Sunday, September 20, 2009

Eurobasket 2009: Road to Redemption
Complete for Golden Gasol, Spaniards

Team USA got its redemption with Olympic gold in Beijing in 2008. On Sunday, Team España got its redemption with Eurobasket gold in Katowice, Poland.

After blowing the 2007 Eurobasket gold-medal game to the underdog Russians at home in Madrid, Spain finally won its first Eurobasket title on Sunday, and did so in convincing fashion, beating Serbia 85-63.

Spain thoroughly outplayed Serbia in every facet of the game. The game was never in doubt and the gold medal was essentially wrapped up by halftime. Spain finally ascended to the top of the Euro podium after taking home six silvers and two bronzes all time, including three silvers and a bronze over the past decade.

Speaking of redemption, well, Spanish superstar Pau Gasol's circle is complete as well. After being roundly criticized for his role in the Lakers' defeat in the 2008 Finals, Gasol established himself as arguably one of the NBA's top dozen players in 2008-09, capped off by his skilled performance in L.A.'s championship run through the 2009 Playoffs and Finals. Pau averaged 18.6 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks while also shooting .600 and doing a fine job defensively against Dwight Howard in the Finals.

Meanwhile, NBA fans may not be as aware that Gasol had unfinished business at the Eurobasket as well, as his disastrous fourth-quarter in the 2007 gold-medal game may well have cost Team España the game. As we wrote in 2007:
    "After such a tremendous Eurobasket for two weeks, Pau Gasol had a nightmare of a final--he just couldn't connect on his interior shots. Some of that has to be credited to the Russian defense, but Pau just could not get shots to fall.

    Then he had a 4th quarter he would soon like to have wiped from the records. Pau was 3/8 on FTs and combined that with 3 TOs, including the costly TO with :25 left. All these miscues would have been forgotten if Pau could have knocked down a desperation jumper with :02 left, but his shot just rimmed out. Overall on the night, the Spanish go-to guy was just 4/13 from the floor and 5/12 at the line (14 pts, 14 reb, 3 ast, 3 blk, 5 TO)."
In 2009, Gasol was the dominant player at the Eurobasket, easily winning the tournament MVP for his terrific all-around play over the last two weeks. Pau's stat line for the tourney: 18.7 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 2.2 bpg, 1.2 apg, 66% FG%, and even four-of-nine from 3pt. range. He led the tourney in scoring and blocked shots, and finished second in field goal pct. and rebounds per game.

In '09, Pau kept it going all the way to the end. In the gold-medal game, Gasol led Spain with 18 pts on 8-of-13, 11 rebs (four off.), & 3 blocks. As usual, Pau was also a factor in the interior, deterring scoring at the rim. Gasol didn't do too much damage with his back-to-basket game, as Serbia actually guarded him fairly well on the block with Nenad Krstic and Kosta Perovic. Pau scored a few times finishing in transition, on a couple of drives, finishing on rolls or cuts (two of which were alley-oops).

It's just striking to see how Pau Gasol's basketball world has done a 180 since the deep disappointment of two years ago, when he was a primary reason that Spain lost the Eurobasket as heavy favorites at home, and his NBA career was wallowing in Memphis. Now, it's not crazy to say that Pau Gasol may be headed on a path to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

We noted last week that the Hall of Fame had set a tenuous precedent by inducting FIBA legends Drazen Petrovic, Dino Meneghin and Drazen Dalipagic. By those standards, Gasol is already a Hall-of-Famer, though guys like Vlade Divac, Toni Kukoc and Arvydas Sabonis fall in the same boat - qualified by FIBA standards, but falling short by NBA standards - and it's uncertain how the Hall will treat them.

Also consider that this Lakers team still has some life left in it. If they end up winning another title or two, well, the history of the Hall of Fame has been to reward multiple players from teams with multiple championships (we don't necessarily agree with this, that's just the way it is). Gasol would certainly have to be considered the second-best player of this Lakers team, to date. He's also building some statistical chops, with over 11,000 points and 5,000 rebounds for his NBA career by age 28, with averages of 18.8 points, 8.7 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.7 blocks, .520 FG% and a 21.8 PER. Give Gasol three rings to go with his FIBA resume, and we think he'll be close to a shoo-in, again based on past precedent.

Make no mistake, Pau Gasol's resume in FIBA play *is* formidable, and it's clear that he is one of the top European players of all time. Pau now adds a 2009 Eurobasket gold to his mantle top, to go along with his 2006 World Championship gold, 2008 Olympic silver, and 2003/2007 Eurobasket silver medals.

Since 2003, Pau has led Spain to three Eurobasket finals, one World Championship, and one Olympic final in six summers of competition (he missed the 2005 Euro due to injury). Every summer Pau has participated in FIBA competition, he has been selected for 1st team All-Tournament honors. It's no surprise that the rise of the Spanish national team has coincided with the emergence of Pau Gasol as one of the top players in the world.

