MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina -- Some day, basketball purists everywhere will cherish their copies of games Argentina’s Golden Generation played in their magical, productive decade. In the 2011 FIBAAmericas Olympic qualifying tournament, they have had their moments, especially in the first half against rival Uruguay, where an offensive basketball clinic became a recital.
On the other hand, Puerto Rico is trying to transition to a more versatile, structured offense without losing its NBA-influenced reliance on individual talents. On Friday night, in front of a packed house at Polideportivo Stadium in Mar del Plata, these two unbeaten Group B rivals met with much to prove to themselves and to each other.
Puerto Rico’s head coach Flor Meléndez, an island native who is beloved in Argentina because he coached their national team for a couple of years in the 1990s, insists on Carlos Arroyo and J.J. Barea as his starting backcourt. “I want my best players on the court as much as I can," Meléndez said. "It worked for the Dallas Mavericks when J.J. played alongside Jason Kidd."
Argentina head coach Julio Lamas responded with an unorthodox starting lineup of his own. Without a true center, Luis Scola took over in that spot, with Manu Ginóbili and Carlos Delfino in the starting lineup. Argentina’s point guard Pablo Prigioni was quickly abused at the outset by Arroyo, who finished the first half with 14 points and consistently found center Danny Santiago inside. Scola had a weak start (he did not even attempt the opening tip -- Andrés Nocioni tried his hand at that).
For the third game in a row, Argentina started slow, especially Scola who finished the first half missing three of four from the field and uncharacteristically missing four of six free throw attempts.
Puerto Rico’s defense was solid, denying the Prigioni-Scola high screen-and-roll and clogging up the middle to stop the Argentine’s backdoor cuts. The Boricuas played with great poise and tenacious defense, finishing the first half with a two-point lead, and holding the hosts to 35 percent shooting. Barea struggled offensively in the first half, but the islanders could live with that as long as Arroyo’s shot was true. Keeping Argentina in the half were seven points scored off 11 Puerto Rican turnovers, many unforced.
At halftime, Lamas, whose basketball brain has been picked by Gregg Popovich and other NBA coaches, decided on a few defensive adjustments. Argentina would switch on all screens, without exception, to avoid dribble penetration. Arroyo would be blitzed on every high screen to make him bounce out of what looked like a double team. And Ginóbili assumed the tough task of harassing Barea everywhere he went on offense. Once a player picked up his dribble, the others were overplayed, with no chance of backdoor cuts.
Puerto Rico began to have trouble merely inbounding and passing the ball. The pressure was intense, with Delfino harassing Arroyo. Two-and-a-half minutes into the second half, the dam burst: Argentina’s defense was so athletic, intense and suffocating, including three blocks and three steals, that over the next four minutes of play, Argentina fed off Puerto Rico’s overdribbling, bad shots and turnovers to build a 16-0 run that decided the game.
“We took advantage of Barea’s bad night and we pressured Arroyo during the entire game," Ginóbili said. "We made them very uncomfortable. And the rest of the team cannot carry the load."
It was Ginóbili who led this stretch of defensive suffocation with his dogged play on Barea, who, already frustrated by his offensive struggles (he has yet to score a 3-pointer in 10 tries in the tournament), reverted to the old Caribbean style of dribbling your way into a tough shot that Meléndez badly wants his team to leave behind.
For Puerto Rico, that poised and smart play in the first half will be something to build on. The islanders were playing their fourth game in four nights while the Argentines rested the day before. Perhaps Argentina paid Puerto Rico the highest compliment by first including it in its own group, so they would not have to face them in the second round, by deciding to give Puerto Rico by far the toughest schedule of any of the 10 teams in the tournament, and by having their starters play no less that almost 28 minutes each in a 40-minute game.
If we are lucky, we will see these two teams go at it again before the end of the tournament. For now, Argentina’s lions in winter (the team with the highest average age in the tournament) showed they can defend, at least for a stretch, as the distinction they have earned -- one of the best teams in international basketball history.