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The 250-Pound Swiss Army Life Of France And San Antonio

In one of the biggest upsets in recent international basketball history, France knocked off Spain 65-52 in the quarterfinals of the World Cup. A week after getting blown out by the Spaniards in group play, the French turned the tables in the knockout round. France got standout performances from a number of players, most notably Boris Diaw, who outplayed the Gasol brothers on both sides of the ball, finishing with 15 points, five rebounds and three assists. 

With national team mainstays Joakim Noah and Tony Parker sitting this tournament out, the French team became Diaw’s, almost by default. Diaw had not put up big scoring numbers before the game against of Spain, but he still impacted the game in a number of ways, serving as France’s primary playmaker and one of the main hubs of their offense. The upset is a culmination of a remarkable year of basketball for Diaw, both internationally and in the NBA. 

Spain came into the quarterfinals on a tear, blowing out every team they faced en route to a 6-0 record. After losing to the US in the gold medal games in the last two Olympics, this was supposed to be their year. Not only were they hosting the World Cup, there wasn’t a team in the field with the size to match up with the Gasol brothers. It was pick your poison - either you lived up with Marc and Pau dominating in the post or you gave up open 3’s.

Against France, though, the tables were turned. The French big men, despite giving up a ton of size, played the Gasols and Serge Ibaka very physically, not giving up any space in the post, crowding them on the perimeter and attacking them on the glass. The mismatch ended up working the other way - Diaw was able to drag the Spanish big men away from the paint, where he used his superior quickness to blow by them and collapse the defense. 

Diaw’s fingerprints were all over the win. At 6’8 250 and with a wingspan north of 7’0, he is built more like an NFL LT than an NBA big man. He no longer has the great vertical leap of his youth, but he still has a very strong base and remarkably quick feet, which allows him to body up and stay in front of much bigger players while still contesting their shots. Matched up primarily against Marc Gasol, Diaw held him to three points and four rebounds on 1-7 shooting.

That was one of the biggest problems for Spain on Wednesday - while Marc could not take advantage of Diaw on one side of the ball, he had very little chance of guarding him on the other. France opened the game on an 11-2 run, thanks in large part to two three-pointers from Diaw. Once he established that he could make the perimeter shot, he put the Spanish defense in a difficult bind, since none of their big men could contain him off the dribble either.

For the most part, the other team comes into a game wanting Diaw to be a scorer. He is a naturally unselfish player who is at his best when he can distribute the ball and make plays for everyone else. You can count the number of players with his size, ball-handling and passing ability on one hand. In terms of being a point forward who can dissect a defense from anywhere on the floor, the only guys in the same league as Diaw are LeBron James and Blake Griffin. 

Diaw has a remarkable feel for the game, with an intuitive sense of where the other nine players on the floor are. He doesn’t just find the open man - he creates open shots by anticipating what the defense will do before he even makes his move. My favorite play in the World Cup came in their Round of 16 win over Croatia, when Diaw caught the ball in the post, split a double team in one motion, drew a third defender and then handed the ball off for an open dunk.

Even when he didn’t finish off a possession with a basket or an assist, Diaw was one of the main initiators of the French offense on Wednesday. When he was on the floor, Diaw was either the primary ball-handler or a screener on the pick-and-roll. Something good happened almost every time he touched the ball - he would hit cutters and find the open man out of the post or drive the ball into the defense and create ball movement that would end in an open shot.

Diaw has never been the most consistent player over the course of an 82-game season, but when the lights are brightest, he performs at his best. He gave Spain the complete package in the quarterfinals, beating them as a scorer, passer, shooter, rebounder and defender. Diaw is a 250-pound Swiss Army Knife who can do a little bit of everything over the course of a game, which gives his team a tremendous amount of versatility on both sides of the ball.

There’s no position where versatility is more important than power forward, where players have to match-up with a wide variety of opponents. Some teams like to pound the ball inside to two traditional big men while others like to spread the floor with four perimeter players - Diaw lets you do either. He can defend the post and the three-point line and he can play out of the post or on the perimeter on offense. There are not many PF’s who can do all four.

You are not going to find two basketball players more distinct than Marc Gasol and LeBron James and Diaw was able to hold his own against both at the highest levels of the game. Diaw’s insertion into the starting line-up in Game 3 of the NBA Finals changed the tenor of the series. With Diaw spreading the floor and playing as a point forward from the top of the key, the San Antonio Spurs blew the Miami Heat off the floor for three straight games.

