Pau Gasol refused to quit even when his body begged him to. Pau’s heart told it to shut up and keep playing. It was just enough to stop France, writes Emmet Ryan
Pau Gasol had sent the message clear before this game. He wanted to beat France in front of their own fans. He remembers Madrid last year all too well. If France hadn’t won the rights to host the knockout rounds, there’s a good chance Pau didn’t come this year. Once they did, there was no way he was missing this. Spain had missed out on their one last shot at the World Cup. They wanted to beat the Americans in front of their owns fans. France put a halt to that. On a night when everything went wrong for Spain, the dreams of the golden generation fell apart. Right here in Lille, Pau had a chance for payback.
That we even discuss Pau needing revenge is odd. For the bulk of the rivalry of this generation it has been Spain not France in the ascendancy. When Tony Parker was asked after finally winning EuroBasket in 2013 what had stopped him up to now he had two words: Pau Gasol. It’s Spain who have a world title, it’s Spain who won EuroBasket in 2009 and 2011. It’s Spain who won that chippy quarter final at London 2012, denying Parker and his pals a shot at a medal. Slovenia was the turning point, where France finally beat Spain. Then last year, a French team without Parker, got the job done and eventually won bronze. Those recent bruises stick hard. Spain know they are in a period of transition but that doesn’t mean they can’t be the kings of the continent. They want France to know that, even if it is Les Bleus who look richer on paper.
The Spanish were booed fiercely as they got to the end of the tunnel before warm-ups. They stood and waited, Pau’s face was all business. This was a matter of pride for him. The French went out first, arriving a full 3 minutes after the Spanish had stood and waited for the boos to die down. The announcements, more boos for Spain. Then the anthem, the most intimidating sound in sports. This crwod sang the Marseillaise with noise that would chill most men. Pau stood at the front calm. The fans gave it another rendition during the final warm-ups. The announcers asked fans if the were red (boos) or blue (cheers), Spain (boos) or France (cheers). A constant stream of Allez le bleus followed. Finally, it was go time.
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Pau has been the man for Spain all tournament but tonight he was going to face his biggest challenge to date. Rudy Gobert has shone for France throughout. He’s younger, fitter, and a defensive beast. Rather aptly both men scored first for their sides on second chance opportunities. Defensively Pau isn’t what he was but on offence, he’s got a brain like few others. Setting up Nikoa Mirotic on the pick and roll, then bumping Boris Diaw so Mirotic could get an open look at a three. He missed and France went to work. Gasol is little more than a body for Spain on D, as much because of his body and what he needs to conserve for scoring. Nando De Colo made an easy floater over him. Then De Colo got a three. France were clicking on offence. The startled side that started against Latvia was nervous here but much neater. Pau kept fighting, on a tip-in and then tried to recycle but Nicolas Batum intercepted and stormed down the court for the dunk. Then Sergio Llull and Pau miscommunicated. Another turnover and De Colo hit the floor on the first really hard foul of this one as Pau Ribas stopped the breakaway. Timeout Spain.
The fans were jubliant. Les Bleus were on top and Les Red Foxes got a festival welcome to the floor. France were slowed. “Tony! Tony!” rang out but he’s not been the man this tournament. France have looked at their best when De Colo is controlling the attack. Parker still has his moments but De Colo has been the back court engine. Pau went back to work. A lay-up inside, then he cleared the lane for Sergio Rodriguez, then another dunk, and then he got to the line. Amid the boos he made both. France were still on top but Pau wasn’t letting them control it. At the end of the first France led 20-17.
Pau was sitting when the second frame started. Neither offence was smooth while he was off the floor. Spain had Mirotic and Victor Claver trying to pick up the slack. Spain tied it up without him and after a timeout with 3 minutes gone he was still resting. Scariolo wasn’t going to put the load on him if the rest were finally stepping up. He needed all that Pau could give him. While Spain could live without him, Gasol could recover and come back harder. Mickaael Gelabale scored a three to put France up 5. That was enough for Scariolo, back came Pau. France however weren’t intimidated. Gobert leaped hard to swat away a Mirotic effort.
Les Bleus were facing down Pau’s pals and Spain needed their leader to carry them. Once more, Pau was there inside. France unable to shake him. Gasol took the rebound off a missed Parker jumper, he was tired but still dragged his hide up the floor. Only the clock was going to beat him tonight. Rudy Fernandez put Spain up with a three. Just having Pau on the floor, wherever he was on the play, seemed to make this side better. Now the crowd was unhappy. The boos were back. Gobert put them back on top at the break but this was definitely a fight at 33-32.
