It's all over folks. The tougher kids from the european block are meeting today to determine who is the toughest one; France are participating in their first ever Eurobasket finals and Spain are out to meet their first and final real test in the tournament. Can France justify their tanking? Can Spain justify their arrogance? (I'm only saying this because I dislike them). Find out what I think of this after the jump!
Yes, after 11 games in 18 days, there's still one to go. (By the way, 11 games in 18 days is something pretty ridiculous, as we Rockets fans know. This is rather a test of endurance, mental and physical, than a normal basketball tournament.) In the gold medal game France face Spain, and in the bronze medal game Russia and cinderella FYROM are vying for the, well, bronze medal. For FYROM this tournament is already a success - making it to the second round was a success, making it to the knockout games was a success, beating Lithuania was a triumph and anything that happened after that was not going to spoil the hero welcome that awaits players and coaching staff back at home. Imho they should erect a greater-than-life statue to Bo McCalebb, because he was the reason FYROM did what they did.
For Russia, the tournament is partial success. They made it unbeaten to the semi-finals, where they succumbed to France, which is not that bad. Based on their talent level, wanting to enter the 4 best was a reasonable expectation, especially in the group they got.
France have the chance of a lifetime. After Parker leaves, this team will return to being the pushover it was before the tournament: If anything, this Eurobasket has proven to me that no team can make anything happen without at least two reliable guards - I'd rather trust two exceptional guards to win me game than two exceptional forwards (and I don't want to hear exceptions like LeBron and Wade and Co. They at least have a decent point guard to serve them the ball. The last time a big man won it all on his own was with Wilt Chamberlain, and correct me if I'm wrong). Back to France: Supposing he leaves, there's still Nando De Colo, who can indeed put the ball in the hoop. He is not a passer though, and lacks the level of court vision a true PG needs. The second string of french guards will be eaten alive by any team with the slightest intention to contend - unless they become much, much better. The problems won't end there: Joakim Noah was only persuaded to play after Parker campaigned publicly. There's no telling if he'll stay. Batum is a hell of a player, but he isn't a point guard either - and you can't expect him to shoot lights out every night. And so on, and so on. In short: France will, in all probability, never field again such a star-studded team, or ever contend that legitimately for a major event (after the Olympics) any time soon. They are motivated.
Spain? For them, the tournament only starts now. They've proven they are the best in numerous occasions - they shut down the hosts, beat every team of lower level and never choked (for long), always finding the spark they needed and always exploding down the road. They are the most stable team of the tournament, behind maybe Russia. They have to prove they are still the best.
Let me try to do the ak-style of game previews:
You might know more anout these two than I do: Calderon is a really good point guard, he can create and execute, he plays defense and is a capable ballhandler, as he is averaging only 1.2 TOs to 1.4 steals and 2.8 assists per game. Parker is way more capable though, and he is the man behind this France team.
Juan Carlos Navarro vs Nicola Batum
Batum isn't really a shooting guard, but as France only features one man worthy of this title (Nando De Colo), who also is the prominent sixth man of the team, Batum gets the gig. Batum is more athletic, and plays better defend than Navarro. He is also a capable scorer, excellent at driving to the hoop but also featuring a sporadic mid-range and long-range shot. He will probably be burdened with the task of consistently defending the shooting guard position, as Spain has a lot of depth in the guards. Navarro on the other hand, may not be as athletic as Batum, but he is one of the undisputed leaders of Spain, and a deadly scorer. He can light it up from about anywhere within 8m of the basket, and if he's allowed to get in rythm he will consistently make impossible shots. His trademark bombita layup, a sort-of-a-lob kind of thing with a quick release makes him a potent threat in drives and in finishing transition offense. He is the kind of guy that will repeatedly kill your team, if he's not correctly (and all the time) defended against. Last time anybody played shutdown defense on him was at this year's Euroleague (like the Champions' League of european basketball) quarterfinals, where Panathinaikos Athens ousted defending champions Regal Barcelona en route to the Euroleague title. Greece playmaker Nick Calathes had the task of shutting him down, which he did in a marvellous way.
In short, there wasn't anybody who could really contain Navarro in this tournament. If France can spare the energy they'll need to defend properly, then they can make it. Else they lose.
Rudy Fernandez vs Michael Gelabale, Florent Pietrus (Gelabale is the only normal small forward the French have - Pietrus has been sharing the spot since Gelabale got injured.)
Rudy is actually the leading distributor for Spain (3.2 assists per game), although numbers mean nothing in a tournament as short as this one. Gelabale was the only reliable threat France had in the perimeter, and the team sorely missed him while he was injured. I don't know if he'll play today. Fernandez mostly operates inside, but also scores a threepointer per game (in three tries), or so his stats. He also leads Spain in steals, and that's something notable. I guess Pietrus can back him down in the paint, but they will both have their hands full with one another. If Fernandez' opponent is Gelabale, things are a little more even, since their build does not differ as much.
Only for the sake of the argument are these two placed as power forwards - Gasol mostly functions as a center while Diaw is a little more flexible. If Diaw can hit some outside shots, he will force the defense to open up a bit, giving his teammates more space in the paint. On the other hand, Marc Gasol has shown himself to be quite adept in scoring, and quite reliable in defense as well.
Pau Gasol vs Joakim Noah
Not even close. Little-known (at least on the other side of the Atlantic) Ioannis Bouroussis completely dominated over Noah (and every other France big man) in the quarter finals - and Pau Gasol is a center with at least equal talent to Bouroussis (I'm joking here), greater height, strength and is used to dominating Noah from the NBA. I expect to see Noah frustrated near the paint, stifled and blocked, and then taking those horrible looking jumpers from the freethrow line and missing. He might get a break with an offensive rebound or two - that's as far as it gets.
Ibaka, Reyes, Llull, Rubio, Claver, Sada, San Emeterio vs Seraphin, Albicy, De Colo, Traore, Tchicamboud
No comment. Apart from De Colo (only reliable backup G) and Seraphin (considered upcoming talent), the France bench has nothing spectacular to show. On the other hand, the Spain bench has 5 guys who could easily be starting (Rubio is overrated, but he's good as well, Llull is an athletic SG, San Emeterio is an experienced SF and Reyes-Ibaka are a hell of a frontcourt to have).
Advantage: Spain, hands down. They can practically keep throwing guys at Parker and Batum and just exhaust them.
Scarriolo vs Collet
Both have superstars in their teams, but only the first gives the impression of coaching. Collet's only defensive strategy so far seems to be man-to-man (if it fails zone for the rest of the game), and his offense condensates in letting Parker decide.
Scarriolo doesn't have much of a problem with his squad; he could let them just play, but he is rather involved.
Advantage: France? Spain? Who knows... Only France have been in do-or-die situations so far, and they've responded.
Prediction: Spain wins. By at least 10.