The Spain everyone feared finally showed up and laid waste to Lithuania in the final of EuroBasket 2015. Emmet Ryan writes about a well-timed ascendancy
Pau Gasol didn’t have to do it all by himself today. That lone stand on Thursday night had roused his team mates. Once more they entered hostile territory but this time there was a strut in their step.
Outside the arena the French and Lithuanian fans mingled. Plenty of French fans didn’t need any help to get a Liet-u-va chant going. Having filled the house for the bronze medal game, there were plenty of Les Bleus here. They expected to see Tony Parker lift the trophy again but Pau Gasol ended that dream on Sunday. French fans really don’t like Spain in basketball and so the next best option was cheering for their opponents. The Lithuanians had brought bodies all through the tournament and plenty more had managed to scalp tickets for this one. The sea of green, red, yellow, and a dash of blue booed just at the sight of Pau Gasol on the big screen. As the anthems approached the noise got crazier. I had seen Spanish fans on the way in but they were lost in this arena. This might as well have been Vilnius or Kaunas not Lille. Spain were on hostile territory, Pau was taking the treatment normally reserved for Rudy, but now they had a chance to take back the title they feel belongs to this generation.
For the first time this tournament, Spain were clicking on D and they were doing so early. Sergio Scariolo didn’t want Jonas Valanciunas to go up against Pau Gasol in a straight fight so he didn’t let it happen. Spain were rotating well, denying Lithuania openings. Pau meanwhile was playing the facilitator early on offence. Gasol’s movement had been making space for Spain all tournament but they hadn’t taken advantage. Now Sergio Llull, who has been awful, and Rudy Fernandez, who has been playing broken, were making Pau’s work relevant in the early going. By the time Gasol opened his account, Spain were well on top. Midway through the first quarter, as Pau dropped a dunk to push the lead to 11 points, it looked like the vintage Spain was back. When Victor Claver entered he looked at Pau as thouh to say “I’ve got this” as Gasol concentrated his energy on racking up points.
Mindaugas Kuzminskas finally brought the crowd to their feet with a dunk, with his standard run along the baseline before an insanely energetic finish, but the Lietuva fans had been silenced. Spain were here to hurt their feelings. They had stared down France and won, putting the demon to bed. An organised but less talented Lithuanian roster didn’t scare them. Claver denied JV a put-back from out of nowhere with only a couple of seconds remaining. Kuzminskas tried to get one off on the buzzer only for Felipe Reyes to swat him away. With 10 minutes in the books Spain were in command, 19-8.
In Berlin, every Spanish player not named Pau reeked (yes, Ribas was solid there). Against Poland, Mirotic showed up. Against Greece, it was the Gasol show. France? Oh it was all about Pau. Here, finally, every man in a red and white shirt was bringing their A game and Lithuania looked way out of their depth. Rudy Fernandez was running rings around the Lithuanian D, Sergio Rodriguez had his groove back, and Reyes was playing like a much younger man than his 35 years.
Midway through the second Nikola Mirotic made a 3 to stretch the lead to 14 points. The work Spain were doing on offence was enough to intimidate but Lithuania had made the hole deeper with sloppy play. A whopping 7 turnovers in the opening 10 minutes had made life tough and now Spain were just stretching things out. Chacho had 5 steals in the first half alone. It was LTU forced to chase and they already looked gassed. Every now and again their fans tried to raise them but Spain had killed the crowd. Repeated stretches of near silence, with only light whistles to be heard, were exactly what the Spanish wanted. Renaldas Seibutis finally got something going for Lithuania with consecutive threes, forcing a Spanish timeout. Jonas Maciulis added another on the buzzer. It was a enough to take the wind out of Spain to end the half but Pau’s band of brothers still looked in control with a 41-33 lead.
Save for that flourish Lithuania had done nothing to suggest they belonged in this contest. At half-time the Liet-u-va chant from the fans getting some air sounded more defiant and far les assured during the break. Out of the locker rooms Spain had brought their D back and looked in control again. Just when the offence looked like it might stutter, Pau was their to relieve a beleaguered Reyes. Finally the Spanish fans were being heard, a few dozen had guathered to the left of press row and few LTU supporterrs had the energy to silence them. A Ribas three effectively ended the game as a contest. Paulius Jankunas floored Rudy with a rock hard screen as the game took a rougher edge. It looked clean, although the foul was called, but Fernandez was down a while before eventually being helped off. That was the end for Rudy but he had already done enough with 11 points, 2 steals, 1 assist, and 1 rebound.
LTU had the odd moment in this one to stop the score looking too awful but this was a dominant victory for the Spanish. After being a disappointment through the tournament, save for their win over Turkey on day two, the Spain that terrified Europe had returned. Navarro was in the building but he wasn’t on the roster. Abrines, Marc Gasol, Ibaka, Calderon. All missing from the World Cup all-star squad that ran into a brick wall last autumn. The kings of Europe were here and they wanted every one of the fans booing them to know that when they want to win, there isn’t a force on this continent that can stop them. Over the past four EuroBaskets they have played elimination or medal games 13 times. They have lost once and even that needed overtime. This isn’t a final flush for La Roja, it’s a resurrection. New men are here, filling the roles of the heroes of 2006, 2008, 2009, and 2011. Spain don’t rebuild, they reload. That was what we witnessed in Lille. That was the hard lesson dished out to Lithuania. As the final frame started the announcer tried in vain to get the Lithuanian fans to cheer. They hadn’t bought tickets over the last 48 hours and driven across Europe for this. They were in no mood to raise their throats down 17.
The fourth was painfully dull, Lithuania’s hope was dead and Spain were too kind to rub salt in the wound. The kings had returned to their thrown, after a fortnight of Pau carrying them back there.