Ten things you should know about Olympic basketball

Bogut mugging Yao last weekOlympic basketball kicks off this weekend, the men’s tournament Sunday morning, Aug. 10. The USA “Redeem Team” and Michael Redd begin Group B play against Yao Ming, Yi Jianlian and China. Andrew Bogut and his Australia Boomers open against Croatia in Group A.

Here’s the game schedule. Click here for NBC’s broadcast schedule. NBC will have a few of the US games live, including Sunday’s opener, but you know how NBC is, jumping in and out of the action. If it’s not on the toob (NBC or USA Network), it can be viewed live online, a great opportunity for American hoops fans to see for ourselves how the rest of the world is doing. It’s creative loafing time.

Team USA with Kobe and Lebron is a heavy favorite to bring the gold home after finishing 3rd in Athens 2004, no matter how cynical the press row has been. But let’s not get cocky. This is arguably the strongest field in Olympic basketball history. Spain, Greece, Argentina, Russia and Lithuania are expected to be in the medal running. Watch out for Bogut and Australia, and Germany. Croatia’s a sleeper. China, Iran and Angola are the also-rans.

That’s the conventional media wisdom, which might be half right. (Count how many times you hear an announcer apply the “arguably best player in the world not in the NBA” tag to different players.) I haven’t seen most of these teams play yet, so prognostications will have to wait. Instead, let’s examine the weirdness that is international basketball with a trusty ten-point Olympic primer.

1) The time shift will take some getting used to: Beijing is on the other side of the world, 13 hours ahead of Milwaukee. Group play begins at 9AM [I’ve corrected this] each morning in China, seen live in Milwaukee at 8PM and continues through the night until about 11AM the next morning — six men’s or women’s games daily Aug. 9-18. All of the U.S. men’s games, however, are prime time and night cap games in China, which means 7AM and 9:15AM tip-offs here for Team Redeem (can we come up with a better nickname?). Hoops with early ayem coffee instead of beer, plenty of time to get caught up with work in the afternoon.

Here’s NBC’s basketball broadcast schedule again, online games included. Bogut’s first game Sunday 7AM vs. Croatia can be viewed online. USA-China tips off Sunday at 9:15AM, live on NBC.

Dirk will lead Germany2) The Olympic tournament features 12 teams divided into two groups of six, A and B. After a five-game round-robin within the groups, four teams from each advance to the quarter finals Aug. 20, where the stakes are do or die, one game elimination. The team finishing 1st in its group plays the 4th place team from the other group; the 2nd place team plays the 3rd place team from the other group and so on. For example, If Australia and Bogut finish 4th in Group A, the Aussies would likely play Group B U.S. in the quarterfinals and be sent Down Under without a medal — although it would be a good game if the refs let the rough stuff go, which they won’t (see #10). The semifinals are Aug. 22, the medal games cap the Olympics Sunday, Aug. 24.

GROUP A: Argentina (full line-up of NBA experience led by the Suprs All-NBA guard Manu Ginobili, and forwards Luis Scola of the Rockets and the Bulls’ Andres Nocioni), Australia (Bogut), Russia (Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko), Lithuania (no Cavs center Zydrunas Ilgauskas this time), Croatia and Iran.

GROUP B: Spain (Lakers all-star Pau Gasol and brother Marc of the Grizzlies; shooting guard Juan Carlos Navarro, Wizards draftee), Germany (Mavs All-NBAer Dirk Nowitzki, Clippers center Chris Kaman), Greece (a few guys who didn’t stick in the NBA), China (Yao and Yi), Angola and Team USA.

3) No matter how much it appears to be smaller, the international (FIBA) ball is, in fact, the same size as the NBA ball (size 7, 22 inches diameter). It is not, however, the same ball. The NBA ball – “the one ball” – is a Spalding. The international ball can be made by any manufacturer that pays the licensing fees and certifies the rigorously zany process that the offical FIBA ball must undergo, including refrigeration and other laboratory processes, and a goofy paint job.

The Manu Ginobili factor4) The international three-point line looks to be about the same as the college three-point line but is 9.1 inches further out at 20′ 6.1″ (6.25 meters) from the hoop. The NBA arc is three feet-plus further out (23′ 9″ – except at the baseline where the line tapers to 22 feet). There was really no excuse for the U.S. shooting 3-18 behind the arc the other day in its tuneup game against the Aussies — though the reason may be that NBA players don’t shoot as well as players a generation ago. In 2010, FIBA will move its arc back about a foot-and-a-half. Apparently, the rest of the world still thinks the NBA three line is too far away from the hole.

5) The lane, that trapezoidal lane, wider near the hoop. It looks just as weird as it always has, and there’s no good reason for it. What’s the purpose? To keep big men away from the basket and make post play more difficult, of course, and to equalize height advantage. That’s not a good reason. I’ve also suspected the trapezoid was designed “just to be different” from the American game, less squarish and not unlike the goofy paint job on the ball. But not for long. The trapezoids will be peeled off the world’s hardwood in 2010 as FIBA has come to its senses and will paint the standard American lane, which you already know if you hit the link in #3.