Diaw was one of the main catalysts for one of the most dominant performances in Finals history. His stat-line for the series was vintage Diaw - six points, eight rebounds and six assists per game - but the most telling number was his assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.1:1. Diaw thinks the game at a really high level and he almost never makes the wrong play with the ball in his hands. He is the ultimate teammate who makes the game easy for everyone around him.

If Diaw had a different mentality, both in terms of hunting for his own shot and keeping himself in peak physical condition, there’s no telling how good a player he could have been. Diaw is the rare basketball player who never had to sacrifice his taste for the finer things in life to excel at the highest levels of the sport. For all he has accomplished, he is still only 31 years old, so basketball fans should be able to enjoy his unique game for many years to come.

Spain And The Beautiful Game

Through the end of group play at the World Cup, two countries - Spain and the US - have separated themselves from the pack. They dominated their respective groups, with both teams going 5-0 and winning every game by double digits. The surprise isn’t that the Spanish have looked as good as the Americans, especially playing at home, but that they have had as many highlights and are playing the more entertaining brand of basketball.

With Ricky Rubio pushing the pace and getting anywhere he wants to go on the court and the Gasol brothers stepping out on the perimeter and making pinpoint passes out of the post, Spain spreads the floor and zips the ball from side to side. Everyone in Spain’s rotation is an NBA-caliber player and they can all shoot, pass and make decisions on the fly. If they keep this level of play up, they could go down as the best international team of the modern era.

After a wave of last-minute withdrawals from Team USA, the talent gap between the Americans and their biggest rival is as small as it has been since 2006, the last time they lost a game in a major international tournament. The US would still be the heavy favorite in a seven-game series, but in a one-and-done scenario, the team with more size and skill upfront, more perimeter shooting and more overall continuity has a real chance of winning.

When you watch the two teams play, there’s little comparison as to which is group more comfortable playing with each other. While the US has to essentially build a team from scratch every two years, the core of the Spanish team has been together for more than a decade. Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol, Jose Calderon, Juan Carlos Navarro, Rudy Fernandez and Rubio all played in the Olympics in 2008 - none of the Americans from that team are still around.

After showing his age in his last few seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers, where he didn’t really fit with either Dwight Howard or Mike D’Antoni’s four-out system, Pau appears rejuvenated by playing in his home country and being featured in a pass-heavy two-post offense. He is averaging 21 points, 6 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 2 blocks a game on 62% shooting - through the first five games, he would have to be the MVP of the entire tournament.

And while the US has a first-team All-NBA guard (James Harden) and a guy who may be the third best player in the world (Anthony Davis), Spain may have the more valuable NBA player in Marc Gasol. Marc won the Defensive Player of the Year Award two seasons ago and is one of the best passing big men in the world. He makes his teammates significantly better on both sides of the ball, something you can’t really say about any of the Americans.

With the US starting a 220-pound center (Davis) and a 6’8 power forward (Kenneth Faried), Spain would have a significant advantage in the post in a hypothetical gold medal game. The problem is that the Gasol brothers are looking to pass - if they force the Americans to pack the paint, they will be able to find shooters on the perimeter and you don’t want to give Fernandez, Navarro and Calderon too many open looks from beyond the three-point line.

Rubio and Calderon are their only perimeter players in the NBA, but you can’t overlook any of the guys in Spain’s rotation. Fernandez, Navarro and Sergio Rodriguez all had their moments in the league and none of them looked out of place going against the best in the world. Sergio Llull, their other main perimeter reserve, was the No. 34 overall pick in 2009 and Alex Abrines was taken by the Oklahoma City Thunder at No. 32 overall in 2013.

None of this, of course, means the Spaniards are unbeatable. No one in their group had the team speed to really challenge their perimeter defense and take the ball at the Gasol brothers. Fernandez is also their only wing with the size to match up against guys like Harden and Klay Thompson, so the American guards should be able to make a killing in the post. If Harden can get Pau or Marc in foul trouble, that could really change the dynamic of the game.

When you look at the box scores of the last two times these countries met - the gold medal games in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics - that’s one of the things that really jumps out at you. Fernandez fouled out of both games and Marc Gasol was in foul trouble throughout - he had 4 fouls and played 17 minutes in London. Serge Ibaka is a very capable reserve, but he can’t create his own shot and Spain needs to be able to run offense through their big men.

