It was another horrible outing for Spain where they got the win but over-relied on you know who. Emmet Ryan is wondering what has happened to the side that Europe once feared
What will Spain do for scores when Pau Gasol eventually hangs up his kicks? Through six games in this tournament to two-time NBA champion has been the beginning and end of their offence, save for the odd flittering cameo from those around him. Spain’s lack of defence in this tournament is a story in itself but where’s Chacho? Llull? Where are the men to stretch this game out? At least Rudy had a back injury going into this one but even he has disappointed in this tournament. This trio make up Europe’s most electrifying attack at Real Madrid yet in the national jersey they have been absent. Instead here Spain were, in a fight against Poland, and Pau had to do it all again.
The crowd, mostly made up of French, were definitely against Spain in this one. A couple of whistles at the end of their anthem was followed by a chorus of boos as the Spanish starting five was announced. Part of the hope was, naturally, to avoid seeing the Spanish at a later stage of the tournament but Marcin Gortat and Poland weren’t going to say no to having a “home” advantage in this one. The Spanish were getting booed mercilessly while on the ball, every miss in the early going was met with a cheer while Poland’s first two scores got some big noise from the crowd. Gasol silenced the naysayers briefly as he opened Spain’s account from deep. Another three from Pau Ribas showed Poland just what they were facing. The Spanish were opening up the outside to create room on the interior. AJ Slaughter eventually ended a 10-0 Spain run. Poland’s game plan seemed to be get the ball to Gortat. Slaughter was showing far more pace on D than he was as a creator. Poland needed something less predictable or else they were going to be in trouble early. Slaught and Damian Kulig worked Poland back into it from one-on-one situations but Spain just looked to have more ways to attack. Nikola Mirotic made some early hay on the right block, stepping back twice to score.
With 3 minutes to play in the quarter Sergio Scariolo looked to shift the tempo, pulling three of starters but Poland were still making it work in isolation as Mateusz Ponitka briefly leveled matters. Slaughter was the problem for the Poles. His own isolation game was fine in spurts but he wasn’t doing anything to stretch the Spanish on defence. That was keeping the favourites fresh while Poland had to work for every bucket. At the end of the first, although Spain only led 25-20 they were well on top.
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Poland came out sharing the ball far more to start the second and they quickly fired off a 7-0 run. This was the game they needed to play. Spain’s depth was far greater than Poland’s, they needed to conserve energy on offence and force Spain to rotate heavily on D. Offensively they knew what Spain were going to do because it has been so horribly predictable all tournament. Gasol has carried the load with occasional help from Mirotic. In every game Spain has enjoyed alternative options but rarely made real use of them. Sergio Rodriguez and Sergio Llull haven’t given Scariolo’s side the spurts they need, forcing Pau to stay at work for close to the full 40. Even Ribas, who has delighted in patches, has gone missing for large swathes of games. Scariolo would argue that part of the issues are around the massive changes compared to last year’s World Cup squad but it was his regulars letting him down in this tournament.
Ponitka put Poland briefly back on top with a fast-break dunk and the crowd, which had dulled, started getting on Spain’s backs again. Pau came to the rescue again with a three and Victor Claver pushed the lead out again. Tricolours flew for France as Poland called a timeout. A triple team on Gasol showed that Poland were finally intent on actually forcing Spain to find another way to win. In 18 minutes work Pau had gone 6 of 6 including 3 of 3 from deep, along with snagging 3 rebounds and blocking Slaughter with aplomb. At the half this was anyone’s contest, Spain led just 41-39 and looked a touch shook.
Scariolos strategy in this tournament really has been bizarre. There’s only so much that can be put down to the efforts his charges are putting in on shifts. Haphazard defence with veterans looking like they had never seen a pick and roll before was allowing far weaker sides to live with them deep into games. His rotations seemed more about rest and management of minutes rather than presenting different looks. Here, for all the absentees, was one of the richest rosters in EuroBasket and the bulk of his side looked like bodies not players.
Mirotic woke up again to start the second quarter, taking a smidgen of the load off his Chicago Bulls team mate but it was Poland getting the better of the early going. They knew Spain weren’t in a good place and they were in with a real shot. It was largely tit for tat scoring but Poland were doing more with less. As the frame wound down Poland took their biggest lead of the game, albeit only 3 points. With 10 minutes to play Mirotic had dragged Spain back to level terms at 55-55 as Pau finally showed real fatigue.
Llull and Chacho finally started being more than bit parts on offence and actually pushed Spain into a strong position. Over 40 mintues the expectation was that Spain would have too much for Poland, just that it wouldn’t take 30 minutes for most of that Spanish side to start doing work. The absence of Jose Calderon is a factor, so too was Rudy not being there to help on D today, but right now this isn’t the Spanish team the world once feared. This isn’t even the Spanish team that turned in a stinker against France to exit their own World Cup last year. It’s a tired team looking to one man, one leader. He’s doing enough for now. They got the W after all but the players without Gasol on their back need to remember why everyone once hoped to avoid them at major tournaments.