How does it feel to come up woefully short of expectations? How does it feel to be embarrassed by an inexplicable loss on your home floor in front of your blindly supportive fan base? How does it feel to be relegated to classification games while visitors vie for the international championship you believed was rightfully yours?
Yeah, it wasn’t supposed to go down this way. Your march through the 2014 World Cup wasn’t supposed to be stopped in its tracks before the medal round. It was supposed to continue all the way to the championship game, where you were supposed to finally put together 40 minutes of immaculate basketball, topple Team USA and claim global supremacy.
You weren’t supposed to lose in the quarterfinals to France. Who cares if they were the defending European champions? They were missing their two best players – Tony Parker and Joakim Noah. You had all hands on deck – six current NBA players and three more who played in the league. And didn’t you beat them by 24 points a week ago?
You took the court in Madrid with the hubris of that blind support and that loaded roster and that 24-point trouncing and thought the outcome would be a formality. After all, you had won all six of your games by an average of 26.5 points. Even fellow NBA player Goran Dragic, whose Slovenian team had just lost to Team USA by 43 points, boldly declared that you were the favorite to win the tournament.
And you didn’t just lose to France. You choked. You were outplayed in the first half, which you didn’t take anywhere near as seriously as the circumstances required. Come on, guys. This isn’t the NBA playoffs. It’s not even that best-of-five deal in the Euroleague quarterfinals. This is the knockout stage of the World Cup. It’s win or go home. I mean, who should understand that better than the self-anointed rulers of international basketball?
Apparently, some harsh words and Red Bulls were tossed around in the locker room at halftime, because you came out with a purpose in the third quarter. You held France to seven points and reclaimed the lead – by one point – entering the final period. There were fist pumps and primal screams on the court and wild cheering and flag waving in the stands. Order had been restored. International basketball was back on its axis.
Not really. Because with the game there for the taking and the advantages of the better roster, the home crowd and the momentum, you encountered a foe much more fearsome than France. You came face to face with expectations and lost the staring contest. Badly.
That lead you had fought so hard to reclaim in the third quarter? You held it for another 96 seconds, and not at all in the last eight minutes. You scored nine points – count ’em, nine – in the fourth quarter. You had as many turnovers – three – as baskets. You shot 0-of-6 from 3-point range.
And even with all that, there was still an escape plan. You were trailing just 55-52 with 2:03 to play, plenty of time to get a couple of stops, a couple of buckets, maybe even a couple of calls on that friendly home court and emerge with a win. Afterward, you could toss emply platitudes toward France and talk about how winning this unexpectedly close game would only help in the grand plan of toppling Team USA and ruling international basketball.
And you choked. You were outscored 10-zip the rest of the way, missing all five shots and fouling in futile fashion, which only delayed the inevitable. At least you will be able to sell your medal round tickets.
Your front line of Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka that was supposed to neutralize Team USA’s big men and turn the Americans into an impatient bunch of jump-shooters? Well, Pau Gasol came to play, as he had throughout the tournament. But Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka combined to shoot 2-of-14 with five points and six rebounds, while Rudy Gobert – the French version of Ryan Hollins – had five points and 13 rebounds by himself. You were outrebounded, 50-28. Nice job.
Your deadly perimeter game that was supposed to spread the floor and have Team USA’s defensive rotations scrambling for dear life? Juan Carlos Navarro was 1-of-5 from the arc, and Rudy Fernandez, Sergio Rodriguez, Sergio Llull and even Ibaka were all 0-of-3. In all, you made 2-of-22 3-pointers. Again, nice job.
But the bottom line in this abject disaster wasn’t that you lost a home game in the quarterfinals to an inferior foe. Team USA did that in 2002, so they know what that feels like. And it wasn’t that you succumbed to expectations. Team USA did that in 2002 and 2004, so they know what that feel like, too.
The bottom line is, what gave you the right to even have those expectations?
What exactly were you hanging your international basketball berets on?
Was it the narrow 107-100 loss to Team USA in the gold medal game of the 2012 Olympics? That falls into the category of close. Try horseshoes and bocce. Close counts in those games.
Was it your European Championships in 2009 and 2011? Yeah, Team USA is from North America, so it doesn’t play in those.
Was it the loss to Team USA in the gold medal game in the 2010 World Championship? Oh, yeah, that wasn’t you. That was Turkey, which showed
how to take advantage of hosting an international tournament. In theory, it’s a pretty good idea, having all your games at home.
Was it the 118-107 loss to Team USA in the gold medal game of the 2008 Olympics? Again, close. Try dancing and hand grenades, two other activities where close matters.
Was it the gold medal you won in the 2006 World Championships? That was you, but you beat Greece, not Team USA. Greece beat Team USA in the semifinals. By the way, that’s the last time Team USA lost. Eight years and counting.
Was it the quarterfinal game in the 2004 Olympics? Yeah, Team USA won that one, too, even though you went undefeated in pool play while Team USA lost twice. And as I remember, coach Mario Pesquera was a real good sport about it, too.
So I guess it’s gotta be when you beat Team USA in that fifth-place game in the 2002 World Championships. Yeah, that must be it. You can take some credit for that one.
It’s quite possible that the tone of this piece could seem ridiculous just hours from now. Team USA could lose in the semifinals to Lithuania, which has been a worthy opponent in recent years. But even if Team USA is upset by Lithuania, it will have lost to another country. It will not have lost to expectations.
And before you anoint yourselves as the rulers of international basketball, you have to do more than overcome the European champions, or the world champions, or the Olympic champions.
You have to overcome expectations.
Chris Bernucca is the managing editor of SheridanHoops.com. His column appears every Monday during the season. You can follow him on Twitter.