Monday, September 21, 2009
EuroBasket 2009: Spain Wins, France Fifth And Everyone Goes To Turkey
Spain's fall from international basketball grace lasted for all of four games before they woke up, remembered who they were and proceeded to beat the pantalones off every team that was unfortunate enough to line up opposite the Iberians in the knockout round of EuroBasket 2009. After starting the tournament 2-2, Spain rolled through their last five opponents, winning their first EuroBasket gold medal after defeating Serbia, a team that had beaten Spain in the first game of group play, 85-63 in Katowice, Poland Sunday night.
As for France, they beat Turkey and Croatia in their last two games to finish fifth, assuring themselves a spot in the 2010 World Championships in Turkey. It had to have been a letdown for Les Bleus to miss a shot at a medal after starting the tournament 6-0, but at least they staked claim as one of the up-and-coming team in European basketball.
Spain Still Reigns
First, a mini-recap of the gold medal game between Spain and Serbia. Spain leads by 10 after the first quarter, then by 23 at the half. Spain shot 59 percent from 2-point range, 30 percent from 3. Out-rebounded Serbia 42-24 (Spain had as many defensive rebounds as Serbia had total). That's about it. The sloppy, poor free throw-shooting, Pau readjusting to, Rudy-less team the Serbia's beat on the first day of the tournament were replaced by the Spanish team we're used to seeing, a team that moves the ball, helps on defense, controls the paint and generally dominates all but the very best teams in the world (cough, USA, cough).
Now onto our guys. Rudy Fernandez, simply put, was terrific throughout EuroBasket, and his performance in the final was no exception. The blowout nature of the gold medal game allowed Rudy to play just 27 minutes, though it was enough time to score 13 points, grab 5 boards and dish 3 assists. Rudy finishes the tournament averaging 13.6 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 2.1 steals while shooting 62 percent from 2-point and 37 percent from 3-point. But you had to watch Rudy play throughout EuroBasket to get a sense of how important he is to Spain's success. As an opponent, you always have to know where he's at on both sides of the ball. As Mike Born told me, Pau is Spain's best player, but Rudy is the most important. It's no surprise both were named to the all-tournament team, which is extra impressive when you factor in both were dealing with injuries (hamstring for Rudy and finger for Pau) throughout EuroBasket. Rudy played eight games in 12 days on a tender hammy. That's tough. Here's hoping he spends the next week cold kicking it before training camp starts.
EuroBasket 2009 goes down as a learning experience for young Victor Claver. He didn't end up playing any meaningful minutes outside of his performance in the Great Britain game, but at least he's got his foot in the national team door. If Claver can manage to stay positive and earn his stripes with Team Spain he'll be posed to assume an expanded role as guys like Jorge Garbajosa, Alex Mumbri and Felipe Reyes get on in years. Claver would probably play a good chunk of minutes if he were on any other EuroBasket roster, but you have to pay dues when you're rolling with Spain, and that means spending a lot of time riding the pine.
Spain walks away with their heads held high after a disastrous start to the tournament. It would be fascinating to know what exactly happened between their last friendly, a loss to Lithuania, before the start of Eurobasket and their second game of the qualifying round, also against Lithuania. Spain lost two games in that five-game stretch and looked like a completely different team than the wrecking crew that went on to win their final five games of the tournament by an average of 19.2 points. Was it a case of Pau and Rudy getting healthy? Did it have something to do with the rumors that some of the players weren't all that enamored with new coach Sergio Scariolo? Could it be that Spain just needed a scare to be reminded that they couldn't sleepwalk their way to the 2010 World Championships? We may never know the answer but I'll be sure to ask Rudy when I see him next week.
It's Not How You Start, It's How You Finish
It's probably not my place to question the folks at EuroBasket, but I have to ask: Is it fair for a team to go 8-1 through a tournament and finish in fifth place? That's exactly what happened to the French, whose only mistake at EuroBasket was drawing Spain in the quarterfinals. If Nando De Colo would have missed that last-second shot in France's last qualifying round game against Greece (something many assumed he was trying to do anyway) Les Bleus would have ended up playing Russia, a team they had already beaten, in the quarters rather than Spain. It makes it hard to be anything but cynical about the layout of the tournament when a team stands a better chance of medaling by losing games.
Oh well. France still qualified for the World Championships, which means they won't have to sweat out an at-large bid from FIBA. They get another year to improve and get healthy (Michael Pietrus could have helped France's cause versus Spain) before heading to Turkey next summer.
Nicolas Batum ended up averaging 9.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1 block per game throughout the tournament. He shot 54 percent from 2-point and 36 percent from 3-point, but just 50 percent from the free throw line. That as to improve if Batum is to see crunchtime minutes, both for France and the Trail Blazers.
(Photo credit: FIBA Europe)