Thursday, September 15, 2011
Defending champs face Euro upstart
By Mark Woods Special to ESPN.com
With Macedonia next, Jose Calderon and the Brothers Gasol hope to reach the EuroBasket finals again.
KAUNAS, Lithuania -- Four teams are left standing at EuroBasket 2011. Two will head into Sunday's final and, as an additional reward, receive their golden tickets into next summer's Olympic Games in London. The losers of the semifinals will face off for the bronze medal but also can make travel plans -- once the host venue is confirmed -- for the pre-Olympic qualification tournament.
However, having come this far, everyone is intent on leaving Lithuania with the trophy and the title of European champion in their luggage. Which will make Friday's two games both compelling and frenetic.
Spain (8-1) vs. Macedonia (7-2)
"We are happy to get the classification for the pre-Olympic," Dallas Mavericks newcomer Rudy Fernandez said. For the defending champions, used to success, there is more at stake. "We came here to achieve a gold medal," he added. "And that's what we are aiming for."
Aside from a blip against Turkey and an uncharacteristically poor first quarter last time out against Slovenia, Spain has looked like an irresistible force with Marc Gasol almost as big a factor as his elder brother Pau.
The good news for coach Sergio Scariolo is that Jose Calderon has responded well to treatment on an ankle injury sustained in the quarterfinals. The bad news is that Macedonia is coming in with a huge amount of self-belief after knocking off Lithuania to get into this stage.
"In terms of team unity and spirit, we are the best team in the tournament," said imposing forward Pero Antic. "People back home will be celebrating on the squares and on the streets. This is for them."
The unexpected member of the last four, the Macedonians will not be underestimated by Spain, especially with the consistency of the scoring punch of American-born guard Bo McCalebb and the perimeter threat of Vojdan Stojanovski.
However, the Spanish like their own strengths and will lean on them to avoid an upset.
"We just try to go to the court, enjoy basketball, but we are a family off the court," reserve guard Fernando San Emeterio said. "This is a key for this team. But we've done nothing here yet."
France (8-1) vs. Russia (9-0)
Does France coach Vincent Collet now regret tanking in his team's loss to Spain in the second round? He insists not, but there was a lack of momentum for long spells in Les Bleus' quarterfinal win over Greece, in which they required a late acceleration to advance.
Back to full strength with the return of former Seattle SuperSonics forward Mickael Gelabale, there is no disputing the talent and drive they possess. But there is still a nagging suspicion they could be vulnerable, especially when confronted with the tournament's meanest defense.
Bring it on, says Charlotte Bobcats forward Boris Diaw.
"This is exactly where we wanted to be," Diaw said. "We've already qualified for the Olympic qualification tournament. That was one of our objectives, so we're really happy about that."
Four years ago, Russia -- en route to the championship -- ousted the French in the quarterfinals by simply holding its nerve better than its rivals. Having watched the problems Greece caused Thursday, Russia will try to apply as much early pressure as possible. But, coach David Blatt admitted, it will be hard to contain the French completely, especially with Tony Parker seemingly on a personal mission and Nicolas Batum and Joakim Noah standing tall.
"They are athletic in every position," he said. "They have two elements you look for: a great point guard and two players in the middle who can play with their back to the basket.
"They have very good defenders as well. I don't know how much more than this you need. It's going to be a very difficult game, just like any other game in this level of European basketball. But we'll be ready and we'll do fine."
France does not want to miss out on the final in what might be the last EuroBasket appearance for its greatest generation. The Olympics might beckon, but it will be harder to win gold there than here, a fact that is driving Parker.
"Tony has done everything in basketball except winning with the French," Collet said. "That's his goal. He's won an NBA championship, but I think if he had to choose, he'd love to get this. But it's not just him: Batum, Noah, [Ronny] Turiaf, all the NBA players."
Time for them to produce to the max.
Prediction: FranceMark Woods is a freelance writer based in Edinburgh, U.K., whose work appears regularly in British publications.