LONDON — Yes, it’s them again.
They actually lost a couple of group-round games, and they only beat host Great Britain by a crummy point, but Spain won the games that counted and now they will play the Americans Sunday for the gold medal in men’s basketball.
Things looked pretty bleak late in the first half of Friday’s semifinal, when they trailed Russia by 13 (31-18), but that’s what 6-for-29 shooting will do for you. You just knew they couldn’t be this bad.
And they weren’t. They had played a similar stinker in their quarterfinal with France. They straightened themselves out with some killer D and by making shots. It was a bit messy both games, but they got through it, and they are here. We will have a rematch of the Beijing final.
If we’re lucky, Sunday’s game will be half as good. For Spain was ultracompetitive four years ago, trailing the mighty USA by just 2 with eight minutes remaining and finding themselves just 4 in arrears a tick past the two-minute mark. Dwyane Wade came up with a big three and the USA tacked on some predictable free throws in the end. The 118-107 final score did not speak clearly as to the type of game it was.
“It was very competitive, very emotional,” recalled Spain’s Pau Gasol.
Four years is four years, and much has and hasn’t changed. Five members of the Spanish team are back in uniform, not counting guard Jose Calderon, a vital member who missed that game in Beijing with an injury. They are: Gasol, younger brother Marc, Juan Carlos Navarro, Rudy Fernandez, and Felipe Reyes. The USA likewise returns five: Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Deron Williams, Chris Paul, and Carmelo Anthony.
The Spaniards had to explain themselves a little bit after Friday’s game. Russian coach Dave Blatt would certainly feel insulted if anyone implied that part of Spain’s problem hadn’t been Russia. His team pretty much did everything it wanted to do, playing effective defense and moving the ball nicely. What they didn’t do was make enough shots. They had every right to think they could have been up by 15 or even 20.
“We were trying to win in the first few minutes,” said Calderon.
“In the first half we were very anxious,” concurred coach Sergio Scariolo. “We rushed a lot of shots. Not for bad will. We were anxious. We had the desire to end the game with three shots. In the second half we relaxed and calmed down.”
Playing far better after intermission, Spain had the game tied at 46 after three quarters. With Calderon nailing some killer threes, they had it stretched out to double digits with four minutes left and were able to cruise home.
“We played well in the first half,” said Blatt. “But if you don’t maintain that level against an experienced, great team such as Spain, they will make you pay.”
Spain basically played as if it believed it was the better team, which it is. The Gasol brothers are the best inside tandem in the tournament. Many people don’t yet realize how much Marc Gasol has done to transform himself into, if not a truly great player, a very good one. And his big brother is the most skilled big man in the world.
Spain is a talented team that has been together a long time. They have great camaraderie, and it sure doesn’t hurt the chemistry when your two best players have the same padre and madre.
Clearly, there has been some kind of motivation problem here. They came here thinking only of playing the USA in the gold-medal game and they may have taken their eye off the prize en route. Anyone can have an off night, but this team is too good to lose group-round games to both Russia and Brazil, and then almost lose to Great Britain.
That stuff is all behind them now. They can focus on the Americans.
“Very few people get a chance to compete in an Olympic finals and we are so fortunate to have a second chance,” said Pau Gasol. “It’s a matter of seizing the moment and competing as hard as you can.”
This has been a tremendous era in Spanish basketball. They won the 2006 world championship in Tokyo and they extended the Americans before settling for the silver medal in Beijing. They are widely recognized as being the second-best team in the world, with apologies to Argentina. And they always have a good time doing it.
“We are like family,” said Calderon. “We know how to talk to each other.”
“We are a group of guys who like to play basketball and who respect each other,” Pau said. “We like to have fun. Most of the time we are just friends hanging out. We just happen to be basketball players, and we are a talented team.”
A 20-second timeout, if I may . . .
How did Pau Gasol learn he had a new, large teammate on that other team of his, the one headquartered in LA?
That would be Dwight Howard, of course.
“I was stretching before the game and [television reporter] Craig Sager came up and told me,” Gasol said. “He said he needed a reaction, and I was just trying to concentrate on the game in front of me. But I knew I had to give him a little something so he would go away and I could go back to my stretching.”
And what does Pau think of his new team alignment?
“I think it’s something that puts us in the position to be an extremely powerful team and it gives us all the chances to win a ring,” he declared.
Back over here, he and his mates are trying to pad an already impressive international résumé.
“It’s something we do not take for granted,” he said. “One day we will look back and say we’ve done some amazing things.”
I think we all know what would be the most amazing thing of all.