Basketball | HOOP SCOOP

Spain's superior teamwork produced glorious results at FIBA World Cup

by Ed Odeven

Maybe 13 is a lucky number after all.

Thirteen years after an inspired Spain, playing without injured star Pau Gasol (left foot) in the final, routed Greece to claim the FIBA World Championship crown at Saitama Super Arena, the national team achieved global glory again.

Fittingly, Marc Gasol, Pau’s younger brother, helped lead the way.

Valiant floor leader Ricky Rubio also etched his mark on Spain’s eight-game run through the tournament in China, which ended on Sunday. Spain’s 95-75 triumph over Argentina triggered wild celebrations in Madrid and Barcelona and elsewhere throughout the country.

Gasol and Rubio, who averaged 14.4 and 16.4 points per game in the tournament, respectively, were far from a two-man team, though. Sergio Llull netted 15 points and Rudy Fernandez notched a double-double (11 points, 10 rebounds) in the championship game.

Hot-shooting carried the Spaniards in the final. They jumped out to a 7-0 lead, extended it to 14-2 and quickly moved ahead 31-14. The give-and-go was used numerous times with great precision. For Spain, great spacing on offense and recognition of one another helped a great deal, too.

Spain’s unity and cohesiveness as a team is something special. It’s been built up over time, nurtured and strengthened throughout the 21st century, with current head coach Sergio Scariolo handling the job deftly.

It’s truly impressive.

“Basketball was really fair to these guys,” Scariolo told reporters after the final in Beijing. “We were not the tallest, we were not the most talented. But we worked hard, they worked hard. They prepared. They kept fighting in tough moments, and we had a few really tough moments during a couple of games. And they didn’t lose faith in themselves. And basketball rewarded them with this big reward, which they fully deserve.”

That was one big takeaway from the FIBA World Cup, where Gasol and tourney MVP Rubio were joined on the All-Star Five by France’s Evan Fournier (19.8 points), Argentina’s almost-40 stalwart Luis Scola (17.9 points, 8.1) rebounds) and Serbia’s Bogdan Bogdanovic (No. 1 scorer at 22.9 ppg, including 53.0 percent from 3-point range).

Below are other observations to wrap up the quadrennial event, which actually had a five-year gap since the last iteration as FIBA authorities adjusted their calendar. This was done to move basketball’s showcase event to a year that didn’t clash with soccer’s World Cup.

Perhaps the most important individual performance of the tourney was Rubio’s against Australia in a double-overtime triumph in the semifinals: 19 points, 12 assists, seven rebounds and four steals. He did it all when his team needed every ounce of energy and leadership that he could provide.

Reflecting on his team’s climb to the top of the metaphorical mountain again, Rubio, now 28, basked in the glow of the special feat.

“I wanted to enjoy the moment and remember, because it’s something that’s going to follow me for life,” he said before the assembled media in the city where he also shined as a youngster at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. “This tournament is special. This place will always be special, now and all time. Everything started here it, but it doesn’t end here. This place holds a great chapter of my life.”

Spain’s defensive intensity, positioning and recognition of Scola’s every movement in the first half of the final bordered on perfection. He was held scoreless in the opening half. In the semifinal, Scola delivered a turn-back-the-clock 28-point, 13-rebound performance against France.

In the final, Argentine 24-year-old Gabriel Deck, who’s employed by Real Madrid, reminded the world what he’s capable of doing, scoring in a variety of ways in a 24-point outing. He pulled Argentina within 14-13 with a layup and free throw, but Spain stormed past Argentina to close out the half.

Spain assistant coach Luis Guil is beginning his new main job at the opportune time. With the euphoria of the World Cup as his guiding light, Guil brings passion and energy to the Saga Ballooners, a B. League third-division expansion team.

“(To) win the World Championship, it was amazing,” he tweeted on Tuesday. “Yesterday in the streets of Madrid was unforgettable. THANK YOU!!!!”

