France defeated Spain 65-52 in a quarterfinals matchup to eliminate the host country from the FIBA World Cup in stunning fashion.
• A night -- and a shocking turnaround -- to remember.
Exactly one week ago, France suffered a 24-point defeat to Spain in the World Cup's opening round, a one-sided contest that lacked the nail-bating intensity that has defined the rivalry between these two neighbors in recent years. Wednesday's win-or-go-home rematch in the quarterfinals saw the French remain competitive with a superior Spanish team before pulling away in the fourth quarter through sheer stoicism.
It is remarkable that a French team taking the court without Tony Parker and Joakim Noah, among others, was able to out-execute on both ends a stacked Spanish roster that has played together for years. The list of heroes is long for coach Vincent Collet, who also guided France past Spain on the way to a gold medal at last year's EuroBasket.
At the top of the list sits Boris Diaw -- a crucial X-factor throughout the playoffs for the Spurs -- who finished with a team-high 15 points (on 6-for-12 shooting), five rebounds, three assists and a steal. His "been there before" calm was a critical factor down the stretch, as France won the fourth quarter 23-9. On one key sequence, Diaw and Blazers forward Nicolas Batum beautifully executed a two-man game on the right side, with Diaw finishing the exchange with a back-breaking baseline floater to put France up by five points with less than three minutes to play.
"We're very proud in our team and staff for believing, because a lot of people didn't believe in us," Diaw said afterward, before acknowledging that the pressure was on Spain as the prohibitive favorites and home team. "We had the motivation to win and [Spain] had the motivation to not lose."
Diaw has never been a volume scorer and this certainly wasn't a one-man show. Collet got huge minutes from 22-year-old Jazz center Rudy Gobert, who posted five points (on 2-for-4 shooting) and 13 rebounds in 23 minutes. His emphatic fourth-quarter swat of Pau Gasol nicely encapsulated Spain's scoring struggles down the stretch, and he and fellow center Joffrey Lauvergne helped France dominate the glass by a 50-28 margin against Spain's imposing frontline. Unheralded point guard Thomas Heurtel also had a number of big moments down the stretch, doing well to control the pace of France's offense while scoring nine of his 13 points in the game's final four minutes.
"He's a young player, he's learning a lot," Diaw said of Heurtel, who plays professionally in Spain. "He sometimes makes rushed decisions. He has some craziness in his game. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. ... Tonight it did. He's a proud young man. He can take the pressure."
• Bitter defeat.
Many things had to go wrong for Spain to lose to anyone besides USA in this tournament. Many, many things went wrong against France.
Afterward, coach Juan Orenga lamented that his team never "played our systems," and indeed this seemed to be a very careless, thoughtless performance from a team with such high expectations in a do-or-die game.
In addition to getting manhandled on the boards, Spain's perimeter woes were insurmountable, as they shot just 2-for-22 from outside and made few, if any, adjustments throughout the game. The Spanish generally looked stunned by France's energy and spirit, and they never succeeded in capitalizing on their interior strength offensively or on controlling the paint defensively. Pau Gasol and Juan Carlos Navarro were the only two Spanish players to finish in double figures, and the lack of production from both Marc Gasol (three points on 1-for-7 shooting and four rebounds) and Serge Ibaka (two points on 1-for-7 shooting in 18 minutes) was stunning, given their obvious talent advantage.
This was a truly gruesome performance for a team with five current NBA players (the Gasols, Ibaka, Ricky Rubio and Jose Calderon) and at least three others with NBA-caliber games (Rudy Fernandez, Sergio Rodriguez and Juan Carlos Navarro): 32.3 percent shooting from the field, the minus-22 rebounding differential and only nine assists. Spain entered Wednesday ranked No. 2 in scoring and assists, but you never would have guessed given their performance against a French side who wanted it more and never wilted.
"To win this game we had to be perfect defensively," Collet said. "I think we did it. At the beginning of the fourth quarter they started to feel the pressure."
For Spain, this loss will sting for years to come, primarily because Pau Gasol (34), Navarro (34) and Calderon (32) are all nearing the end of the line, but also because the major benefit of homecourt advantage only comes along every so often in a tournament of this magnitude. This was their golden opportunity -- completely blown.
• USA: The biggest winners?
An upset in a rivalry game on the road is one of the sweetest feelings in sports and France should be elated with its performance. Tensions between these two countries have risen before, most memorably when Nicolas Batum delivered a below-the-belt punch to Juan Carlos Navarro during the 2012 Olympics. There were a few dust-ups on Wednesday, including France's Florent Pietrus shoving Spain's Sergio Llull in the face. Considering that back story, France's respectful, low-key celebration is worthy of praise. If ever there were a time to jump around and act the fool in the quarterfinals, this would have been it. Instead, brief bench celebrations gave way to a quiet team huddle and applause to the crowd.
Perhaps France's dignified response was influenced by its need to win at least one more game to medal. The suddenly upended tournament will now see a semifinal between USA and Lithuania on Thursday before France faces Serbia, who has eliminated Greece and Brazil in convincing fashion during the knockout stage. There is no guarantee France finds that medal-clinching victory. It's strange to say after such a defining win, but France's work is really just beginning.
For USA chairman Jerry Colangelo and coach Mike Krzyzewski, France's upset should be cause for a massive, massive sigh of relief. USA and Spain had been the only two remaining undefeated teams in the tournament and both had enjoyed huge margins of victories entering the quarterfinals. Spain's size and length posed enough of a threat to USA that the Americans opted to add every available big man -- Anthony Davis, Kenneth Faried, DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond and Mason Plumlee -- to their roster. Now, instead of preparing for Spain -- the tournament's most cohesive and second-most talented team that enjoyed a distinct homecourt advantage -- the USA now must only win two games against nations with far fewer NBA caliber players to extend its gold medal streak.
Krzyzewski's biggest obstacle now is the same thing that felled Spain: complacency. Although USA hasn't always played awe-inspiring basketball in this tournament, it has consistently and handily put away its competition. Krzyzewski will surely be preaching to his players that their focus shouldn't change just because their presumptive gold medal opponent has been sent packing.