Rio Semis: Team USA Faces Biggest Challenge Yet

United States basketball enthusiasts took a collective deep breath after Team USA’s convincing win over Argentina in Wednesday’s quarterfinals. But the sense of relief was short-lived. Spain awaits, today at 1:30 pm (Central), a foe that suddenly looks tough as ever. Team USA is undefeated in the Rio Olympics but three straight close calls against Serbia, France and Australia brought about chatter that the Americans are beatable. We were seemingly in desperate need of stars like LeBron James, Steph Curry, James Harden, Anthony Davis, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook. A better defensive showing and standout scoring performances from Kevin Durant and Paul George quieted those concerns somewhat.

But Argentina is an aging team that lacked the depth to really pose a threat to Team USA. Spain might be different. Fresh off a 92-67 thrashing of France, Spain’s 0-2 Group stage start is a distant memory. The Spaniards lost by seven to Team USA in the 2012 Gold Medal game and much of that team is still here for the rematch this afternoon. Two notable exceptions are Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, leaving Spain measurably weaker in terms of post defense. The United States needs to be able to exploit that weakness. Centers DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan have had uneven performances in Rio, Cousins limited by foul trouble and weak pick-and-roll defense and Jordan by his one-dimensional attack down low. One of the two needs to show out today for the Americans. Cousins in particular should be able to get his against Pau Gasol and Willy Hernangomez.

Coach K’s team fixed many  of its defensive issues against Argentina, after allowing a 120 defensive rating in their three previous games. Nikola Mirotic has been red-hot, especially from three. Team USA needs to throw a relentless combination of George, Durant and Draymond Green at him. That is, if Green even gets meaningful playing time for once, one of the big head scratchers of these Olympics. We can expect Ricky Rubio to be glued to Kyrie Irving and Kyle Lowry, so the USA’s wing scorers will be key to the team’s scoring. Klay Thompson followed up his 30-point outburst against France with just four points in the Argentina game. He needs to be better today. Thompson, George and Jimmy Butler have an opportunity to go off, as Spain keys in on Durant and doubles in the post.

Much of the concern facing the USA in this game stems from Spain’s demolition of France. It’s important, however, to remember that France is not Team USA. Nicolas Batum no-showed, Tony Parker is on his last legs and Evan Fournier was left off the French roster. The Americans should absolutely win today’s game, if they simply play to their strengths and with the tenacity they showed against Argentina. Oh, and Coach K needs to continue to rely on his transcendent star (Durant), versatile wings (Butler, Thompson, George) and maybe give Draymond a chance.

Prediction: USA 96, Spain 82

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