Japan’s Yudai Baba demonstrated that Rui Hachimura and Yuta Watanabe aren’t the only up-and-coming young players on the national squad to keep an eye on for years to come. With an explosive first step and excellent all-around athleticism, the Toyama native is just starting to scratch the surface of his potential. Now, his challenge is to play a full year overseas, quite possibly in the NBA (he signed a contract with the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday).

For the Japan Basketball Association, it was a good decision to make Watanabe a co-captain for the World Cup, giving the Memphis Grizzlies two-way signing a chance to grow into a leadership role on the team.

Give props to France’s Rudy Gobert, who plies his craft for the Utah Jazz, for being honest about why the World Cup didn’t showcase a greater talent pool.

“I wish all the best players would come, but it’s never going to happen,” Gobert said in exclusive comments published in Marc Stein’s New York Times newsletter, with the NBA insider citing the Load Management Era. “They think about themselves more than anything — and it’s understandable. It’s a business. We all have families to take care of.”

Other national teams were bereft of top-level talent, too.

Case in point: Canada, which had 13 players on NBA team’s opening-day rosters for the 2018-19 campaign. Two NBA players, Khem Birch (Orlando Magic) and Cory Joseph (Sacramento Kings), were on Canada’s World Cup roster. No Tristan Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, Jamal Murray, Kelly Olynyk, Dillon Brooks and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, among others.

Predictably, coach Nick Nurse’s squad placed 21st overall.

And who placed lower?

In order (from 22nd to 32nd), the following nations: Turkey, Iran, China, Montenegro, South Korea, Angola, Jordan, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, Japan and the Philippines.

Meanwhile, with Yao Ming presiding over the Chinese Basketball Association, it’s obvious that if the nation has a legitimate shot at becoming a basketball power it will be under Yao’s watchful eye.

Not only is he fully invested in seeing China succeed, he also deflects criticism from others by putting pressure on himself to get the job done.

After China’s 86-73 defeat to Nigeria in a classification-round match, Yao had this to say, according to published reports: “It is me who disappoint the fans.”

But the fact that 31 other national teams and the world’s media were in China was a good thing, Yao insisted.

“This (World Cup) is a window for us to look out to the world,” Yao was quoted as saying. “The gap between China and the world-leading basketball countries has been enlarged.

“We have determination to keep our reform on, including professional league, youth academy and sports education.”

Within USA Basketball, there’ll be plenty of soul searching, but it’s more an exercise in futility. The Americans’ seventh-place finish with a group of players who’ve spent little time working together underscores the value that teams such as Spain and Argentina, France and Australia have with roster continuity. For example, who was Team USA’s go-to player?

Gregg Popovich, the longtime San Antonio Spurs bench boss, inherited the Team USA gig after Mike Krzyzewski’s splendid reign was capped by the 2016 Olympic gold medal. But the roster turnover made Pop’s job much harder. To his credit, he pointed out that the globalization of basketball has made the game better around the world.

In other words, Pop gets it.

Speaking to reporters after the United States topped Poland 87-71 to finish seventh overall, Popovich said there were no big surprises in China.

“It’s exactly what I knew it to be,” he said, “because I’ve been involved with it before, and in this day and age basketball in other countries is not a secret. So, it’s not like there’s an epiphany or revelation to be made. There are wonderful teams and wonderful coaches all over the world, so there’s no surprise in any of that. You go compete, and you know the best teams win. I was thrilled with the group of guys that we were able to coach. They made the sacrifice. They worked hard. They let us coach them, and we got them to a certain point in a short period of time.

“I wish I could have gotten them closer, but it didn’t happen. It’s not about deciding what happened. Better teams got to the finals, and that shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody, because there are a lot of great teams in the world. It’s not written in stone that the United States is supposed to walk to a championship. That’s pretty old school thinking.”

Nigeria planted the seeds for potential success in the coming years by placing 17th overall (tops among African nations) and qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. This gives the squad a chance to build on its accomplishments in China.

Among the interesting statistics that caught this reporter’s eye while perusing the final World Cup numbers: top shooting team (Serbia, 53.5 percent on field-goal attempts), top rebounding team (United States, 43.0 per game), most steals (Nigeria, 14.6 per game) and the most turnovers (Jordan, 16.4 per game).

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