| ||Jeff Taylor has been covering European basketball since 1997, when he first worked on the television program SLAM. He has been a basketball writer and broadcaster since that time, traveling the continent and covering the game in depth for FIBA Europe since its launch in 2003. |
Undefeated through six games but out of medal contention after seven.
That harsh reality is what France woke up to on Friday morning after being torn apart by a Spanish defense that has hit the EuroBasket in Poland like a devastating tornado.
France have athletes and plenty of star power but they had no firewall to protect themselves against Rudy Fernandez, Ricky Rubio, Raul Lopez and Pau Gasol.
You know Rudy Fernandez, the sky-walker who dunked on Team USA's Dwight Howard in the gold-medal game at the Olympics last year? Erase those memories and concentrate on this one statistic from Thursday's win over France: SIX STEALS!
You know Pau Gasol, the high-scoring, big-time rebounding power forward of the Los Angeles Lakers who won his first NBA title this season. Forget that and concentrate on this stat: THREE BLOCKS!
|Pau Gasol may have been tender afterwards but during the game he was brutal on defense.|
You know the put-the-pedal-to-the-medal, high-octane fast-breakers Ricky Rubio and Raul Lopez. Forget that and focus on this stat by France's leading scorer of the tournament, 18-points-per-game Tony Parker: ONE-OF-EIGHT SHOOTING FROM THE FLOOR AGAINST SPAIN.
Spain have plenty of offense, but as any good coach will tell you, their defense is winning games.
Marc Gasol, who had two of Spain's seven swats, paid tribute to his team's point guards, saying: "Raul and Ricky were excellent tonight."
And Spain coach Sergio Scariolo, whose team came up with 13 steals and forced France to commit 17 turnovers, added: "Ricky and Raul did a fantastic job on Tony.
"We were very, very efficient in our half-court defense.
"I have to congratulate my players for the great defensive effort they put forth."
By winning the game, Spain not only stayed in contention for the gold medal that has eluded them at previous EuroBaskets, but they also qualified for the 2010 FIBA World Championship in Turkey.
It's incredible to think that Scariolo's team now finds itself in such a strong position when considering what happened earlier in the EuroBasket.
In Warsaw, they lost 66-57 in Group C to Serbia and the very next night blew a 16-point lead against Great Britain and trailed by four points midway through the fourth quarter before winning that game, 84-76.
Miroslav Beric, the former Yugoslavia guard who is the third all-time leading scorer in Partizan Belgrade history, has travelled to Poland as part of Serbia's delegation and sits on the team's bench during games.
He told me after that escape act against the Brits: "Spain had one foot out of the Championship and another on a banana peel."
Nothing was easy for Spain in Warsaw.
Slovenia came back from a 15-point deficit to force overtime against Los Chicos de Oro before Felipe Reyes carried Scariolo's team to victory in that last Group C game for both teams.
But then Spain fell 63-60 to Turkey in Qualifying Round Group F and suddenly, the world champions were in serious trouble again.
The turning point in their EuroBasket came at the beginning of the second quarter in their game against Lithuania.
Behind 24-15 and looking as if they had one foot on the banana peel again, Rubio stole the ball from Manta Kalnietis and located Fernandez on the perimeter soon after.
Fernandez buried a three to spark a 23-0 Spanish run and they have been laying waste to anything and everything in their path ever since.
"Our physical condition is so much different that we can now work however we want to," Scariolo said on Thursday night.
Rudy Fernandez sat out the first game with a quadriceps injury. Alex Mumbru and Pau Gasol and missed friendly games due to injuries and weren't in their rhythm.
Nine players in all for Spain had some kind of ailment.
They survived, and are now looking ferocious again.
What's even more frightening for Spain's future opponents was the honest comment by Scariolo after the French game.
"We beat an excellent team," he said.
"They have heart and pride and never gave up."