The referees, who haven’t exactly been playing to rave reviews so far, could end up having a huge role in what happens in the medal rounds. That’s where having home-court advantage at the World Cup could really come into play for Spain. If the Spanish fans pack the gym and create a raucous atmosphere in Madrid, the FIBA referees could feel pressure to swallow their whistles and negate one of the biggest advantages the Americans would have.

There’s still a lot of basketball to be played before Spain and the US would meet and both teams should be challenged in the quarterfinals and semifinals. Nevertheless, it would be a major surprise if either ended up losing. These are two teams playing basketball at a really high level - everyone knows how talented the US is, but if the Spanish national team was playing in the NBA, they would have a good chance of making the Eastern Conference Finals.

As enjoyable as it is to watch Team USA curb stomp other countries, at some point you want to see them challenged. That’s what grows the game, which is really the point of these international tournaments. If the US loses to Spain, they shouldn’t hang their head. The Spaniards are a talented team who play the game the right way and have a ton of flair to boot. If I was trying to sell someone on the beauty of basketball, Spain is the team I’d have them watch.

The Storylines Of The Basketball World Cup

If you have been looking for a basketball fix in the dog days of summer, wait no longer. The FIBA World Championships are finally here. Even though this is ‘Murica, this tournament allows hoop heads to take note of the global influence of the game because, as it turns out other countries play and love the sport as much as we do. When they’re not playing soccer, of course.

Every national program involved enters this tournament with the goal of trying to make their country proud. For some countries, that means toppling the mighty U.S.A. For others, it’s one last shot at glory. And a few programs lurking in the shadows are hoping to use this platform to announce themselves as the world’s newest global power. So before this whirlwind event kicks into gear, let’s take a look at the most pressing storylines. 

First and foremost, can anyone push the US to the brink before the Semifinals?

Short answer, no. If you’re a fan of blowouts, then Team USA’s draw in the bottom half of the bracket are going to make all your dreams come true. Their opponents in Group C should offer very little resistance. Finland has a few fringe NBA talents in current Cavalier, Erik Murphy and former second round pick Petteri Koponen (currently plying his trade in Russia), but their extremely slim chances of testing the U.S. went to none the minute NBA vet Drew Gooden couldn’t get dual citizenship. The Dominican Republic, New Zealand and Ukraine all lack to pose a serious threat to Team USA, even on an off night.

That leaves just Turkey. NBA defensive stalwart, Omir Asik, who will be joined in the frontcourt by talented European-based bigs, Ogus Savas (a beast on the glass) and Emir Preldzic provide the Turkish team with a capable front line. Up front, Turkey should be able to compete with the US despite not having NBA veterans Ersan Ilyasova and Enes Kanter. But the fact that Turkish League veteran Sinan Gular is their only capable ballhandler (for this level), makes it extremely unlikely this game comes down to the wire.

In the first two knockout rounds, Team USA is likely to draw (at worst) Mexico, Slovenia and Lithuania. As we saw in their exhibition opener, Phoenix’s Goran Dragic (and his brother, Zoran!) will have trouble making it a game, as we saw in the most recent exhibition matchup. Lithuania has an NBA frontline of Toronto’s Jonas Valanciunas and Houston’s Donatas Motiejunas and a strong record in international play. But team captain and starting point guard Mantas Kalnietes dislocated his collarbone and will miss the tournament. Losing such an integral player likely means it will be another lopsided affair for Team USA should the two sides meet. On the bright side, lots of Anthony Davis lobs should be fun for the whole family. 

An ugly send off to a Golden Generation?

On the opposite side of the bracket, it seems like it will be a long, painful farewell to one of the most incredible basketball generations we’ve ever seen. Argentina has become a staple of international basketball over the past dozen years but their run of relevance may soon come to a disappointing end. Three members of the old guard, Manu Ginobili, Fabricio Oberto and Carlos Delfino are either retired (Oberto) or out injured. The team’s bell cow in recent years, Luis Scola, is 34. Savvy veteran point guard Pablo Prigioni is 37. Rugged forward Andres Nocioni will turn 35 this fall and is playing out his career in Spain. It’s truly the last gasp for a country that has beaten the US twice and medaled in multiple international tournaments, including taking home the gold in the 2004 Olympics, during an amazing decade plus.

