Attending this game was like attending a funeral. The arena was filled with fans from nearby Serbia, who had all come at 5:30 on a weekday to see their team take on the defending champions. There were a few pockets of Spanish fans here and there, but they were barely audible over the early Serbian roar.
That roar was soon to fall, though. Serbia was absolutely creamed in this game. From buzzer to buzzer, the team barely put up a fight. Serbia simply couldn't get the ball out of their own back court. They're without a true point guard, so the ball is often trusted to their wings, and they have to do a lot of movement above the arc. Spain knew this, and pressured the heck out of them, getting a lot of early turnovers and easy buckets.
Meanwhile, Serbia was totally destroyed down low. Nenad Krstic, who had a great tournament up to this point, was shut down by the defense of Marc Gasol, who suddenly reminded me less of Spains beautiful game and more of Memphis' Grit n' Grind style of play. Gasol wouldn't give Krstic an inch on the block, and Spain absolutely refused to pressure Krstic. This simultaneously took away both Krstic's ability to score and to distribute the ball. The most puzzling thing was that Krstic wasn't able to go out to the perimeter for open shots, despite Gasol's staying near the basket. It could have opened up a lot of things for Serbia.
On the other side, Spain was playing like a well-oiled machine. Sergio Rodriguez was on fire, hitting a few shots from way behind the three point line and getting to the basket with ease. His ability to hit stepback jumpers was simply amazing. Rudy Fernandez was equally effective, slicing through the pourous interior Serbian D. Meanwhile, the rest of the team was constantly pushing the break, throwing baseball passes up the court and scoring with ease. When that wasn't happening, Serbia was getting way too over-antsy on D, and giving the Spanish an easy open shot.
By the time the second half rolled around in this game, it felt more like a funeral than anything else. The Spanish fans weren't numerous enough to produce a roar, and the Serbian fans were silent. Like, dead silent. After a scoreless stretch to start the third quarter, the normally raucous crowd simply refused to clap. A few chants rose up, most of them directly insulting the players for their performance. By the end of the game, the fans clapped for their players, and loudly booed the Spanish for their perceived tactic of intentionally tanking their last game in order to face the Serbians.
At my hostel, I met a fan from Kikinda, a small town in the northern Serbian province of Vojvodina. When I asked him why his team lost, he gave me a one word answer. "Jitters. You could see it in the players' eyes." He couldn't have been more right. I can give you an array of reasons why Spain was able to cream Serbia, but when your team falls behind by 40 after getting this far, reasons have to extend beyond basketball.
France's performance tonight was that fitting of the championship team we all expected them to be. I've argued against them a lot because their interior defense was pretty porous, and tonight was no exception. But they were really able to close this game out when it mattered, no questions asked. Slovenia was held to four points in the paint in the fourth quarter, while committing 6 crucial turnovers that France was eager to capitalize on.
How did it all happen? In the fourth, France went with their small lineup for the majority of the time, playing Boris Diaw at center and throwing in Florent Pietrus at power forward. This gives them a lot of speed and ability to trap, generating a lot of turnovers and increasing the pace. It helped stem a declining performance from Tony Parker, and allowed them to really crash the paint with drives, as France didn't attempt a since three in the fourth quarter.
Earlier on, the game was a different story. France played with a more traditional lineup, and Slovenia was seeing more success inside. It was a real grind early on, with both teams missing a ton of jumpshots, and neither team committing a single shooting foul. But it picked up in the third. That quarter was Tony Parker and Goran Dragic time, with Dragic dishing a ton of assists and Parker sliding through the lane.
I really think the Slovenia's problem, ultimately, was their lack of a post presence. If they could have punished France with a center like Krstic, Tomic, or Gasol, then this game would have been a lot more competitive overall. By all standards, the guards of both teams were able to compete on a similar level. But Mirza Begic, Gasper Vidmar, and Jure Balazic combined for a -18 +/- rating and 2-12 shooting. That just isn't going to cut it when you're facing the most pourous interior defense of the entire tournament.
More immediately, Slovenia just wasn't able to get anything going on the inside in the fourth. They were fouled before getting into the paint on several occasions, and pulled up for a lot of lazy threes. They also relied a bit too much on their stars to produce on their own, which played right into France's hands.
It's never fun to see the home country go down in such an unheralded fashion, but it was bound to happen. Erazem Lorbek was supposed to be their presence in the post this year, and Beno Udrih could have provided a much better presence off the bench than an aging Jaka Lakovic. They relied too much on their guards, and that can kill you when facing a team that can beat you in terms of athleticism and quickness. They might have won the final if their matchups went their way, but so it goes.
On the plus side, tickets to the semi-final are about to be way cheaper.
Slovenia and Serbia will play tomorrow for a spot in the 2014 World Championship. Spain and France will play on Friday for a spot in the finals.
What did you think of tonight's games? Let us know in the comments!