When Serbia and Spain meet tonight to determine which of the European powers will advance to the 2010 FIBA World Championship final four, it will mark the third time the squads meet in one year – in fact, it’s been 366 days since the relatively unheralded young Serbs surprised the sluggish Spaniards in their Eurobasket 2009 opening game.
And the two Eurobasket 2009 games in which the teams faced off is hardly history: 17 of the 24 players on the teams’ rosters have returned for this tournament. It is, however, one of Team Spain’s two absentees that will make the difference in the rubber match tonight, in Kosta Perovic’s opinion: Pau Gasol.
Despite acknowledging Espana’s many strengths and recalling the 85-63 defeat handed Serbia in the Eurobasket championship game, Pekovic was quoted in Spanish media as stating “Clearly it will be a difficult game for us, but also for them.” (“Está claro que va a ser un partido difícil para nosotros… pero también para ellos.”)
“No there is no Pau Gasol,” said Perovic. “With Pau, [Spain] has less strength and is less intimidating. The lack [of Gasol] changes many things.” (“Ahora no está Pau Gasol … Sin Pau tienen menos fuerza y una intimidación menor. Su baja cambia muchas cosas.”)
Perovic notes that Spain “remains a very strong team … with quality players who can score with ease” and that “[Juan Carlos] Navarro can do much damage, Rudy [Fernandez] is explosive and Ricky [Rubio] is a great passer who also highlights the strength of [Fran] Vazquez and Marc [Gasol]. They’re very difficult to stop if you don’t bring help on defense.”
While Perovic seems to be stating the obvious – after all, it doesn’t take a genius to realize replacing an average line of 18.7 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.2 steals ain’t easy – his Team Serbia is a unique position to take advantage of Spain’s “weakness” in this game.
Marc Gasol has succeeded fairly well in taking up his big brother’s role in the middle, though his 13.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.2 steals is a bit of a comedown. The departure of Pau has left ripples in the Spain game while Serbia has improved its style in this more wide-open tournament, increasing scoring by 14 points per game – and outscoring Spain, the top offense in Eurobasket 2009.
In the day one meeting last year, Serbia overcame the prohibitive favorites, 66-57, with staunch defense that continually prevented passes to come in down low. With no options inside, the Spaniards were left with no easy looks and 20-of-51 shooting including a 2-of-19 performance on threes and 43% success on twos. Even Gasol The Elder was a non-factor in that game, going for just nine points and seven rebounds against constant defensive switches and double-teaming.
Could this game actually be an even match? Perovic thinks so. “If we believe and have patience, we shall certainly have our chances to take the game. We play hard, with [intelligence] and faith in ourselves.”
Offical BallinEurope Fearless Predictions™: Serbia takes ‘em to overtime, but Spain prevails; and Turkey continues to please the hometown crowd by nipping Slovenia.