Hard to believe it’s almost over … after 19 days of intense basketball competition, the 2011 EuroBasket championship game features a matchup at least a few — including BallinEurope’s U.K. guy Sam Chadwick; props! — had forecast as the outcome. Spain seeks to defend its title against a star-laden France playing in its first-ever title match. (Though France has bagged one silver medal in this tournament, this came in the very strange 1949 edition of the tournament, in which no knockout stage was held.)
BallinEurope runs some notes and posts some clips in preparation for tonight’s match; for Official Fearless Predictions™ on this one and the bronze-medal game between FYR Macedonia and Russia, scroll all the way to the bottom.
• In terms of history between the two teams, it’s long and it’s mostly about Spain. The defending champions are 15-3 against France all-time in European championship tournament meetings. Prior to this year’s, um, controversial Group E game, the last two EuroBasket matches between the teams were decisive blowouts: France took the bronze medal in 2005 by crushing Spain, 98-68, while Los Rojos ran over Les Bleus on the way to their 2009 title in the quarterfinals, 86-66.
• The matchups to watch in this one should all be in the frontcourt, with four NBAers certain to battle throughout: For Spain, the Gasol Brothers have been as dominant a two-man combination as any other in recent years of EuroBasket play. Facing up against the two all-star centers are rebounding machine (at least in this tournament) Joakim Noah and Kevin Seraphin.
Attempting to gauge these matchups is a bit difficult, as Noah has yet to face this latest edition of Team Spain in any serious way. The August friendly against the Spainards saw the Chicago Bull’s first go-around this year with Les Bleus and therefore getting limited playing time in the blowout loss. Pau, meanwhile, wasn’t on the Spain roster for the 2010 FIBA World Championship and therefore the 72-66 loss to France…
• Tony Parker’s reaction to beating Russia? He had “tears in his eyes” at the realization that his Team France would be playing in the 2012 Olympics. An extrapolation of his brief post-game interview as published in Sport.fr follows.
Q: You seem very moved …
Tony Parker: I had tears in his eyes at the end of the match. I was so happy when I jumped in the stands with my brothers and my family. It’s the Olympics! I worked hard for this – It’s been 11 years that I’ve been chasing it. It’s hard to explain my joy. There have been so many tough losses, and we took our revenge slowly here, at first against the Greeks and then the Russians … We’ll enjoy it tonight; this deserves [to be enjoyed]. We don’t play until Sunday, and it will be great to have a rest day tomorrow because tonight the party will be beautiful.”
Q: What was your motivation for this victory?
TP: I am proud to be French, proud of this team. Sometimes it was hard, there have been difficult summers, but we never gave up the chase. Today, we are rewarded. Never has a France team done this. It’s been so long that I have waited for this moment, to play a European final. Many people were skeptical, but now it’s as if the weight of the nation on my shoulders has gone. We can never say that we did not make finals, that we never went to the Olympics. It feels great.
Q: What do you think the final against the Spanish?
TP: The pressure will be on Spain, since they are the favorites. But a final, it is earned. We’ll have to have an even bigger game than today, and we are capable of that. They beat us this summer in preparation and in the second round here, but we didn’t show our best game and we played without Joakim [Noah] or me. Against Spain, it’ll be a different French team.
• Last team to repeat as EuroBasket champions: Team Yugoslavia, in 1997.
• Mickaël Gelabale is still nowhere near 100% after twisting his ankle in the game against Turkey; he’s played a combined 10 minutes in the past two games and had DNPs in the Lithuania and Spain games.
• Nando de Colo, who has emerged as a deadly threat for Team France after seeing limited time in the first six games of the tourney, will be crucial to Les Bleus’ chances for the upset. De Colo, in turn, sees as key the defense: “On defense we will win the final. We have to control and defend [Juan Carlos] Navarro together the whole game and then everything will be easier. I have to defend a very aggressive Navarro and not have to get the ball because the ball can do many things.”
Defend Navarro together? Probably a good idea. After a couple of brutal performances in the opening round (1-of-11 for three points against Great Britain; 3-of-12 for nine against Turkey), “La Bomba” has overcome the consistency issues he all too often gets in tournament play in raising his point totals and shooting percentage. This of course culminated in the 35-point show he put on versus FYR Macedonia, who simply had no answers. Good luck, M. De Colo!
• The Blazer’s Edge blog has been following their guy Nicolas Batum through the tournament; here’s the assessment of Seraphin’s play against Russia, in which writer Ben Golliver concludes, “Against Russia, the temptation is to give Batum a perfect score. While he won the match-up against Kirilenko, he didn’t completely dominate it, and he needed to rely on some good fortune with the foul calls. I’ll give him an eight [on a scale of 1-10] for the slow-starting offensive first quarter in the first half and a perfect ten for the second half. We’ll call that a 9 overall.”
• Gelabale’s salient point in France’s favor: “It’s hard to beat a team three times in a row.”
• Teammates doing battle: Valencia’s Victor Claver vs. Nando De Colo. Also, sort of: Fernando San Emeterio meets Florent Pietrus, who played a spell most of last season on short extended contracts with San Emeterio’s Caja Laboral Baskonia in 2010. Pietrus had also played with Claver and De Colo at Valencia in the prior two seasons.
• The all-tournament team and MVP will be announced after the match; media members are allowed to vote. BiE’s ballot seems it will echo that of ESPN’s Mark Woods, going with Tony Parker, France; Bo McCalebb, FYR Macedonia; Pero Antic, FYR Macedonia; Marc Gasol, Spain; Pau Gasol, Spain. However, awesome as Pau has been for Espana, BiE’s gonna go with McCalebb for MVP – unless Parker leads France to the country’s first-ever European title.
• Official BallinEurope Fearless Predictions™: BiE’s been mulling over scenarios for a France victory (Navarro goes ice-cold like only he can; De Colo is allowed his shot throughout the first half for France to build up a double-digit lead; the issues that dogged Pau in the Lakers-Mavericks playoff series mysteriously return), but nothing seems plausible. As stocked as the French roster is, Spain simply has more, and the near-absence of Gelabale – He went for 16 points and six rebounds against Los Rojos in the 2010 FIBA Worlds – should be enough to give Spain a decisive win and the title repeat. Spain 81, France 71.
Speaking from hindsight, what better setup could we have for the bronze-medal game? Here, we’re getting probably the tournament’s third-best team in Russia plus the most fun and exciting dark horse in years with FYR Macedonia. Throw in the sweet final group-play game staged by these teams, and this should make for a heckuva great match as well. But BiE’s staying on the safe side again: Russia 66, FYR Macedonia 62.