Batum opened the frame with a three a “Le France!” followed by “Allez les bleus” rang out. Pau tried to respond in kind but his effort as the clock expired wasn’t close. Gobert beat him for a rebound on the next Spanish possession. Gobert stopped Fernandez next. Finally Mirotic made a three. Spain were up and running again. Another lay-up by Pau, then a pair of defensive rebounds. His body was crying out for mercy but his heart was all in on this game. Gobert went up and Pau put him down.
An offensive foul call on Mirotic brought the crowd back into it. Parker made one from deep. The house erupted and Scariolo called in the troops. Once more Les Red Foxes got the crowd ath the right time as they tied up Frenkie the mascot. All was right for Les Bleus. They were beating Gasol and Spain.
Pau looked frustrated as he missed out on an offensive board to Gobert. Even at full-strength, Pau was unlikely to win based purely on positioning but this was a night where everything was on him. Into the grinder he went on Gobert, drawing a foul and getting to the line. This time the fans weren’t booing, they were chanting. The first failed and the crowd cheered. He made the second. France had the energy now, Joffrey Lauvergne made it a double digit lead to bring the crowd back to its feet. Gelabale added another and the hosts looked in control. Pau kept getting to the line. France didn’t have this yet, not as long as he could see time on the clock. With 10 minutes to play, Spain trailed by 8 but Gasol wasn’t finished.
Pau sat once more to start the final frame. Claver couldn’t hold onto the rebound after Mirotic missed a three. Pau clasped his hands with a supportive smile towards Claver. He was sitting now when he refused to against Poland. The doctors had told him not to play more than 5 minutes a pop in that one. He ignored them. Spain needed him. Gasol put in a heavy shift against Greece too. Now, as watched, De Colo put France up 9. With 6.36 to go, he was done waiting. Gasol to Ribas to Fernandez but Rudy struggled to take the pass. His shot was off and Mirotic was swarmed as he tried on the second chance. 21 seconds of Pau and timeout Spain.
Once more Pau went to the line, both dropped again. The fans were quieter, France only led by 5. France stuttered. A dunk by Pau and he roars “Vamos!” Spain are back within 1. Pau vs Gobert again, the floater goes in. Spain are up. The run is 10-0. Normally when it hits the 2 minute clock it’s time to run to the mixed zone but not now, not tonight. Pau goes for a jumper again, Spain take the lead once more. He fights for another offensive board but is once more denied. No matter, he draws the offensive foul from De Colo. 46.9 seconds to go and Pau Gasol has dragged Spain into a 1 point lead. They have the ball, he will have the ball. He has to get it. Who else can you trust. Once more into the grind with Gobert. This time he’s short but this time, this time, he gets the offenisve board. Chacho makes the lead three. France ball, 16.6 to go. Pau is in their nightmares but Batum pulls off a three. He’s left time however. Pau has 14.1 seconds to win this. Timeout Spain. Time to hurt France one final time.
Gobert faces him down again. This time he stuffs him. Batum misses a last gasp long range effort. Overtime. You know Pau isn’t going to sit a second.
Pau almost takes a back seat through the first half of OT, a rebound off the second of two missed Parker free throws his only contribution. Spain are up 2, thanks to Fernandez getting to the line, but this is tit for tat stuff. Batum ties it up from the line. 72-72 and midway through OT there’s nothing in it. Pau goes up against Gobert again. Gobert wins again and follows up with a dunk for France. Once more into the breach dear Pau, once more, but Gobert closes up the wall. Then he gives up the foul to Batum. France are up 3 and Spain need to score. This time Pau goes in and draws the foul to put Gobert out of the game for good. Gasol cuts it to 1 at the line. Pau with the dunk. There’s no Gobert to stop him and Spain leads by 3. Batum goes to the line for 3 free throws. The first rims out. He needs to make the second. It rims out too. Pau is the nightmare in his head right now. The third was missed on purpose. Spain recovered. Another Pau dunk. Victory. Spain have done it. They are into the semi-finals. Pau never fell.
Pau’s may not win MVP but no player was more valuable or frankly better than Pau in this tournament. No player can match the body of work he delivered. He was this team through the struggles in Berlin, the shut-down of France, the epic with Greece, and this defeat. No Pau, no way Spain stayed in this fight. He never fell and Spain stand tall.