Here is a little preview for today's game, mostly covering Finland because I presume Spain is better known among Canishoopus readers. The game airs on ESPN3 starting at 10:45 Central time.
These two teams haven't faced each other since Eurobasket 1995 in Athens, but let's do a quick fact check first: In the most recent FIBA world ranking, Spain lies comfortably at number two. Finland is at 48. But then again, Greece (4), Russia (6) and Turkey (7) have all lost to Finland already in the tournament. Ok, Russia had its problems, but they should still have won based on the player material only. When Spain lost to Greece and Croatia destroyed Finland, this game became a must win for both teams. Spain has obviously all the pressure, as the Finns will get a warm welcome back home even if they lose both remaining games.
In this tournament, Spain tops the list of least points allowed, while Finland is third. The stat for opponent FG percentage is the same. So both teams play very good defense. Spain focuses more on defensive rebounds (1st, Finland 5th) but Finland has more offensive boards (7th, Spain 15th).
What about offense then? The most striking statistical difference is that Finland leads all teams in attempted free throws, while Spain is at 20. Finland will have to avoid getting into three-point shooting contest with Spain and continue to attack the basket. But this time there is Marc Gasol blocking the way. Finland excels at transition offense, so expect to see a quick three whenever the defense is late to get back.
Finland's aggressive team defense has frustrated most opponents so far. Croatia scouted Finnish defense brilliantly and had no trouble against it. Finland has done well against shoot-first point guards thanks to excellent weak side help and the "Brick Wall Defense" of veteran Antti Nikkilä. Just take a look what happened to Greece's Vassilis Spanoulis.
Passing big men are difficult to handle for Finland, and Spain happens to have one. If Ricky and Marc stay patient, they will find someone with an open three in the corner. Rudy will get his points one way or another, but that is not the biggest concern for the Finns.
Ricky Rubio vs. Petteri Koponen
The two primary ball handlers are very similar athletically. Koponen looks for his own shot first, penetrates aggressively and is very good at both dishing it out and shooting off the dribble. He has always stated being a huge fan of Steve Nash, and it shows.
I have always wanted these two to play each other to see who comes up on top. Ricky is obviously more flashy, a better ball handler and a better pure point guard overall. Koponen is an offensive machine if/when he gets going: He dropped 29 points against Greece , but only five against Croatia.
Marc Gasol vs. ...umm... well, nobody
Gasol could probably take on both Finnish big men at once. Reserve Antti Nikkilä is Finland's only true center, but PF Gerald Jee Jr. starts at that position. He has some nice post moves, but finishing at the rim isn't very effective, and he tends to jump away from the basket and not towards it. He played the SF position while growing up, but somehow lost his once very good shooting touch while playing for the Old Dominion Monarchs and rarely takes jump shots any more. Nikkilä lacks all offensive skill, apart from a fantastic sky hook.
Unfortunately, Team Finland is not Miami Heat, so they really suffer from the lack of size at the center position. But Nikkilä and Lee Jr. do set very good and hard ball screens which earn them at least one offensive foul per game. The Finns could really use Hanno Möttölä at PF, but he is out with a knee injury.
Other noteworthy Finnish players include Kimmo Muurinen, an eerily Kirilenko-ish slasher who gets a lot of offensive rebounds. If only he were built like Kevin Love...
Tuukka Kotti, PF: Finland's No. 1 power forward option plays very physically and gets to a foul line a lot. Good mid-range shot and quickness, but a little undersized. Hard touch around the rim.
Shawn Huff, SG/SF: Chase Budinger. Nothing to add here.
Sasu Salin, SG: The most fun-to-watch player. Always going after the loose ball, drawing offensive fouls, sometimes even flopping a little bit:) Green light is always on for him, doesn't know what pressure is. Salin will probably defend Rudy, as he is the peskiest perimeter defender in the team.
If Finland can keep out of foul trouble and knock down open shots, they have a chance. Making Spain settle for long jumpers and keeping Marc Gasol off the ball is the key, but Slovenia is the only team so far who has succeeded reasonably well in that. The most likely outcome is that Ricky and Rudy draw fouls with dribble penetration, get the ball to Marc for an easy dunk, or kick it out for a triple, and Spain destroy Finland with outside shooting.
Here's a interesting tip: watch coach Henrik Dettmann during time-outs. He never raises his voice, and often lets the point guard have the board and explain the next play. I really like his Phil Jackson-like approach which carried Germany to third place in 2002 FIBA World Championships with one Dirk Nowitzki.