I really never thought France would be able to make it this far with no low post presence, but here we are. If I had to give one reason behind France's victory and Spain's defeat in this game, it would be the commitment to a team identity. That's a vague concept, but let me break it down.
On Spain's end, who would you consider to be their primary ballhandler? Ricky Rubio would seem to be like the man in charge, but he's frequently spelled by two guard Sergio Rodriguez. It got to the point where Rubio worked off the ball half of the time, making him ineffective at best. As a result, one of Spain's best players spent the end of the game at the end of the bench, instead of creating shots.
Furthermore, what type of plays does Spain run? A lot of Spanish fans like to point to the fact that Juan Orenga generally "doesn't call plays", but it goes beyond that. He's working with a team that had to incorporate a lot of new pieces, and he simply couldn't commit to one type of play style. If you watch Coach Nick's BBallbreakdown of this game, you'll see Spain run a variety of different plays, but run only about half of them effectively. This results in a lot of isos for Spanish players, and the perception that they come into the game unprepared. Defensively, the results can be even more disastrous, as you'll see several instances of players not knowing where they're supposed to be and giving France easy shots from the outside.
Now, let's look at Marc Gasol. He's a huge part of the Spanish offensive attack, since he's a big man with the touch of a guard. But when he's out of the game or playing ineffectively, Spain's offense totally stops. Early in the third quarter, he went out with a shoulder tweak and wasn't really involved for a while when he got back. This was easily Spain's most ineffective offensive stretch, as they scored 1 point in 6 minutes and allowed France to crawl back into the game.
Why can't Spain play well without him? Basically, their offense fell apart. Without him setting screens or creating space, they didn't have a legitimate post threat or pick setter. This left their ballhandlers running ineffective plays on the perimeter, and every play basically devolved into an iso or some type of pick and roll. The athletic French were able to keep up, and Spain ended up sputtering,.
On France's side, they're totally committed to an identity. Alexis Ajinca, aside from short spells of Johan Petro, is the team's lone big man. So, while France can play a traditional lineup if they want to, generally, they play to their strengths. They're a quick, athletic team that can attack the basket with no remorse. They don't make things too complicated, and they don't try too hard to cover for their weaknesses. Instead, they simply go with what works.
And what worked for them tonight was Tony Parker. Admittedly, part of Parker's offensive explosion was Juan Orenga's fault, because taking out Ricky Rubio late in the game gave Tony Parker a significant edge on offense. But really, Tony Parker was able to exploit Spain's defensive miscommunication to a T. He got whatever jumper he wanted, and was able to draw fouls down low rather easily late in the game.
Meanwhile, France's quickness was able to take Gasol out of the game. During the fourth quarter and overtime, Marc Gasol was guarded by a combination of Ajinca, Pietrus, and Diaw. It really depended on the play, but they never allowed Gasol to get easy points on the block, they took his jumper out of his offensive arsenal, and they forced a few key turnovers on him late. With Gasol's presence becoming more marginalized, it became harder for the Spanish offense to consistently produce.
Going into this game, I considered Croatia the strongest team in the tournament, and I thought they'd roll over Lithuania. But they fell apart in the third quarter. Why? Post up after post up. It felt like Croatia was repeatedly slamming against a brick wall. I understand that their offense works from the inside out, but they were going against the deepest big man core in the league, continually failing at what they were trying to establish. What happened to the Croatia that forced mismatches against the bigger Ukraine just a night ago?
Meanwhile, Lithuania went to the perimeter.. Their offense was so effective at drawing the Croatian defense into the paint that they were able to kick out a couple of key shots to Seibutis early in the third to get things going.
Croatia's responded by throwing in an even bigger lineup, essentially playing three front court players. This helped get their guards into the paint and get Croatia to the line, but Lithuania was able to get whatever jumpshot they wanted. By the time the fourth rolled around, Croatia was 16 points in the hole. They started to fire up a ton of desperation threes and watched the game slip away.
How much credit does Lithuania deserve for this game? Well, I've hated on them a lot before, but I've really got to hand it to them here. After relying on converted drive-first guards and back to the basket bigs, they were finally able to get production out of Linas Kleiza. It's about doggone time that he had a breakout game, after a string of lackluster performances and bad shooting nights. He basically carried his team through the first half, providing Lithuania with the isolation threat they've so desperately needed throughout this tournament.
Furthermore, Lithuania was able to use the defensive and space creating advantages of their bigs without even breaking a sweat. Their guards were able to act as spacers and nail some tough threes, covering for a long-perceived weakness with this Lithuanian team. All in all, they won it with their guards. And that's amazing enough on its' own.
Classification Game 2:
I didn't catch this game, but Marco Belinelli had one of the worst game of his life, while Pooh Jeter reverted to his former score-first self.
7th Place Game
This game decided who would get the final slot for the 2014 FIBA World Championship in Spain. Normally onyl 6 teams from Europe make it, but Spain automatically qualified as the host, opening up another slot.
Heading into this game, you had two very different stories. Italy was a heavily flawed team that got to where they did with some solid talent, and Serbia was a very strong looking team that absolutely collapsed when things got grimey.
The game was definitely important, but I was intrigued to know how much these players could get up for this game after two straight losses. The truth is, both of these teams wanted this game, badly. I guess after you spend three weeks together, going out on a good note is pretty important, no matter how much of a big shot you are.
Long story short, Serbia was the superior team from the starting gun. Nenad Krstic was having no problems scoring against the undersized Marco Cusin. The need to keep a man on Krstic opened up the paint, and Serbia was able to score with ease. Italy was able to slowly climb back into it with some hot shooting, but Serbia kept them at bay, eventually heating up on the perimeter themselves.
5th Place Game:
This game was totally meaningless, but it was a last chance for Slovenian fans to catch their home team. Unsurprisingly, they won this via some late-game heroics from Goran Dragic. They can feel pretty confident heading into 2014, with the expected returns of Erzam Lorbek and Beno Udrih.
France will play Lithuania for the Championship tomorrow, while Spain will play Lithuania for third place.