the three-time defending Olympic champions USA the winners of the last FIBA Basketball World Cup, Spain.

It also happens to be a clash between the No. 1 team in the FIBA World Ranking Presented by Nike, the USA, and the No. 2 team, Spain.

For anyone that has followed international basketball the past two decades, the game also represents the fifth consecutive Olympic Games that the two sides are meeting in.

The USA have won all of the games between the countries at the Olympics, and not just dating back to 2004, when Stephon Marbury's USA Olympic record 31 points and record six made three-pointers led the Americans to a surprise 102-94 victory. Yes, that was a surprise because Spain had won all five of their games in the Preliminary Round and the USA had finished 3-2 after defeats to Puerto Rico and Lithuania.

You have to go back 85 years to the first Olympic basketball tournament in Berlin, Germany, to find the starting point of the USA's dominance of Spain at the Summer Games.

The teams were supposed to meet in their first game of the 1936 Berlin Olympics yet Spain, because of the Spanish Civil War, didn't arrive. The USA were awarded a 2-0 win by forfeit.

The Americans also won their meetings at the 1968 Mexico Games (81-46), the 1972 Munich Olympics (72-56), 1984 Los Angeles Games (101-68 and in the Final, 96-65), the 1988 Seoul Olympics (97-53) and the 1992 Barcelona Games (122-81).

But it's the last four meetings at the Olympics that stick in the craw for Spain because at each one, they had great teams and legitimate chances to win. At those Olympics, Spain had many of their players that won the 2006 World Cup in Japan, and FIBA EuroBaskets in 2009, 2011 and 2015.

Spain have won many big games over the years with spots on the podium at stake, except against the USA, although in 2008 and 2012, especially, and also 2016, they gave the Americans a run for their money.

At the Beijing Games in 2008, Spain lost their Preliminary Round meeting to the USA, which had LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, 119-82.

Kobe Bryant doing his thing under the eyes of a young Ricky Rubio

Spain thumped their next three opponents - Angola in the Preliminary Round, Croatia in the Quarter-Finals and Lithuania in the Semi-Finals, and gave a very different picture of themselves against the Americans in the title game.

In a riveting clash that included a teenaged point guard Ricky Rubio, and the bulk of the Spain side that had won the World Cup in Japan two years before, the USA won 118-107. The contest was much closer than the final score indicated, with the Americans not taking control for good until a few minutes remained.

A Pau Gasol basket cut the USA advantage to 104-99 when Kobe Bryant answered with a 3-pointer while being fouled by Rudy Fernandez. Bryant made the free throw for a four-point play.

By defeating Spain, the USA, who had lost in the Quarter-Finals of the World Cup in 2002, claimed bronze at the Athens Olympics two years later and then finished third at the World Cup in Japan, reached the top of the podium once again.

At the 2012 Olympics in  London, following the Americans' title-winning rampage at the 2010 World Cup in Turkey, Spain and the USA met in another thrilling Gold Medal Game.

This time, in a clash that had 16 lead changes and six tied scores, 2010 World Cup MVP Kevin Durant had 30 points and the USA held on for a 107-100 win triumph.

At the Rio 2016 Olympics, the teams met in the Semi-Finals. The USA led from start to finish and prevailed, 82-76, though Spain launched a furious comeback attempt that came up short at the end.

Spain put that disappointment behind them by capturing the bronze medal, and then winning the World Cup in China two years ago to cement their status as the best team in international basketball other than the USA.

Spain rises to the top of the world by beating Argentina by 20 points

Now with long-time national team stars Pau Gasol and Rudy Fernandez playing in their fifth and probably last Olympics, Spain have another chance to end their hoodoo against the USA, which they must do if they are to have a chance of winning the gold medal for the first time at the Olympics.

Neither Spain nor the USA have played like the title favorites at the Tokyo Olympics. France, who defeated the USA in the Quarter-Finals of the World Cup in China, defeated them again in the first game for both teams at the Tokyo Games.

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The USA rebounded with convincing victories over Iran and the Czech Republic.

Spain started the Olympics with a triumph over Japan and followed that with a win over Argentina. They next had a red-hot Slovenia on the ropes before falling to them on Sunday, 95-87.

The winner of USA v Spain will advance to the last four to take on the victors of the Quarter-Final contested between Australia and Argentina.

