|France captain Boris Diaw against Spain's Serge Ibaka- two of the most athletic players on the rosters of the two most athletic teams at EuroBasket 2011, according to Yarone Arbel |
By Yarone Arbel
France for the first time ever or Spain for the second time in a row? We will have the answer on Sunday night in Kaunas, when the EuroBasket 2011 gold medal race is decided between these two big nations.
These two are by far the most athletic teams in the competition and probably also the ones with the deepest rosters.
Each dropped just a single game in this EuroBasket and that was a game in which they missed their top players.
That will have to change tonight as the teams go head to head for the top prize.
While France is heavy especially on the wing and inside the paint, Spain is heavy in the guards and have brothers in arms.
While France is shooting the ball with high accuracy, especially from the arc, Spain's ball movement, fast breaks, and the trio of the Gasols plus Navarro make things happen for them.
Right before the tip off here's a look at what's ahead of us tonight.
The initial lists of the guards tell the story.
In France there's Tony Parker, Nando De Colo and... well that's about it.
Spain's backcourt is almost endless, with Jose Calderon, Ricky Rubio, Sergio Llull, Victor Sada and one very special Juan Carlos Navarro.
Parker is hardly getting off the floor and other than one game he's never played less than 33 minutes in any game.
He played 37 minutes in each of the two games in Kaunas (quarter-final and semi-final), and will have to survive a rotation of tough guards as Rubio, Sada and Llull who were born for these missions and they'll try to tire him out.
Good luck with that as the previous mission -stopping Bo McCalebb - saw the F.Y.R of point guard reach 25 points in 57.9% from the floor and five assists.
If Parker registers similar figures, Spain will be in big trouble, yet having none of the four play over 18.9 minutes shows how much energy they'll have to spend on him.
While Parker will be the focus of attention, one eye must be always kept on De Colo, who's in top shape as crunch time nears.
In the first six games, De Colo totalled 13 points but has declared independence since, with 56 points in great performances and, most importantly, hitting big shots.
Spain's main offensive weapon in the back court is obviously Navarro, but there's an extreme difference from the rest.
Navarro hits 17.9 points with 44.9% from the arc while the second best scorer from the guards is Calderon with just 4.8 per game.
Llull collected 2.7, Rubio 1.6 and Sada 0.9 points per game, with Calderon having the only single performance in which a Spanish guard who's not Navarro scored in double-digits.
Then again the Spanish quarter combines eight assists, which is over 41% of Spain's total, as they still make the game go around for the top three stars.
If France find a way to limit Navarro, if that's even possible, Spain will seek for someone to step up and it might be a late wake up call for some.
Navarro scored 26 points in the quarters and added 35 to put Spain in the title game.
Is he going for the 40s now?
It will be interesting to follow the match-up between Navarro and Batum who will probably take a shot at stopping La Bomba.
Batum has got the length, quickness and athleticism to give Navarro a reason to think twice before acting.
Though it might cost France the contribution of Batum on offense
Parker is important - yes, and De Colo is in great shape - for sure, but the one who put France in the title game is Batum.
Against Greece he scored 10 of his 15 points in the last quarter, including key shots, right at the right time, to keep his team on top.
Against Russia he had 13 of his 19 points in the second half, seven of them in the last six minutes, including two huge dunks, and added a key offensive rebound down the stretch.
He's the second best scorer of the team with 14.2 and hits 44.1% from the perimeter.
Some might think he's pushing Boris Diaw, who used to be Parker's right hand all these years, too far, but what actually happens is that now Diaw has the leisure time to do what he does best -a little bit of everything- and France earned 7.6 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.0 assists from their all-arounder.
One of the most intriguing line-ups of France is when they are playing Parker-De-Colo-Batum-Diaw and a big guy.
Keep a close eye on these minutes.
Make sure to keep them open also for Charles Kahudi, an impressive athlete himself, who doesn't shine with his game but brings a lot of blue collar work from the wing to give Batum some rest.
Yet Spain got one winger that can't be ignored in Rudy Fernandez who brings his all-around game with 7.6 points, 3.3 rebounds, 2 assists and 1.6 steals to the floor.
Rudy doesn't lack talent but knows his spot in the team, and like every Spanish player is more than willing to sacrifice some of his talent for the best of the team.
Nevertheless, Spain needs him ready to step up in order to give the French defense another headache and divert attention from Navarro.
Coach Scariolo likes to play with three guards, when Rudy is resting, yet against the taller, strong and athletic French team that might be a luxury.
"I never had two centers as dominant as the Gasols," declared Sergio Scariolo in one of the strongest statements of this championship.
They combine for 33.9 points and 15.5 rebounds every night, which are 40% of the points and rebounds of the entire team.
Scariolo uses both of them on the floor at times, and brings from the bench Serge Ibaka to add a dimension of athleticism and length or Felipe Reyes to pepper in some experience.
France isn't that skilled in the paint.
Their main inside player is Joakim Noah yet he's producing "only" 8.8 points and 8.0 rebounds a night, and technical skills isn't his main weapon.
To get the power inside, Coach Collet brings in Kevin Seraphin, Florent Pietrus, Ali Traore and also using Diaw as a lighter power forward.
The first four combine 23.5 points and 15.5 rebounds, which is less than 30% of France's points yet over 45% of the rebounds.
The difference between the Gasols and their backups, and the deeper yet less effective front line of France is clear, yet Les Bleus have the tools to tire the brothers.
While Spain got two 2.15m bigs in the Gasols and a 2.07m Ibaka with great wingspan and leaping ability, what makes France's front court special is strength.
Other than Noah, probably the last person you want to arm-wrestle with, nobody is over 2.05m yet France can be physical, tough and wide.
They also got the reserves to work out 18 personal fouls to make life more difficult on the Gasols.