Redd from three - 20076) Zone defense is allowed, anything goes, no defensive three seconds for guarding no one. A team can clog the lane all it wants on D, which gets back to the questions in #4 about the trapezoidal weirdness. The zones will impact Team Redeem. NBA players are used to clear-out, one-on-one basketball and post offense against man-to-man D, and generally run two root plays — pick-and-roll and give-and-go. The off-the-ball cuts that free shooters against zones are not ingrained in their offensive styles, and Lebron and Kobe never played a second of college ball where zones are allowed. Neither did center Dwight Howard. If anything is the premium in international ball, it’s zone-beating outside shooting. Many teams (Spain, Argentina, Lithuania, Greece) are stacked with great shooters, while Team USA came to China with one fewer than it probably should have. The Olympics would be a bad time for Michael Redd to start forcing offense and fall into one of his bad streaks, those slumps that for the Milwaukee Bucks have often come at the worst possible times.

7) The court is 2′ 2″ shorter and nearly a foot narrower at an even 28 meters by 15 meters, something that only the great, idiosyncratic shooters of the era, Ray Allen and Reggie Miller, probably ever paid any attention to. The three point line is already much shorter, so trimming five inches left and right along the baseline is negligible for most players. I do foresee Redd finding his heels on the out-of-bounds line a time or two if he’s running the baseline and setting up for corner threes.

Kobe and Lebron resting Tuesday vs. Australia8) Forty minute games just like in college, 5 fouls to foul out. Unlike college, however, there are four periods, with a two-minute break at the end of the first and third quarters (the NBA break is only 90 seconds). Much like the trapezoidal lane, there seems no good reason that this should be different from both the NBA and NCAA, other than being different for the sake of being different. This one, though, heavily favors NBA stars used to playing a grueling 36-40 minutes a game. Imagine the never-tiring Lebron James, Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul.

9) Fewer timeouts. In the NBA, teams get six plus a 20-second timeout. In FIBA ball, it’s one time out per period until the 4th quarter, when teams get two — five altogether plus the longer quarter breaks. No 20-second timeout. This shouldn’t matter, right?  Watch various Redeem Team players try to save possession by calling 20-second timeouts when falling out of bounds or scrambling for the ball. Ahh, it’s the little things in life, good for shits and giggles.

10)  International refs are tehrrr-rrible (that’s Bill Waltonese) a-trohh-shuss even, always a source of frustration worse than college refs and far less respectful of game flow than NBA refs. This, along with the zone D, will cause some trouble for Team Redeem. The refs don’t like tough, physical defense; they don’t do make up calls (one of the most equitably sane things about NBA refs); they don’t let big men play; there are only two of them — not the NBA three; and ref nationalism brings a paranoia factor into the mix (the 1972 travesty vs. the Soviets was only the most blatant refereeing debacle). As much as the Chinese fans love them, much of the rest of basketball world is rooting against the Redeem Team. (Ed. note – FIBA’s decided to go with three refs. Nope, they don’t all have to have a common language.)

In the “friendly” games over the last ten days, the refs made it clear that they’ll be whistle-happy on Australia and its hammerlock defense. Lebron, who plays a similar style under Mike Brown in Cleveland, fouled out of a tuneup game. US center Howard, a Stan Van Gundy player in Orlando, has had a difficult time in general. Carlos Boozer, from the Jerry Sloan school of defense in Utah, has yet to find a role or playing time. In a way it’s a good thing for the U.S. that there are no Celtics, Spurs or 76ers on Team Redeem, and only one Detroit Piston, Tayshaun Prince. Clawing NBA defense is expressly illegal by international refereeing standards. (Mo Williams would love Beijing.)

Also note that many international refs seem to have a man-crush on Argentina’s shooting guard, a phenomenon heretofore known as “the Manu Ginobili factor” (Manoo factor for short).

Links: A comprehensive preview of Team USA from Inside Hoops.  From a Russian basketball junkie, a “general questions about international ball” page at ballineurope.com. Here’s the rules comparison sheet again from USA basketball. 

An official FIBA preview. Dirk Nowitzki (Germany), Manu Ginobili (Argentina), Andrei Kirilenko (Russia), Sarunas Jasikevicius (Lithuania) and Yao Ming for host China were the flagbearers for their countriesin the opening ceremony — a pretty good indication of how important Olympic basketball is around the world. Heavy gravitas for the basketball stars in Beijing.

Draft Express.com has some conventional power rankings that should be read with skepticism. Celtics blogger Green Bandwagon has better insight. Chris Sheridan’s China archive at ESPN is an excellent resource. NBA.com is also on the beat.  I’ll be keeping track of Aussie basketball and Bogut here and here. You won’t have to look hard for the Lauren Jackson photos on those Aussie sites.

Here are those broadcast listings from NBC, one more time.

Let the games begin!

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