Gasol consistently shoots above 60% at every international tourney, he's always one of the best shot blockers, and is always near the top of the scoring leaderboard--Pau was the leading scorer at the '03 Euro, '04 Olympics, '08 Olympics & '09 Euro.

-- In 2003, Pau helped guide Spain to the Eurobasket final, in which they fell to another European basketball power, Lithuania. Pau poured in 36 pts & 12 rebs in the final, and led the tourney in scoring with 26 ppg.

-- In the 2004 Olympics, Pau led Spain to a 5-0 record in group play. But Spain was unfortunate in that they had to play a talented but underachieving Team USA in the quarterfinals, where they lost by eight points. Pau led the '04 Olympics in scoring (22.4 ppg) and was named 1st-team All-Tournament.

-- In 2006, Pau led the Spaniards on an undefeated run through the World Championships in Japan. Even though Pau had to sit out the gold-medal game because of a broken foot suffered in the semifinal, he was still was awarded the MVP for his dominant play in the previous games. Pau's stellar stat line for the '06 Worlds: 21 ppg, 9 rpg, 2.5 bpg & 63% FG shooting.

-- In 2007, Gasol would have been the Euro MVP, if not for the aforementioned fourth-quarter meltdown vs. Russia. Andrei Kirilenko took home the award, but that does not take away how awesome Pau was for the entirety of Eurobasket 2007--he averaged 19 ppg on 62% FG, with 7 rpg & 1.8 bpg.

-- As far as 2008, we're pretty sure you remember how Spain pushed a fully stocked Team USA to the brink in Beijing. Pau powered that team with 19.6 ppg on 65% FG & 7 rpg, leading the Olympics in scoring. Gasol scored 21 points in the classic gold-medal game, even though he only played 28 minutes for some strange reason.

Gasol has taken knocks for his inconsistent defensive effort in the NBA in the past, but he has always been a defensive stalwart on the international stage. He's a tremendous defensive presence on the back line for Spain, where he takes full advantage of the FIBA rules. He's been one of the top defenders in international play the last five years or so.

All told, Pau Gasol has taken quite a journey over the past two years, from the depths of two years ago, when he suffered defeat in Madrid and was staring at defeat after defeat in Memphis, to today, when he is standing really quite close to the top of the mountain of the basketball world.

As far as more of our analysis from the gold-medal game....

Spain put this final to bed early, the 2nd half was a mere formality. This game played out in much the same way the previous four games for Team España. Those four games were thorough thrashings that were essentially over by halftime.

It was almost like two different tournaments for Spain. Spain played with half-hearted effort in the first four games, losing to Serbia and Turkey, and narrowly avoiding defeat at the hands of Britain and Slovenia. Then, midway through the Lithuania game, Spain decided to flip the switch and they never looked back.

In its first four games, Spain had a total point differential of +4. In their last five games, +96. They outscored their last five opponents by an average of 19 ppg.

Like they did in the previous four games, Spain set the tone on the defensive end against Serbia. Spain's m.o. the last few games has been to let their perimeter players pressure their men, and even overplay sometimes, knowing that the ballhandlers would be met by bigs. Spain always had a big waiting near the rim, with another big hovering, and sometimes a weakside wing near as well. This would often force the ballhandler to kick the ball out where Spain had two to three perimeter guys (Rubio, Rudy, Navarro) ready to pounce on these passes like a cornerback.

The perimeter guys didn't pressure quite as much as they had the last couple games. The defense didn't cause as many bad passes as it had the previous few games, but it was able to constantly challenge Serbian shots in the half-court. Spain held Serbia to 41.5% shooting for the game.

Once again, the Spanish bigs were always in good position to help. Shades of vintage Jorge Garbajosa today, as Garbo was a help defender deluxe inside and out. Felipe Reyes and Marc Gasol weren't too bad either.

Serbia's Milos Teodosic became the third top PG Spain shut down, in the third game in a row (Parker, Spanoulis). Teodosic was coming off a heroic 32-point performance in the 96-92 semifinal victory over Slovenia the night before. Spain held Teodosic to 5 pts, 2 assts, 3 TOs & 1-for-5 shooting. Milos had been averaging 15 ppg, 5.6 apg & 50% shooting before this game.

Spain started off the game trying to free Juan Navarro and Rudy Fernandez off screens. And this strategy worked out pretty well. Spain hit four of seven 3pters. in the first quarter. Juan Navarro hit a variety of jumpers peeling off screens, scoring 10 of his 12 points in the first half.

Rudy Fernandez played a great second fiddle to Pau once again today, with 14 pts, four rebs, and chaotic energy on defense that led to three steals. Rudy's 13.6 ppg was second best for Spain--he also shot 62% on 2pters., 36.6% on 3pters. (58% eFG). Rudy's 2.1 spg and 88% FT shooting both led the tournament. Rudy was rightfully named 1st Team All-Eurobasket.

