France defeated Lithuania on Sunday in the EuroBasket final in Slovenia, winning its first basketball gold medal at a major international tournament.
The French were considered one of the favorites entering the tournament, in large part because their roster was stocked with NBA talent, led by Tony Parker. But their triumph over longtime rival Spain in the semifinals on Friday was a surprise: Spain had won gold at the previous two EuroBaskets and boasted an NBA-loaded roster of its own, highlighted by Marc Gasol and Ricky Rubio. The Spanish crumbled during the fourth quarter and overtime of the semifinal, which served as a de facto championship game. France went on to comfortably handle Lithuania 80-66, while Spain blew out Croatia 92-66 to take bronze.
While France and Spain dominated the tournament from a pure talent perspective, both teams were tested by the 24-team field. Neither entered the final stage of the tournament atop its group and both suffered multiple losses in the preliminary rounds. Eventually, though, the cream rose to the top. Here's a rundown of how 10 NBA players -- most of them French and Spanish -- fared for their national teams in Slovenia.
Tony Parker, France (Spurs): Last week, Parker placed No. 4 in The Point Forward's ranking of the Top 100 Players of 2014, and he was the highest-ranked international player on the list. He did everything to justify that ranking while in Slovenia, capturing EuroBasket MVP honors while scoring a tournament-best 19 points per game and dishing 3.3 assists. There were some shaky moments: Down the stretch against Spain, Parker forced a number of plays and turned over the ball in crucial situations. On the whole, though, his elite ability to break down a defense off the dribble is just too much for this level of competition. Parker shot 56.9 percent on two-point field goals for the tournament, and he did plenty of that damage around the basket area. One number was particularly telling: Parker drew 5.3 fouls per game. Hey, if you can't stop him, hack him.
It should be noted that France had three players average double figures (Nicolas Batum and Boris Diaw joined Parker) and two more who averaged more than seven points (Alexis Ajinca and Mickael Gelabale). That scoring balance helped carry France through some rough patches. Batum stepped up in the first half against Lithuania and Diaw was a rock, especially during the second and third rounds of the tournament. Still, there were plenty of times when Parker was a one-man show. He scored 28 against Ukraine, 27 against Slovenia in the quarterfinals and 32 against Spain in the semis. For much of that last game, Parker was outscoring all of his teammates combined. Any health issues from the 2013 playoffs looked to be a thing of the past.
This first gold medal for France is a crowning achievement for Parker, whose international career dates to 1997, when he played in the U-16 championship. Slovenia marked Parker's seventh (!) consecutive EuroBasket. France couldn't ask for a better ambassador for the game than Parker, and it's nice to see his persistence pay off with gold, especially considering how the NBA Finals ended.
Marc Gasol, Spain (Grizzlies): Gasol has emerged as one of the darlings of basketball purists worldwide over the last few years. He was loads of fun to watch in Slovenia, in part because he wasn't flanked by Pau Gasol and Serge Ibaka. This was his show and he clearly understood it. Spain generally let Gasol operate in both the low and high posts, surrounding him with shooters to make defenses pay for collapsing on him. Defensively, they let him hold down the fort while they scrambled in search of turnovers and transition opportunities. It's a smart strategy and it really should have won them this tournament. If not for some terrible decision-making and shot selection down the stretch against France, the Spaniards would be celebrating their third straight gold.
Gasol led Spain by averaging 13.9 points (No. 7 overall in EuroBasket), 7.8 rebounds (No. 2) and one block (No. 7). He also shot a team-best 50.5 percent (No. 3 in EuroBasket) and he was, no surprise, named to the all-tournament team. His best performance arguably came in a losing effort, as he finished with 32 points and 10 rebounds in an overtime loss to Italy in the second round. Gasol's reputation as a passer is well-established, but the extra space provided by Spain's spread offense really helped him flourish. He went to the one-hand flick pass stuff often, and he also provided the single best highlight of the tournament with this spinning, full-court fling for a layup.
The downside to the international game for Gasol is clearly foul trouble. The difference between a five-foul disqualification (international rule) and the six-foul disqualification (NBA rule) is huge for a player with Gasol's size and workload on both ends. He got into big foul trouble during the gold-medal game against the United States at the 2012 London Olympics, and he had some issues in Slovenia, too, although he never fouled out. You really feel for Gasol, who shot a tournament-high 68 free throws (more than six per game) and was fouled eight or more times in five separate games. He takes tons of physical abuse and must constantly control both his emotions and extremities, even when fatigue and pressure set in.
Goran Dragic, Slovenia (Suns): Although the host nation was knocked out by France in the quarterfinals, there was a time in this tournament when it seemed like brothers Goran and Zoran Dragic would be able to lead Slovenia to a gold. Together, they are an endlessly entertaining duo, constantly attacking the hoop, pushing the ball in transition and sacrificing their bodies. Goran earned all-tournament honors by averaging a team-best 15.8 points (No. 4 overall in EuroBasket) and 4.5 assists (No. 3). The burden of carrying Slovenia's offense and being forced to create shot after shot for himself did cut into his shooting numbers (39.4 percent overall and 26.7 percent from three-point range). There isn't all that much to get excited about in Phoenix this year, but EuroBasket served as a reminder that the Dragic/Eric Bledsoe backcourt pairing will be an interesting one to watch.
Nicolas Batum, France (Blazers): Inconsistency has been the knock on Batum for some time now, and his effectiveness in Slovenia went up and down like a seismographic wave. Get a load of this Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Batum contrast: He scored only three points, took just four shots (all three-pointers) and didn't grab a rebound against Spain in the semis, and then, only two days later, he scored a team-high 17 points, grabbed six rebounds and registered two steals in the final against Lithuania.
