France, Spain clash in EuroBasket final
Previewing, predicting the gold-medal game between two international heavyweights
KAUNAS, Lithuania -- Fresh off an arduous NBA season that did not end as expected for the Los Angeles Lakers, Pau Gasol could easily have done what he did last summer and take a pass on national duty with the Spanish team.
Without him at the FIBA world championships in Turkey, there was to be no title to defend. But a quarterfinal exit there sat uneasily with Gasol, who views many of his teammates as cherished friends, having come through the country's junior system into a golden age for Spain, now the dominant force in European basketball and a perennial challenger to the USA on the world stage.
"I have a very unique feeling when I'm playing for Spain," Gasol said. "We have such a great team always and I think you have to always take advantages of such opportunities. I'm sad when I see my teammates out there without me."
Which is why, when the call came asking whether he would be available for a shot at a repeat EuroBasket crown in Lithuania, he didn't hesitate.
"You don't want to burn yourself out and you do get to a point in your career when you only have so many games left," Gasol said. "But I like to play and I'll continue to play as long as [I] can."
What might not feel like good news for new Lakers coach Mike Brown has been a gift for Sergio Scariolo, as Los Rojos (9-1), a blip against Turkey apart, have rolled through this tournament. In the championship game, the elder Gasol, along with longtime running mates Juan Carlos Navarro and Felipe Reyes, will collect the seventh international medal of their careers. Victory over France (9-1) in Sunday's final (2 p.m. ET, ESPN3) would ensure that, as in 2009, it is colored gold.
Recent history confirms Scariolo's disciplined, diligent team as the favorite. Last Saturday, with France resting Tony Parker and Joakim Noah for a game that impacted little more than seedings, Spain held its rivals to just 10 third-quarter points on its way to a 96-69 rout.
Les Bleus, unbeaten to that point, shrugged off the second-round defeat as if it were a mere exhibition, as their defeat to their neighbors was in the buildup to this tournament. "It's hard to beat a team three times in a row," French forward Mickael Gelabale said with a smile.
Both countries have already secured their spots at next year's Olympic Games, but that's a secondary goal here. There is a hunger, Scariolo said, that looms large within the Spanish camp. Of the 12-man roster that defeated Serbia in the 2009 final in Poland, eight remain; Raptors guard Jose Calderon, who was injured then, was one of the replacements.
But this is not, Scariolo underlined, a group gearing up for its last hurrah.
"We have gone step by step," he said. "We lost some veterans this year in Jorge Garbajosa and Alex Mumbru, who made history with this team. We have a few more ready to step in and we have a couple within this roster who are ready to step up, and acquire a bigger role, when we need them.
"Fernando San Emeterio basically didn't play last year, but this year, he's taken on more importance. We're doing that step by step. We're running a sustainable generation change. It's not drastic. You don't do five in and five out."
With such short training camps and rapid seasons, continuity is a priceless commodity. France has just six holdovers from two summers ago, when it finished fifth, and only seven from the world championships, when it came in a lowly 13th.
Coach Vincent Collet has effectively built a new roster, centered around Parker but maximizing the presence of newcomer Noah. Blazers forward Nicolas Batum has been a revelation while the unheralded duo of Ali Traore and Nando de Colo have caused seismic shifts at key times. Creating balance and unity, Collet said, has taken up much of his energy.
"In France, we have a lot of talent," he said. "But it's the chemistry between the NBA talents and the European league players that is huge. The main thing is that they all know how to contribute. They stay within their abilities and don't try to do more. As long as we keep this chemistry, we'll be OK."
It is an intangible quality in a final fitting for one of the best EuroBaskets in recent memory. Surviving to the very end justifies the sacrifices made by Gasol, Parker and the other 20 players who will line up in Kaunas and hope for a triumphant exit.
Spain has done this time and again. France wants to break its curse. Success, each knows, never gets old.
Prediction: France will depend on the ability of Noah to keep Pau Gasol and his brother, Marc, in check at the offensive end. But Spain's chemistry and depth should see it repeat as king of Europe.
The voting for EuroBasket's All-Tournament Team and Most Valuable Player closes at the end of the title game.
Helpfully, or not, FIBA Europe has published a primary list of 12 players for consideration (media, who decide the squad, are allowed to choose others if they wish) but here's my five:
G: Tony Parker, France: 21.7 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 4.3 apg
G: Bo McCalebb, Macedonia: 21.3 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 3.8 apg
F: Pero Antic, Macedonia: 11.5 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 2.0 apg
F: Marc Gasol, Spain: 13.5 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 2.0 apg
C: Pau Gasol, Spain: 20.4 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 1.4 apg
MVP: Pau Gasol. But a hat tip to McCalebb who has been superb for Macedonia.
Mark Woods is a freelance writer based in Edinburgh, U.K., whose work appears regularly in British publications.