LONDON – Russian men’s basketball stars have not taken an Olympic medal since beating the United States on the way to 1988 gold, but they are in a good position to end that drought after earning a playoff top seeding.
Vitaliy Fridzon scored 24 points and Russia rallied from an 18-point deficit to edge Spain 77-74 on Saturday in a battle of unbeatens to clinch Group B and all-but ensure they cannot face the US NBA stars until the final.
“I would love to play for the gold medal. I would love to play against the United States,” Russian NBA big man Andrei Kirilenko said.
US teams downed the Soviet Union in four Olympic finals in a row ending in 1964 but the Soviets beat the Americans in a controversial 1972 final, silver US medals unclaimed to this day, and in a 1988 semi-final on their way to gold.
The latter result sparked the creation of the 1992 US NBA Dream Team and the dynasty that has followed — while the Soviet Union breakup led to a Russian hoops hibernation.
Now the US multi-millionaires and the Russians are the only unbeaten teams in the Olympics.
“I know for long time Russia was beaten in final by USA in Olympics. I would like to play against them,” said Timofey Mozgov, who had 12 points and nine rebounds.
Fridzon sees the Sovet days as ancient history in the same way US Olympians have tried to escape the shadow of the original Dream Team.
“We had USSR back in the day. We don’t have all those players for Russia now,” Fridzon said. “We have our idols but now it’s about today and our players. I’m not thinking about the future. I think about my next game.”
Reigning European champion Spain, also assured a quarter-final berth, can only think about the future after blowing a 20-2 lead.
“It’s a pity we played so well in the first quarter and so poorly after that,” said Spain captain Juan Carlos Navarro, back from a left foot injury. “We have to look to the future. This is not over. The team has to regroup.”
Spain lost the lead in the third quarter, began the fourth quarter with a 16-4 run to seize a 69-60 lead, then surrendered a game-ending 17-4 run.
Los Angeles Lakers centre Pau Gasol scored 20 points but moved out of position to allow Mozgov a go-ahead dunk with 18 seconds remaining, then missed a free throw with 5.3 seconds to play.
Fridzon added two final free throws and Russia’s tournament-best defence never allowed Spain a final shot.
“Fridzon did an outstanding job. Fridzon started making shots and gave us that spark,” Kirilenko said. “We were completely frustrated the first eight minutes. We had a terrible start.”
Russian coach David Blatt, an American, said his team benefitted from having to qualify in a last-chance tournament last month in Venezuela and from having a core of players that has been working under his system for seven years.
“This team has been together a long time,” he said. “We’re a game-ready team.”
Gasol dominated Russia’s tournament-best defence in the early minutes as Spain opened the game with a 20-2 run over the first 5:30.
The Spaniards opened 8-of-10 from the field while the Russians missed 10 of their first 11 shots.
“I was looking to get the hell out of Dodge. They were killing us,” Blatt said. “We had to stay on our feet, take the blows, clear the cobwebs and work for our chances.”