Spain and France seemingly have to go through each other at every major basketball tournament. EuroBasket 2015 is no different.
Tuesday’s quarterfinals slate, which saw Spain win 73-71 over Greece and France blow by Latvia 84-70, has ensured that the two countries will face each other once again in a pivotal game when they meet in the semifinals on Thursday. Spain and France faced in the semis of the FIBA World Cup last year and the semis of EuroBasket 2013. France won both of those ocassions, but the countries will sport significantly different lineups this time around.
Spain isn’t as stacked as they usually are in international play. Marc Gasol, Jose Calderon, Serge Ibaka and Ricky Rubio opted to sit out EuroBasket this year. The undermanned Spain squad has already lost twice at EuroBasket, to Serbia and Italy, but that hasn’t stopped them from advancing to the semifinals once again.
Pau Gasol is the biggest reason for Spain’s success, as he’s leading the tournament in points per game (23.6) by a wide margin. Gasol has always dominated in a Spanish uniform, but he’s on a whole other level of domination at EuroBasket so far. In addition to those 23.6 points per game, he’s averaging 8.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.1 blocks while shooting 58.9 percent from the floor and 75 percent from behind the arc (on an impressive 1.3 makes per game). His 30-point, six-three-pointer performance against Poland was video game-esque:
Gasol is playing at an elite level no doubt, but much of his success is a product of Spain’s system. Spain runs a pick-and-roll heavy offense with tons of spacing on the floor. Point guards Sergio Rodriguez and Sergio Llull (both leading the team with 4.3 assists per game so far in the tournament) are wizards with the ball and set up Gasol for easy finishes in the paint with regularity. Rudy Fernandez, who’s one of the best passing wings in the world, is always a threat for a lob pass or whatever you call this:
Nikola Mirotic has thrived in his first stint with the Spanish senior team. He’s averaging 14.1 points and 5.7 rebounds while shooting 58.9 percent from the floor and converting on a whopping 71.4 percent of his two-pointers. Playing the stretch 4 role alongside Gasol has been a deadly combination for Spain. Mirotic has done most of his damage off-ball while utilizing his frequent, yet effective pump fake to set up drives and draw fouls.
Spain’s four-out, shooting-heavy approach has paid dividends offensively as they rank third in EuroBasket in points per game (85.9) and field goal percentage (48.7). The ball and players are constantly moving in a free-flowing, fun-to-watch style of play. However, the team’s offensive-minded lineups have led to sub-par defense.
Spain ranks 19th in opponent’s points per game (78.3) and 16th in opponent’s field goal percentage (44.9). Remember, these rankings are out of 20 EuroBasket squads. The frontcourt of Gasol and Mirotic doesn’t help the team on that end, as both players struggled mightily at times defensively for the Bulls last season. The 35-year-old Gasol isn’t capable of doing much defensively outside of protecting the rim and grabbing rebounds. Mirotic is athletic and quick enough to be a plus defender, but his discipline and instincts on that end are lacking.
The trio of Rodriguez, Llull and Fernandez aren’t known for their defensive prowess, either. This is where Rubio and defensive aces Marc Gasol and Ibaka will be missed. Spain’s weakness is France’s biggest strength.
France is holding opponents to a mere 65.4 points per game and 40.4 percent shooting, ranking first and third among EuroBasket teams, respectively. Those low numbers are a product of France’s ridiculous length. The team boasts a starting lineup of Tony Parker (6-foot-2), Nando De Colo (6-foot-5), Nicolas Batum (6-foot-8), Boris Diaw (6-foot-8) and Mr. Fantastic himself in Rudy Gobert (7-foot-2). Gobert is especially a matchup nightmare for a vertically-challenged Spanish squad.
Gobert is playing solid at EuroBasket, averaging 10.1 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in only 21.4 minutes per contest, but he’s yet to explode in the way people expected him to after a breakout NBA season. Although he did do this on Tuesday:
Gasol is going to struggle against Gobert’s length and athleticism. The last time they faced, Gobert grabbed 14 rebounds and blocked five shots while holding Gasol to 5-of-13 shooting in a 97-77 Jazz victory over the Bulls last season. If Gobert neutralizes Gasol, Spain doesn’t have as deep of a squad as usual to make up for his loss of production. France on the other hand may be the deepest team in the tournament.
Beyond France’s monstrous starting lineup, the team also boasts Evan Fournier, Joffrey Lauvergne and former NBA player Mickael Gelabale. France’s length, depth and athleticism, to go along with one of the greatest players in EuroBasket history in Parker, might be too much to handle for Spain. To make matters worse for Spain, the game will be played in Lille, France. Despite Spain’s 5-3 edge over France in major international competition over the past five years, they’ll enter this matchup as the underdog.
You can’t ask for much more on a Thursday afternoon during the lull of the NBA offseason. France vs. Spain with an Olympic spot on the line. That’s must-watch TV.