The last time these two countries met at the Olympics was in the Preliminary Round of 2008, and Argentina, who were the Gold Medal winners four years before in Athens, prevailed 85-68.

A young Scola of the time brings his team to the third place of the podium

Luis Scola, a member of Argentina's golden generation who played in the 2008 game and had 17 points, is the only holdover from that side while Australia's Joe Ingles and Pat Mills were on the Boomers team. That was their second game as Olympians.

The two countries nearly met in the Final at the World Cup in China but Australia fell to Spain after two overtimes in their semi, and the Spaniards instead advanced before beating Argentina in the championship game.

At the Tokyo Olympics, Argentina followed up a heavy defeat to Slovenia with another against Spain but beat Japan on Sunday and advanced to the Quarter-Finals as one of the two best third-placed teams.  Meanwhile, Australia knocked off Nigeria, Italy and Germany.

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Australia have never finished in the top three of the Olympics, or the FIBA Basketball World Cup. They were fourth in both Rio and in China two years ago.

Both Argentina coach Sergio Hernandez, and Australia coach Brian Goorjian, were also at the helm of the teams when they met in Beijing.

On the other side of the bracket are intriguing and extremely competitive QuarterFinals pitting Italy against France and Slovenia against Germany.

France lost three warmup games before the Olympics - two against Spain and one versus Japan - but got on track on the opening day of the Games against the United States.

Fournier shocks the USA by scoring 28 points on his own

A veteran side led by Evan Fournier, Rudy Gobert, Nando de Colo and Nic Batum won 83-76 over the USA and followed that up with convincing wins over the Czech Republic and Iran.

Italy, winners of the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament (OQT) in Belgrade, have made the most of their first appearance at the Summer Games since Athens in 2004, when they finished runners-up.

Basketball historians will remember that that Italian team made it to the 2004 Olympics ahead of France when they won their heart-stopping Third-Place Game at FIBA EuroBasket 2003, 69-67.

Italy began their current Olympic campaign with a 92-82 win over Germany and then bounced back from an 86-83 defeat to Australia with an 80-71 victory over Nigeria.

There is much to like about this Meo Sacchetti-coached Italian team. First, Sacchetti comes with the experience of having won the silver medal as a player at the Moscow 1980 Games.

Italy's Simone Fontecchio, Achille Polonara, Stefano Tonut and Nico Mannion have been sensational with the tough-as-nails veteran Nicolo Melli, point guard Alessandro Pajola and power forward Danilo Gallinari also providing good, hard minutes.

The team that survives this encounter will go up against the hottest team in international hoops, Slovenia, or Germany, two sides that had to win OQTs to reach Tokyo.

Everyone expected Slovenia to be a force at the OQT in Kaunas because of the return of Luka Doncic, and they have been. If anything, they have been better than anticipated.

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Doncic, a teenager and leading player in the Slovenia team that won the EuroBasket four years ago in Istanbul, Turkey, has been the best player at the Olympics, averaging 28.3 points, 10.7 rebounds and seven assists. Even more impressive is how Doncic's teammates have fed off his presence.

Mike Tobey and Vlatko Cancar, for example, were scintillating in Sunday's narrow win over Spain. The former poured in 16 points and corralled 14 rebounds and had a game-high +26 efficiency, while Cancar drilled four of seven shots behind the arc and led Slovenia in scoring with 22 points.

Germany might just be the biggest surprise of all at the Olympics. For starters, no one expected them to win the OQT in Split, but they defeated hosts Croatia and then Brazil, in the Final, to reach Tokyo.

In Japan, they have played hard and well, and despite suffering narrow defeats to Italy and Australia, defeated Nigeria and progressed as one of the two best third-placed teams. Germany have a balanced scoring attack led by Maodo Lo's 14.3 points per game, Andreas Obst's (13.7) and Moritz Wagner's (11.7).

Mortiz Wagner will give his all against Doncic's Slovenia

But Johannes Voigtmann (9.7) Danilo Barthel (8.3), Johannes Thiemann (8.0), Isaac Bonga (7.7), Niels Giffey (6.3) and Joshiko Saibou (5.3) demonstrate how Germany truly are a balanced team with all players contributing not just in scoring but in other areas.

As good as Germany are, it's going to take something special to slow down a Slovenia team that is averaging an Olympic best 109.7 points per game. Only the USA (105.0) are in striking distance of Slovenia when it comes to scoring average.