Leading up to EuroBasket, it was almost a foregone conclusion that Spain would win easily. They were the World Champs in 2006. They were the silver medalists in Beijing, second only to the US (i.e. not competing in EuroBasket). Even the fact that Russia had won the last EuroBasket in 2007 seemed to be a non-starter. After all, Russia rode to the title on the back of an NBA star in Andrei Kirilenko, and in the 2009 edition, most of the players who seemed capable of carrying a team either played for Spain or decided not to come to Poland.
- Russia's Kirilenko didn't play.
- Germany's Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Kaman didn't play.
- Turkey's Mehmut Okur didn't play.
- Great Britain's Ben Gordon and Luol Deng didn't play.
- Slovenia's Beno Udrih didn't play.
- Greece's Theo Papaloukas and Dimitris Diamantidis didn't play.
So everyone expected Spain to waltz (or perhaps flamenco) through the tournament.
But it didn't start off that way. Spain lost their first game in the preliminary round to Serbia (in what proved to be a preview of the final). Worse still, in their second game they struggled against lowly Great Britain, trailing by 4 with 5 minutes to go before pulling out the win.
But in retrospect it looks as if the Spanish team was simply coasting in the early rounds. After a second loss, this one to Turkey, Spain sat at 2-2, and faced the very real possibility of elimination with one more defeat. All they did from that point was win 5 straight, each by at least 14, and never trailed in the second half of any of them. In an elimination round that featured close game after close game among the other contenders (Greece 76- Turkey 74 in OT, Slovenia 67 - Croatia 65, Serbia 96 - Slovenia 92 in OT, Greece 57 - Slovenia 56), Spain was completely dominant. Once the tournament got to the 'win or gone home' phase, Spain started unceremoniously sending teams home. They easily beat France, Greece and Serbia to win the title.
To say that Pau Gasol was the Most Valuable Player in the tournament is a gross understatement. All he did, once Spain got serious, was shoot 77% from the field in their last five games. He led the tournament in scoring and in blocked shots, and was second in shooting percentage and rebounding. As much as I dislike the Lakers, I'm happy for Pau and for NBA fans that people at least know who he is now - his lack of recognition in Memphis was criminal. Amazingly, he was so underrated as a Grizzly, I don't even think he's reached overrated status in LA yet, despite being overexposed.
As you know, I've been following the Greek team closely throughout the tournament, mainly because of the presence of Clipper draftee Sofoklis Schortsianitis, aka MBFGC. I was unable to watch their last two games, because Saturday morning as Greece faced off against Spain in the first semi-final, I was coaching ClipperMax in AYSO soccer. (By the way, we won, and Max got his first goal of the season.) As I had suspected, Greece-Spain wasn't much of a contest - Spain is the better team, there's no dout of that. But the fact that Greece was playing without a rest day, following an overtime game, while Spain came in rested, surely contributed to Greece's sub 40% shooting performance. MBFGC joined his teammates in the brickyard, shooting just 2 for 6.
In the bronze medal game against Slovenia, the Greek starting center Ioannis Bourousis got in foul trouble and Big Sofo got the early call just two minutes into the game. He responded with a monster performance, scoring 23 points in 32 minutes, both tournaments highs for him. He shot 7 for 9 from the field, 9 for 12 from the line, and single-handedly drew 12 of the 27 fouls whistled against Slovenia. This is the type of 'unstoppable force' performance that a few seasons ago had NBA scouts drooling. He finished the tournament averaging almost 12 points and 3.4 rebounds per game, but that was in fewer than 19 minutes. His per 36 minute scoring average of 22.8 would have been the class of the tournament if it weren't for that Pau guy (26.2 points per 36). Sofo even improved his free throw shooting as the tournament wore on - he started 3 for his first 12 before making 36 of his last 53, an almost respectable 68%.
In the end, six of the eight quarterfinalists earned trips to the World Championships in Turkey next year. Once the Turks were eliminated from Gold Medal contention by the Greeks, they stopped showing up, since they have an automatic bid in 2010 as the hosts. This was unfortunate for Russia, as it meant that their seven-eight game on Sunday was meaningless. Win or lose, Turkey was in the World Championship field and Russia was out. (Russia won.)
The six European teams earning bids to the Worlds therefore are Spain, Serbia, Greece, Slovenia, France and Croatia. They'll be joined by:
- host Turkey;
- defending Olympic Gold Medalists Team USA;
- Brazil, Puerto Rico, Argentina and Canada from the Americas;
- Australia and New Zealand from Oceania;
- Angola, Ivory Coast and Tunisia from Africa; and
- Iran, China and Jordan from Asia.
There are still four at large bids for FIBA to distribute. From a basketball standpoint, one would expect Russia, Germany, Italy, Great Britain and the Dominican Republic to be considered, but according to Citizen ClippersIT, these really are 'bids' and FIBA will give them to the highest bidder.