Many of his low moments could be attributed to shaky outside shooting (he made only 25.5 percent from three-point range) and passivity when his shot wasn't falling; he was sloppy with the ball during early-round play but he tightened that up in the elimination round (Spain game excluded). The intensity of his defense also ramped up as the tournament unfolded, and he had two key steals down the stretch against Spain, as well as some game-changing plays in the decisive second quarter against Lithuania. He often seems to dare opponents to drive past him so that he can erase their shots at the rim, but against this level of competition he enjoys a fair amount of success. Despite his uneven play and poor outside shooting, Batum finished as France's second-leading scorer (11.6 points) and rebounder (5.1). That proved to be (just barely) enough.
Ricky Rubio, Spain (Timberwolves): Juan Carlos Navarro didn't compete in Slovenia, but the Spanish backcourt rotation was absolutely loaded. In addition to Rubio and Calderon, Spanish coach Juan Orenga had former NBA players Rudy Fernandez and Sergio Rodriguez at his disposal, plus Sergio Llull (who plays for Real Madrid and was a standout in the bronze-medal game). Playing time, then, wound up being a wacky juggling act, and Rubio saw his minutes cut in a number of Spain's biggest games. Overall, Rubio averaged 7.2 points and 3.4 assists in 20.7 minutes. He made his mark defensively by notching a tournament-best 15 steals.
One storyline entering the tournament was how well Rubio would shoot after two seasons in Minnesota where he hit only 35.9 percent overall and 31.7 from deep. The results weren't really definitive. Rubio converted 46.3 percent from the field, but he rarely shot from beyond the arc and he was happy to stay in pass-first mode. That mentality helped him lead a number of successful breaks in transition. Unfortunately, Rubio, still just 22, watched many of the tournament's biggest moments from the bench.
Boris Diaw, France (Spurs): Gasol aside, Diaw was the most captivating big man in the tournament. It helps that he enjoys a sixth-sense camaraderie with Parker, his longtime friend and teammate, but his skill level is such that it deserves its own praise, independent from France's franchise point guard. Diaw averaged 10.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and a team-leading 3.4 assists, providing timely baskets and helping France stay afloat when it went cold from the outside. Diaw hit for double figures in four of France's final five games, and his versatility proved to be too much for most of his opponents. He sealed a strong tournament performance with 15 points, six rebounds and four assists in the gold-medal game against Lithuania. Like Parker, he has been representing France in international competitions for more than a decade.
Jose Calderon, Spain (Mavericks): Like Rubio, Calderon saw his minutes fluctuate, but he did enjoy a bit more stability. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to deliver in the tournament's knockout stage after scoring 23 points (including five three-pointers) and handing out five assists against Finland during the second round. In the final four games, Calderon averaged just five points on 29.2 percent shooting, and he missed a potential game-winning three-pointer in the closing seconds of regulation against France.
Mavericks fans will be glad to note that Calderon ranked sixth in three-point shooting at 45.7 percent and tied for third with 21 total threes. That percentage, by the way, is virtually identical to his league-best 46.1 percent for the Raptors and Pistons last season.
Luigi Datome, Italy (Pistons): This summer, Detroit signed Datome, 25, to a two-year contract after he spent the previous 10 years working his way up in the Italian ranks. The 6-foot-8 forward won MVP honors in Italy's Serie A last year, and he enjoyed a do-everything EuroBasket for Italy, which lost to Lithuania in the quarterfinals. Datome was second on the team in scoring (13.8 points) and rebounding (4.9), and he shot 42.9 percent from long range (No. 15 overall) while leading the tournament with 24 three-pointers. Datome twice topped 20 points, hitting for 25 against Russia and 24 against Croatia, while knocking down three three-pointers in each game. He looks like a building block for Italy and a much-needed floor spacer for Detroit.
Jonas Valanciunas, Lithuania (Raptors): Minutes aren't handed out in Lithuania, and the Raptors' promising young center, coming off Las Vegas Summer League MVP honors, managed to garner only 16.5 minutes per game. It should be noted that Valanciunas, 21, was the youngest player to make Lithuania's roster by more than two years. When he did play, Valanciunas often looked special, posting three double-doubles and shooting a whopping 65.9 percent. His improved upper-body strength was really evident against international competition, as he powered through on and-one plays and made an impact rebounding on both ends. His final numbers -- 6.5 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.4 assists -- shouldn't be misread as disappointing. He was a handful for opponents.
Victor Claver, Spain (Blazers): Portland has dipped repeatedly into the international game over the last decade, and guys who played for, or had their rights held by, the Blazers (Rodriguez, Fernandez, Petteri Koponen, Kostas Papanikolaou, Georgios Printezis, etc.) dotted the field in Slovenia. Aside from Batum, Claver was the only current member of the Blazers to compete at EuroBasket, as British big man Joel Freeland elected to sit this one out. Claver, 25, a tweener forward who lacks the shooting range to succeed as a small forward and the size/strength to play full-time power forward in the NBA, was a helpful contributor for Spain. As the team's starting power forward, Claver did his best to hold down the boards and protect the paint on defense while mostly staying out of the way and shooting only when wide open on offense. He dutifully filled that role, playing with good energy and effort. He averaged 6.1 points and 5.1 rebounds, and the latter figure marked the second-best number for the Spaniards. The size and scope of his role will clearly change when Pau Gasol and Ibaka return to international competition, but Claver's ability to do the little things and play with purpose should keep him in the rotation mix.