With the only young talent on the roster being 23-year-old point guard Facundo Campazzo, it’s very possible that this squad could barely end up qualifying in a group containing three quality opponents in Greece, Croatia and Puerto Rico. Getting anywhere in the knockout rounds with Brazil and Spain lurking makes it likely that Argentina’s tournament run ends early. But given the competitive spirit that has embodied this program since the burst onto the international scene, they may will their way to one last inspiring run. 

Does France pose a real threat without Tony Parker and Nando De Colo?

With Parker in the fold, France would have been one of the favorites in the tournament and presented Team USA with a real challenge in a possible final. Unfortunately for France, Parker is out and so is his understudy, Nando de Colo, due to a broken hand. Left in their stead are virtual unknowns Thomas Heurtel (playing for a mid-tier Spanish team) and Antoine Diot (plying his trade in France’s domestic league). Those two have reportedly looked shaky in exhibitions (though France did smack Australia 73-50 in their last warm up game) and it’s likely that France will be forced to rely on NBA veterans Nicolas Batum, Evan Fournier and Boris Diaw to handle the ball and create in the half court. As we saw in the NBA Finals, Diaw can do things with the ball in his hands most 6’9” people can’t and Batum is equally as capable. Yet asking one (or all) of those three to shoulder the burden of running an offense for multiple games in the tournament seems like a recipe for failure. France will still be a tough out, but the injuries to de Colo and Parker have likely ended any hope of a gold medal. 

Which country is primed to take the next step?

Australia suffered a major blow when Spurs scoring machine Patty Mills suffered a serious shoulder injury. Without Mills, it seemed like the Boomers were destined to just another respectable, yet uninspiring finish. But in the absence of Mills, sharp-shooting Ryan Broekhoff has emerged to shoulder some of the burden.

If Broekhoff’s name caused you to mutter “who?”, don’t feel bad. Only the dedicated hoops junkies may remember when his solid career at Valparaiso University had him (briefly) on the radar as a potential second round draft pick last summer. Broekhoff’s solid play in warm-up games has cemented a spot in the starting lineup next to precocious pick-and-roll maestro Matthew Dellavedova (Cavaliers), small forward Joe Ingles (a member of Euroleague champion, Maccabi Tel Aviv), former NBA journeyman David Anderson and Spurs big man Aron Baynes. That group will be supported by a bench of guards Chris Goulding (scoring machine in the Australian league), Brad Newley (veteran of both the Australian and high-level European leagues), Dante Exum (Utah Jazz lottery pick), along with big men Cameron Bairstow (Bulls second round pick) and Brock Motum (recently signed by the Jazz). Not a single member of this team is a big time talent (yet, in Exum’s case), but it’s a tough, productive group that should be the favorite to win Group D. Doing so would all but guarantee a potential match up with Team USA in the semi-finals. If Australia pushes the U.S. to the limit in that game it will officially announce their presence as a force to be reckoned with in international basketball. 

Can Spain win it all?

For the most part, the prevailing wisdom seems to be that this tournament is destined for a redux of the 2012 Olympics. Only a major upset should stop Team USA from reaching the final, but the Spanish squad will have their work cut out for them. Despite being the hosts, Spain will have to navigate a group containing France and a very tough Brazil team featuring the likes of Nene (Wizards), Anderson Varejao (Cavs), Tiago Splitter (Spurs), Leandro Barbosa (Warriors) and the Steve Nash of Europe, Marcelinho Huertas. In the knockout stages, Argentina, Greece and Croatia (a country that, like Australia, could make a name for itself in this tournament) all have varying chances of scoring an upset. The road to even meet the U.S. in the Finals is going to be a challenging one at the very least.

Should Spain make it through safely, it should set up an epic rematch of the gold medal game two years ago. With Serge Ibaka, Marc and Pau Gasol all participating in the tournament, the U.S. has been (rightfully) concerned with matching Span’s size. But it’s really the guard play that will ultimately decide this potential matchup. Because of Team USA’s aggressive style of defense, the playmaking and shooting of NBA veterans Jose Calderon and Ricky Rubio along with former NBA players Juan Carlos Navarro and Rudy Fernandez will be vital (keep an eye on Spanish pro Sergio Llull too). If those four players can avoid turnovers and knock down open shots -- along with steady support from their more heralded big men -- a win against of the U.S. is a real possibility.

But no matter how it ends, Spain’s journey will likely be the most exciting subplot of the entire tournament.

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