Should Team USA or Spain Be the FIBA Favorites?
Where were you for the 2012 Olympic basketball finals? It’s probably pretty tough to remember. August 12th, 2012? Ring any bells? It was my 24th birthday and I was sitting on the edge of my uncomfortably dark Super 8 Motel room bed about an hour outside of Indianapolis, Indiana.
Squirming for 120 minutes alone in the middle of nowhere.
I yelled and screamed throughout that whole contest. At half, the U.S. clinging desperately to a one-point advantage, I frantically packed my bags. I had a flight to catch back to San Francisco that I had no intentions of missing.
The game was riveting. Marc Gasol got into foul trouble early. He had to leave for a healthy chunk of the game when he picked up his fourth foul with 6:05 to go in the second quarter. He only played 17 minutes total, but still went 8-10 from the floor for 17 points.
In Marc’s absence, big brother Pau Gasol took over. He dropped 13 straight in the third for Spain on a series of vintage low-post moves almost exclusively resulting in layups and dunks. Tyson Chandler and Kevin Love were completely overmatched. My eyes were glued to see if I could still make my reservation.
Team USA calmly pulled away in the fourth with their aging stars shining. They extended the lead to six early in the quarter, and never saw it dwindle below four throughout the rest of the game.
Down the stretch, Lebron James sealed the victory for the U.S. with a monster dunk and a three-pointer – reaffirming his claim to king of the basketball world. All told, Spain went down 100-107, but not without a second straight tremendous Olympic finals fight.
I missed my flight.
Is Spain Good Enough?
Fast-forward two years. Spain enters this year’s FIBA World Championships as the team with the most combined major competition experience. They return their core players (Serge Ibaka ran with Spain in 2012, but never really fit into their system), and will host the tournament for the first time since 1986 when they finished a very respectful fifth.
But in the NBA, last season wasn’t so hot for the Spanish national team. Check out the essentials for the only five guys on their squad who currently play in the league.
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So how can they possibly hang with big bad team USA?
For one, the international game is different. It favors quick ball movement, long-range shooting, and smart, savvy interior defense. Athleticism and hero ball is not at such a premium. Spain has the balance, composure and experience to take down the Stars and Stripes.
It starts with Marc Gasol. The talented 2013 Defensive Player of the Year will be the best defensive big in the tournament. He combines size, strength and quickness with an extraordinary defensive IQ. He’ll even be able to erase some of big bro’s defensive shortcomings.
On the outside, Spain will depend on the lengthy guard play of Ricky Rubio. Over the last few years, he’s honed his all-around game to make up for his awful shooting (dead last in FG% in the paint.) He led the league in steals this past season, finished with 3.6 defensive win shares and was second among point guards in defensive real plus minus – a statistic that attempts to measure a player’s isolated defensive performance.
Offensively, Spain relies on the high-low game of the Gasol brothers. Both are excellent passers, intelligent post players and capable of knocking down the fifteen foot jump shot. Look for Jose Calderon and former NBA wingman Rudy Fernandez to capitalize with open threes off the precision passing of Spain’s bigs.
If Ricky Rubio can get into the lane, the whole floor opens up for Spain. Remember, he went toe-to-toe with Chris Paul and Deron Williams in a riveting 2008 Olympic final (when he was 17). That performance launched the hype that had scouts comparing him to Steve Nash and the legendary Pistol Pete Maravich. His poor shooting has hindered him, but at 25, he’s still a top-flight passer. He will find people for easy buckets once in the lane.
A Durant-Less Team USA
Team USA doesn't have the same caliber of wing defender they had in the 2012 Olympics or the 2010 FIBA Championships in Turkey. Andre Iguodala is past his prime. Athletic freaks Kawhi Leonard and Russell Westbrook elected to take the summer to rest, and this happened to Paul George. Yikes.
Then, last week, Kevin Durant bailed. And the drop off from Durant to - gulp - Rudy Gay is monumental. Suddenly, Spain looks rather bullish.
Klay Thompson has improved drastically with his on-ball defense, but loses sight of the ball and plays below average help defense. The defensive struggles of James Harden, Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving and Steph Curry are well documented, and Derrick Rose is coming off who knows how many knee surgeries.
Then comes the issue of depth. USA certainly goes deeper than Spain, but it’s a smaller factor in the 40 minute international game - if the Gasols and Rubio can stay out of foul trouble, Spain’s starters should get 32-plus minutes against the top line Coach K puts out there.
For Spain, the recipe is there. Dominate on the post, get the USA bigs in foul trouble early, and cross your fingers nobody in the Curry/Thompson/Harden group gets hot from deep.
If this dream finals matchup does come to fruition, I'll be watching, no matter where I am, you should too.