From the middle of the third to the middle of the fourth quarter, France was in control of its EuroBasket semifinal matchup against Spain. France was knocking down threes, owning the offensive glass (on the game they grabbed 40 percent of their missed shots) and led by double digits. Spain couldn’t seem to buy a bucket. France’s lead hung between 8 and 11 points, and it made you question of Spain could close that gap.
Pau Gasol was the answer.
The 35-year-old finished the game with 40 points on 21 shots, pulled down 11 rebounds, and even blocked the shot of Rudy Gobert three times. He was clear and away the best player on the court.
That was enough to get Spain an 80-75 overtime win over France. The victory qualifies Spain for the 2016 Rio Olympics — where Marc Gasol, Ricky Rubio and other key Spanish players who sat out this summer likely will return and make Spain one of the bigger threats to Team USA. It also sends Spain into the EuroBasket Finals against the winner of Serbia and Lithuania (those two play Friday).
France will have to qualify for the Olympics next summer in one of the pre-Rio qualifying tournaments.
France shot the three-ball well (42.9 percent), but when Spain stepped up their perimeter defense midway through the fourth quarter, France could not make them pay inside — Les Bleus shot 38 percent in the paint for the game.
Midway through the fourth that defensive pressure led to a 10-0 Spanish run that put it back the game, then in the lead on a Gasol hook shot in the lane.
Tony Parker could not bail France out. Parker had been France’s leading scorer throughout EuroBasket, but he has not been sharp or efficient — he shot 38 percent coming into the game. That continued Thursday he was 4-of-17 from the floor for 10 points, plus he had six assists. When it was time to create offense France has leaned more on former Spur and Raptor Nando De Colo and used Parker as a second option.
The game went to overtime because of Nicolas Batum. The guy the Hornets brought in this summer to give them more outside shooting knocked down a quick-hit corner three off a nice inbounds play (where a weary Gasol did not switch out) and tied the game up to send it to overtime.
But in OT Gasol kept attacking and he went right at Gobert, who had eight points and 13 rebounds, but most importantly was a team-best +11 because his defense in the paint changed the game. Midway through the overtime Gasol got the ball in the post, lowered his shoulder and drove at Gobert to draw the fifth foul on the Jazz big man having him foul out (you only get five in international basketball). You could kind of feel what was coming next — France was -16 with Gobert on the bench in this game. Gasol abused everyone who tried to guard him, but he abused Gobert less (Gobert even had a block at the end of regulation on Gasol to preserve the tie).
This ended up being one of the best games of EuroBasket, a thriller where the best player on the court put his team on his back and took them to the victory. Or to Rio, whichever you prefer.