Ricky Rubio could only register one assist, but did help out with his shooting--hit two corner 3pters. on his way to 10 points.

In the semifinals, Spain let Greece outrebound them by 18 rebs., but today, they were the team that was +18 on the boards. Spain abused Serbia on the glass in the first half (24-7), Spain had 10 off. rebs to Serbia's six def. rebounds.

Not into moral victories, but Serbia should feel good about its Eurobasket '09 experience. To make it to the Eurobasket final with the youngest roster in the tournament, after they went 0-3 at the '07 Euro, has to be commended. We were really impressed with the way this team defended. They have a young nucleus of promising talent that should push Serbia back into perennial contending status on the international basketball scene.

As we've noted throughout the Eurobasket fortnight, in addition to being the European championship, the tournament also served as the qualifier for the 2010 FIBA World Championship in Turkey.

The top six teams at the Eurobasket - Spain, Serbia, Greece, Slovenia, France and Croatia all punched their tickets to the Worlds.

In addition to the four teams which qualified from the FIBA America tournament - Brazil, Puerto Rico, Argentina, Canada - that makes 20 teams which have qualified for the field of 24.

The last four slots will be filled by "wild card" entries chosen by FIBA. As of right now, Lithuania and Russia should have spots locked up, while the last two spots could be filled by any of the following: Britain, Dominican Rep., Germany, Lebanon, Nigeria, Poland, Senegal, or Uruguay.

With Spain looking so good in the knockout stages of the Eurobasket, it seems like we might just have a tasty rematch of the 2008 USA-Spain gold-medal game to look forward to next summer in Turkey. Can't wait.


At 9:41 AM, Blogger milaz said...

It was a good tournament despite the fact that many teams had star players missing. I guess the beauty of these tournaments is that after the group stages it's a knock out process. So a great team can easily be eliminated and end up in the 5-8 positions (or worse). In any case, I dunno if I'd want to see a USA-Spain final or if I'd like to see another "surprise" like 2006 when Greece beat the US in the semi, or when Spain lost to Russia by a single point in 2007 in the Euro.
On one hand, the knockout process does not necessarily give us the best team. On the other, it proves to show how competitive these tournaments can be and provide a bitter-sweet feeling (much like the final four formats in the NCAA and EuroLeague). Anyway.... Spain was on a mission from the q-final on... the shut down the pg of the opposing team (Parker 6 points, Spanoulis 7pts and 7TOs and Teodosic 5pts) with tough D and played uptempo bball on offense... Gasol really is one of the best of all time and deserved a Euro trophy...

At 11:06 AM, Blogger agedc said...

great team effort by spain in the knockout phase!
shutting down the PG.
tough (and smart) D on perimeter.
running so fast and dropping easy buckets.
a lot of pick&rolls made.

on the other hand, I think we've seen a future eurochamp in the young team serbia.

greetings from malaga!

At 11:12 AM, Blogger G Vázquez said...

A perfect screenshot of Spain, Gasol and European basketball today.

Thank you.

At 11:43 AM, Anonymous Jaime said...

Totally agree with G Vázquez.
And with what you state about Pau: he is making his way to the hall of fame.
Just remember he was injured during the Eurobasket preparation and couldn't play a single minute until the official competition started.

At 4:49 PM, Anonymous juanjo said...

Really good summary, we ´re enjoying this team specially in Spain but I think everybody can enjoy its magic, because sometimes apart of tough spectacular defence there are moments of authentic show time! But nobody (nor Spain, neither the USA) are going to win without sacrifice anymore (we show that in JJOO, etc). There are so many players with good level that concentration and work is needed (not only talent). Young Serbia looks good, they must keep working. Congratulations Spain team! greetongs from Zaragoza

At 10:54 PM, Blogger DowJones said...

yes of the top 2 players in internatinal/euro ball the past five years I would definitely list Gasol as one of them...however Herr Dirk must also be ranked up there, perhaps even as #1, afterall, no other player can/ever will be able to single handedly carry their team to the finals of a eurobasket the way dirk did, so yes, I agree Gasol's an amazing international player but i would definitely challenge the assertion that he's #1 over the past decade

At 1:26 PM, Blogger Michael said...

Good stuff on Pau Gasol. This is one reason why I don't like all the talk about Kobe finally winning one without Shaq. It is fair to say that without Gasol there would be no championship in LA.

Unlike Michael, Kobe has never won a championship without a dominant player in the middle and at this stage of his career probably never will. But just like Michael, no one in the history of the NBA has ever won a championship alone. There has always been at least two studs on nearly every championship team.

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At 11:02 PM, Blogger George Michael said...

Hey jay,

Couldn't figure out if your blog allows for trackbacks. I link to this article in my blog. Just wanted to say that this is up to your usual exquisite standards and I really enjoyed/appreciated the Eurobasket postings. Keep up the good work.



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