KAUNAS, Lithuania — There is only one thing that is ultimately relevant for Americans about the team that just won EuroBasket: One year from now, will Spain have what it takes to defeat Team USA in the gold medal game of the London Olympics?
Because let’s face it, this Spanish team showed it is clearly the second-best team in the world right now, just as they were three years ago in Beijing when they put 107 points on the board (in a 40-minute game, no less) against the Americans but couldn’t keep pace with what was truly a second Dream Team, losing 118-107.
“Like Pau (Gasol) said, it is extremely tough to beat Team USA. But in one game, anything can happen,” France’s Tony Parker said after his team lost 98-85 to Spain on Sunday in the gold medal game at EuroBasket2011. “I watched that game in 2008, and it was one of the best games ever in an international competition, but you have to play your best game to beat Team USA.”
Spain pretty much played its best game, at least offensively, in that gold medal loss to the Americans, and it still wasn’t enough.
But one of the key things that is different about them three years later is the defensive component they have added by bringing in Serge Ibaka, the Oklahoma City Thunder forward who single-handedly changed Sunday’s gold medal game by blocking five shots in an 8-minute span of the second quarter, allowing Spain to gain some separation on the scoreboard that held up throughout the rest of the night.
What else do they have that they didn’t have in 2008?
For starters, their second Gasol, Marc, is twice the player he was in 2008 when he was a chubby faced novice whose talent was probably half that of his older brother, Pau.
Marc is still not as polished of an offensive player as Pau, but he has another year of growth ahead of him in the NBA when the lockout is settled, and he’ll have the freedom to play more physically on defense against whoever is manning the middle for the Americans (Dwight Howard and ?????), more freedom to burn a foul or two and send Howard to the line now that he has Ibaka backing him up.
And then you have Juan Carlos Navarro, who earned the MVP award in this tournament with a 27-point performance chock full of momentum-killing shots — the same shots he was hitting in the quarterfinals and semifinals of this tournament when he emerged as the biggest clutch performer on a team loaded with NBA players.
“Juan Carlos is a special player not because of his body or his muscles, but because the basketball gods sent him a gift and said ‘You are a special one,’” Spanish coach Sergio Scariolo said.
Forget for a moment about Ricky Rubio, who was an utter bust in this tournament — so much so in the final match that he got only seven minutes of playing time and had four fouls, no points and just one assist. The Spanish still have Jose Calderon, who few remember was forced to sit out the gold medal game in 2008 because of a muscle tear in his leg. Rubio was in foul trouble in that game, too, and Navarro had to move over and run the point against Jason Kidd, Deron Williams and Chris Paul, and he did it with such aplomb that Spain stuck with the Americans all the way until the final 2 minutes.
One NBA scout who attended this game but could not be quoted because of the league’s lockout-related gag order said this Spanish team is much better, much more mature, and — this is the biggest thing — much more athletic because of the addition of Ibaka than they were in 2008. Factor in how much of a big-game player Navarro showed himself to be, and it adds up to a team that is a more than a notch above where the Spaniards were three years ago when they arrived in Beijing (and remember, that was a Spanish team that had choked the gold medal game of EuroBasket a year before, losing on their home court in Madrid to Russia).
A year from now, who knows if LeBron James is going to have proved himself capable of scoring a fourth-quarter bucket when it is all on the line (he disappeared in the fourth quarter in Beijing, too, when Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant carried the Americans). Who knows if the Americans will have the size and girth to defend both Gasols, especially if Howard gets into foul trouble. (It says here that Kevin Love may turn out to be one of the most important players on the 2012 team if the U.S. federation is smart enough to bring him. In Turkey last year, he barely sniffed the court despite being the most productive per-minute player not named Kevin Durant).
And if Durant is on the team as he is expected to be, will he defer to his elders and let Carmelo Anthony, James, Bryant or Wade be the big shot guy?
The Americans are going to have to play as a team, which they proved themselves capable of doing back in 2008.
But they were hungrier then, wanting to redeem themselves from their embarrassing loss to Greece at the 2006 Worlds, and to avenge the horror show the 2004 team had been at the Athens Olympics (Wade, James, Anthony and Amare Stoudemire were all members of that Nightmare Team).
The Spanish team plays as a team every bit as much as the Argentina team that won the 2004 gold medal did, and the American players are simply not as used to the pressure of a one-and-done game as many of their international competitors are.
Would I pick this Spain team to beat the Americans next summer?
At this point, no.
Would I say they have no chance?
Spain is a better team than it was in 2008, and Team USA is going to have to be a better team than it was in 2008 if they want to fly back across the pond from London with gold medals around their necks.
There is a worthy opponent for them, and they’d be best advised to take this Spanish team seriously.