Sunday, September 18, 2011
Ibaka swats, Spain celebrates
By Mark Woods
Special to ESPN.com
KAUNAS, Lithuania -- As birthday presents go, a shiny gold souvenir was more than Serge Ibaka could possibly have wished for. In life, however, it is better to give than to receive. In the biggest game of his young career, Spain's imposing presence silenced France's party crashers by dishing out five blocks in as many minutes during a second-quarter spell of the EuroBasket final that ultimately proved so decisive.
On the day he turned 22, the young man from The Congo became one of 12 heroes of his adopted homeland with one gift after another. The French cowered and were intimidated into giving up nine consecutive points as the momentum shifted before they could catch their collective breath.
"I don't remember it," Ibaka admitted. But he would savor standing on top of the podium. "This was my dream," he added. "I feel like I'm in a movie."
Which one though? Perhaps "The Magnificent Seven." The Oklahoma City Thunder forward was one of a septet of Spain's players who loomed large in the 98-85 victory that secured a repeat of their success of 2009 in Poland.
The French, through Joakim Noah, tried early to contain Pau Gasol, who had only two of his 17 points in the first quarter. Brother Marc assumed the load. In the second, Jose Calderon became the focus. In the third, Pau took his turn. By then, Les Bleus were bewildered and had no more dice to roll. Add in Rudy Fernandez and Sergio Llull, plus the incomparable Juan Carlos Navarro, and the odds were stacked against an upset.
"Everybody can score 10 a game," Ibaka declared. "So I said to myself: 'Tonight I will try to do something different, something nobody else can do, play defense and bring some energy for the team.' And I did that."
It was not that France, seeking to win a major championship for the first time, was vastly inferior. Merely that, Tony Parker apart, they just could not match the depth of a Spanish squad that has been on this stage, summer after summer, time and time again. Even when Fernandez threatened to remove the head of the San Antonio Spurs guard with a brutal intentional foul, it merely underlined an intent to do whatever was required.
Spain's strength is that it feels more a club team, familiar and comfortable with one another, than an international All-Star roster drawn from disparate sources. When they come together in training camp, the need to sacrifice is implicit. It has been the secret of their formula for the past decade. No egos, no names, just shared goals.
And, emphasized Marc Gasol: "We have so much talent that you can't focus on one player. If you focus on Navarro, Pau will score inside. If you stop the pick-and-roll, we'll do something else. We share the ball. There is no established player here. Everybody wants to win."
If the failure to defend their world championship in Turkey last year hinted at a fallibility, it seemed to make Spain more determined to prove here that it was no spent force. A veteran group, they have more ambitions in sight. Next year's Olympic Games in London. EuroBasket 2013 in Slovenia. And then a world championships, a year later, on home soil that might prove to be the end of the line for many of this current generation.
"We still have big tournaments to play," Pau Gasol said. "We know London will be a tough tournament to win. We have high expectations. The USA will be very hard to beat. But we'll go to London and compete."
So, too, will France but as European silver medalists rather than champions. It is no huge disgrace. They can, and will, learn from this tournament, and a group that -- beyond Parker -- lacked real experience of these occasions can now seek ways to close the gap with their rivals from across the Pyrenees.
"They were all simply exceptional," said Washington Wizards forward Kevin Seraphin, who confirmed after the final that he has agreed to a contract to play in Spain with Caja Laboral Vitoria during the NBA lockout.
"We were well beaten but I'm convinced that we've made progress. At the end of the game, Tony [Parker] told us that this wasn't over. We have revenge to take. We've missed out again, but we can show up and be ready at the Olympics and at the Euros in 2013."
The gauntlet has been thrown down. Spain will gladly accept France's challenge, and that of the USA, Brazil, Australia or any of the other teams that will stand in its way come July when the Olympics begin.
And they can count on EuroBasket's MVP to produce more of the magic he displayed at critical moments as this tournament accelerated toward its end.
While Juan Carlos Navarro granted the NBA only a season-long cameo with Memphis in 2007-08, he continues to underline that he belongs on the grandest stages. His 27 points in the final followed clutch performances in the quarterfinals and semifinals here. It was little shock that the FC Barcelona guard was afforded an ovation of his own by a Lithuanian crowd whose passion has contributed so much to this spectacle.
When it mattered most, "La Bomba" was simply explosive.
"Juan Carlos has had a great tournament," Pau Gasol said. "Obviously, the last two games have been outstanding. He produced his best, which he's done consistently, but obviously the last two games are the most important of the championship.
"I've been playing with him since I was 16 years old. We've grown together. I'm really proud of him, who he is and what he does. I really admire what he does. He doesn't have the greatest body in basketball. He's not very gifted athletically. But he just makes the most of his talent and he has real heart."
He is not alone. Through its ranks, Spain possesses qualities that can only be admired. That's why it is the champions of EuroBasket 2011. And it is why, on Ibaka's birthday, he and his teammates deserved a celebration that would go long into the Kaunas night.
Mark Woods is a freelance writer based in Edinburgh, U.K., whose work appears regularly in British publications.