“FIBA? Don’t you mean FIFA World Cup?”
Nope! The International Basketball Association renamed their quadrennial event from the “2014 FIBA World Championship” to the “2014 FIBA World Cup,” highlighting a new, exciting era for basketball on the international stage. While Team USA is regarded as the frontrunner to repeat as world champions, one hometown team of grizzled veterans stands in their way: Spain.
Spain is not new to frustrating the USA on the international scene; they hung around in the 2008 Olympics until they were met with a determined Kobe in the game’s final period. They returned to the championship in London only to lose by seven to the Kevin Durant-led US team. The 2014 Spanish team features ten players who played in London two years ago, and seven from Beijing. Their experience manifests itself in their fluid, unselfish play; they run set plays with more player movement and passing than our baby-faced, hometown heroes. In fact, the Spanish team has more years total played (49) in the NBA than the U.S. team (42).
Ricky Rubio is the point guard for Spain, bringing his signature pinpoint passing to either feed the high post or swing to the wing in order to initiate the offense. He’s backed up by the crafty Sergio Rodriguez and the sharpshooter Jose Calderon. Rudy Fernandez still plays basketball and he has the green light from his coach Juan Antonio Orenga to do whatever the hell he wants on the court. Rounding out the backcourt is 34 year old Juan Navarro – a no-nonsense veteran and member of Spain’s “Golden Generation” of basketball.
All of the aforementioned players are excellent shooters and passers, but the real threat to the USA lies in the sheer dominance of Spain’s big men. Pau Gasol seems to have found new life, crashing the boards and hitting mid-range jump shots to average 20.5 points per game. That’s not the scary part – he’s also the second most efficient player in the tournament, shooting 64.4 percent from the field. Most of Spain’s sets run through Marc Gasol, using his superior court vision to throw dazzling one-handed touch passes and hit cutting teammates. Serge Ibaka makes it a block party – Spain averages 6 blocks a game, good for second behind the swatters of South Korea.
Offensively, Spain is almost impossible to guard. All the big men have three-point range (the FIBA line is shorter than the NBA line). Their range keeps defenses honest, giving the guards space to drive. However, the backcourt hardly ever looks to score; the drive is mainly utilized as a way to collapse the defense in order to kick it back out for open shots. In fact, their offense is good for 88.2 points per game, which sounds unimpressive compared to USA’s 99.5. However, Spain has shot 69 times less than the USA (through the Senegal game).
While Spain has seemed fairly unstoppable, Team USA does have some key advantages. Spain has some trouble with quick, athletic point guards – their perimeter defense is relatively nonexistent apart from Rubio’s ball-hawking ways. If Derrick Rose ever finishes using FIBA as his personal rehab clinic, he, Kyrie Irving, and Stephen Curry have a chance to do damage. While the Gasols’ will score their share and make good passes from the block, they have trouble actually posting up, as seen in Anderson Varejao’s ability to frustrate Pau in Spain’s game vs. Brazil. Spain can go small and go big, but they can’t go medium – athletic small forwards dominate their guards and are quicker than their power players.
Finally, their game vs. Senegal showed the trouble they have against superior length and athleticism that helps teams break up plays – the U.S. always has an edge when it comes to these traits.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves; Team USA still has to get past quality teams such as Turkey, who caused some trouble during round robin play. However, if all goes as expected, the USA vs Spain championship match on the 14th will be a thriller.
Photo: Christian Petersen