By Chris Sheridan
KAUNAS, Lithuania — “He was like a maestro today. He was like a picture in the Louvre or something like that — just beautiful. Juan Carlos, you’ve got to recognize, is one of the artists of European basketball.”
It was a DaVinci of a quote that Spanish coach Sergio Scariolo delivered Friday, about as eloquent of an assessment a man could deliver after what he witnessed from his own personal Michelangelo.
Juan Carlos Navarro scored 19 points in the third quarter to single-handedly break open a game that kept staying surprisingly close, finishing with 35 points on 13-for-23 shooting to lead the Spanish national team into the 2012 London Olympics with a 92-80 victory over Macedonia in the semifinals of EuroBasket.
It is a shame that American audiences never got to see more of Navarro, the shooting guard who spent one season with the Memphis Grizzlies in 2007-08 and made 156 3-pointers — two short of the NBA record for rookies — before deciding the NBA was not to his liking, opting to return to Barcelona to finish his career in the ACB (Spanish League).
U.S. audiences have only caught glimpses of him since, one of them coming when he moved over and became the emergency point guard for Spain in the gold medal game of the 2008 Olympics against the United States after an injury kept Jose Calderon out of the game and foul trouble forced Ricky Rubio to the bench.
If folks in America were fortunate enough to get a glimpse of him in this semifinal, they’d gain an enhanced appreciation for a player whose all-around offensive game is one of the best — if not the best — in all of Europe.
“He was out of this planet. He was on his own cloud, and he is a joy to have as a person and as a player. I can tell you this from the inside,” Scariolo said.
Spain needed something big from somebody after going into the locker room training 45-44 against the upstart team of the tournament. They were not getting anything on the defensive end from anybody as Macedonia shot 54 percent in a back-and-forth first half in which there were five ties and 15 lead changes.
It was 58-58 midway through the third quarter when Marc Gasol scored inside, Vojdan Stojanovski missed for Macedonia and Navarro took a pass from Rudy Fernandez and buried a 3-pointer.
The separation had begun.
Two free throws by Navarro made it a six-point game, a 3-pointer with 1:25 left made it 68-60, and another 3 by the player nicknamed “LaBomba” increased Spain’s lead to 71-62 with 38 seconds left in the third period.
The finishing touch to the masterpiece came after Macedonia’s American point guard, Bo McCalebb (25 points) scored back-to-back buckets to make it an eight-point game. Navarro then hit a long 2-pointer, a pair from the line and a left-handed runner that was a 9.9 on a degree of difficulty scale of 10, and Spain was ahead 90-80 with 1:19 left.
Not since last summer in Istanbul when I watched Kevin Durant put the U.S. “B-Deem” team on his back had I witnessed a player put his team on his shoulders and carry them to their goal.
“They are very different players, but they are the same in terms of talent and having the ability to score easily,” said Spain’s Serge Ibaka, who is spending his first summer with the Spanish national team after having spent the previous two seasons alongside Durant in Oklahoma City.
Despite the loss, Macedonia has qualified for the pre-Olympic tournament next July that will determine the final three teams for the London Games. That’s something Serbia, Slovenia, Turkey, Italy and Germany — five of the top teams in Europe – did not do.
“We didn’t listen to anyone who was telling us we were going to have an easy time, and that is what helped us to this win,” Scariolo said. “We didn’t play too nervous, a little bit, maybe, but then, as I said, Juan Carlos made his masterpiece.”
Aside from Navarro’s 35 points, Pau Gasol had 22 points and 17 rebounds, and Ibaka scored 11 and Marc Gasol had 11 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and two blocks. Also, Ricky Rubio broke his 0-for-Lithuania drought from 3-point range (he had missed his first dozen 3s in this tournament) by making a shot from behind the arc in the second quarter. He finished with five points, seven rebounds and four assists.