Spain take on France in tonight's Eurobasket final with Spain looking to repeat as champions against a French team in their first ever final.
Spain were pre-tournament favourites to win the gold medal, whilst France were once again seen by many as the equivalent of the pre-2008 Spanish football team - a group of talented individuals, incapable of playing together and who would choke at the first signs of difficulty. France coach Vincent Collet can also be forgiven for feeling pretty pleased with himself after resting Tony Parker and Joakim Noah in an essentially meaningless Group E finale in which Spain embarassed the remaining French players in a 96-69 blowout. The decision was criticised intensely, for apparently killing his team's momentum, but France find themselves in their first ever Eurobasket gold medal game with Parker and Noah instrumental in the semi final win over Russia.
Wipe that game from your memory, as it has virtually nothing to do with what will transpire later tonight in Kaunas. Spain are stil the favourites, but a resilient French squad that lumbered back into gear in a narrow quarter final victory over Greece and then overcame then undefeated Russia matches up well with Spain on the wings and in the backcourt. As ever when it comes to facing Sergio Scariolo's "Ferrari" of a squad, the frontcourt battle will probably end up deciding the winner.
Although Juan Carlos Navarro is in the running for tournament MVP (alongside France's Tony Parker) the key to Spain's success has been Pau Gasol - even in a lethargic performance in the semi final he recorded 22 points and 17 rebounds (9 offensive) and the second chance points that resulted from his and his brother Marc's cleaning of the glass ensured Spain rode out a rocky shooting performance in the first half especially, before Navarro put the game away from the perimeter. Joakim Noah must keep Pau off the offensive glass, for two reasons - to limit second chance points, but also to spark the French fastbreak. Noah can grab the rebound and put it on the floor himself, and his ability to beat opposing bigs down the foor could be crucial. Noah's defensive rebound percentage (27.8) is excellent, but Spain have the Gasols, Felipe Reyes and Serge Ibaka to crash the boards, so he'll need some help, but where it could come from is a huge question mark.
At point guard, France has a massive advantage, and Tony Parker will look to take advantage of whoever ends up guarding him. Jose Calderon has been slowed even further by injury and Ricky Rubio will probably see a lot of time guarding the Spurs star. Nicolas Batum could draw the assignment on Navarro, but his athleticism and size would be better served trying to stop Rudy Fernandez.
France should push the ball up the floor aggressively after misses, but a slowed down halfcourt game may actually be in their favour - previous French teams have been bogged down by a lack of outside shooting, but Batum has been red hot from downtown and Tony Parker can bail out a stalled offense by creating off the dribble. If Ricky Rubio ends up staying in the game longer than Calderon in order to guard Parker, a slower pace exposes his limited offensive game. France have missed the outside shooting of Mickael Gelabele and will need someone like Nando de Colo to provide scoring from the bench, with Parker, Noah and Batum the only other real threats to put up 20+ points.
However the game is paced, the dominance of the Gasol brothers on the interior should be too much for the French to handle. If one of them can somehow be got into foul trouble, that would present France with more of an opportunity, as for all Serge Ibaka's athleticism and defensive strength, he messes up the spacing on offense that Marc Gasol provides, which is one reason he hasn't seen more minutes. With the Gasols' skilled high/low passing and gravitational pull that sucks in defenders to free up the perimeter, Spain should come out on top in this one.
(All stats from In The Game)