by Marc Stein
Sergio Rodríguez, Serge Ibaka, Nikola Mirotic and the venerable Pau Gasol — none of those national team stalwarts made it to the FIBA World Cup to play for Spain.
The United States, in other words, was hardly the only team in this competition forced to play without some of its biggest stars.
The difference? No nation in the 32-team field coped with its high-profile absentees and maximized the continuity it did have better than the Spaniards, who brought a halt to the fairy-tale ride of Argentina and its 39-year-old center, Luis Scola, with a 95-75 rout in Sunday’s gold medal game.
In a showdown of the two countries that have consistently played the closest to the United States’ level over the past two decades, Spain scored 14 of the game’s first 16 points and never trailed in a comprehensive triumph at Cadillac Arena.
It was Spain’s first world title since 2006. It was also its 25th victory in 28 meetings with Argentina, and it enabled center Marc Gasol of the Toronto Raptors to join Lamar Odom as the only players to win a World Cup and an NBA championship in the same year. Odom did it for the Los Angeles Lakers and the United States in 2010.
Gasol totaled 14 points, seven rebounds and three blocks Sunday. Veteran guard Sergio Llull added 15 points.
“NBA champion and a World Cup champion as well,” Gasol said. “What can I say? How does it sound to you?”
As a bonus, Spain and its deep cast of frontcourt players held the wily Scola scoreless in the first half — and for more than seven minutes of the second half. Spain coach Sergio Scariolo moved Pierre Oriola into the starting lineup to help neutralize Scola, who finished with just 8 points on 1-for-10 shooting in 34 minutes.
With Scola unable to reproduce the turn-back-the-clock form that had carried a squad uncharacteristically lacking a single current NBA player all the way to the final, Argentina was led by Gabriel Deck’s 24 points.
“Now people are having fun and disrespecting them — I don’t agree at all,” Scariolo said of the United States and its seventh-place finish. “Let’s show respect. It’s an honor to be above them in the final standings, and I’m expecting them to be so strong next year” at the Olympics in Tokyo.
The current Spain and Argentina teams, in truth, are lacking the depth and dynamism of their best teams, which gave some loaded United States rosters major scares, or worse, as far back as Argentina’s surprise run to the gold medal at the 2004 Olympics in Greece.
Scola is the last active player left from Argentina’s so-called Golden Generation, which was headlined by Manu Ginóbili, one of Sunday’s celebrity attendees at courtside, alongside his former San Antonio Spurs teammate Tony Parker and Kobe Bryant.
Spain is also regarded as much weaker overall than it was in 2008 and 2012, when it had legitimate chances to beat the Americans in consecutive Olympic gold medal games. Pau Gasol is recovering from a long-term foot injury and could not play, while the longtime Spanish backcourt standout Juan Carlos Navarro retired in 2018.
The 2019 editions of both teams, though, still oozed chemistry, toughness and know-how. Those are the characteristics U.S. coach Gregg Popovich has openly envied in interviews since he began trying to build a cohesive unit out of a potluck group of players that came together in early August.
After helping France defeat Australia, 67-59, in the third-place game earlier Sunday, Evan Fournier of the Orlando Magic said: “When you look at the rosters and stuff, do I really feel like the best two teams are Spain and Argentina? No. But they played better. They won. So they deserve everything they have.”
In sweeping through the tournament with an 8-0 record, Spain got a lot out of the veterans it can still claim. Beyond Marc Gasol, point guard Ricky Rubio scored a team-high 20 points to cap perhaps his best tournament internationally and clinch his selection as the tournament’s most valuable player.
Rubio and Marc Gasol were also selected to the all-tournament team, alongside Serbia’s Bogdan Bogdanovic of the Sacramento Kings, Fournier and Scola, who has played the last two seasons in China with the Shanghai Sharks after last playing in the NBA with the Brooklyn Nets in 2016-17.
Nikola Vucevic of Montenegro, one of Fournier’s Orlando teammates and a first-time NBA All-Star last season, neatly summed up the widespread appreciation for Scola’s gallant World Cup play with this tweet posted last week: “When I grow up, I want to be Luis Scola.”
“I will forget the final game quickly,” Argentina coach Sergio Hernández said. “For me, we won the silver. We did not lose the gold.”
Hernández made it clear that the Argentines “were not tired” and “not satisfied” by their upsets of Serbia and France. The problem, he said, was Spain’s team defense and smarts as much as its size advantage.
“Nobody put money on us in this tournament,” Argentina guard Nicolás Laprovíttola said with a smile, forcing himself to look at the bright side.
Spain certainly received more pre-tournament buzz by comparison, but the United States and Serbia were the overwhelming gold medal favorites going in.
Marc Gasol has nonetheless maintained since mid-August, when the Spaniards held a training camp in Southern California, that they still had “enough talent to do a lot of damage.”
When the final buzzer sounded, Marc Gasol demanded the ball from the referees, clutched it tightly and leaned in for a kiss. Spain had avenged the disappointment of 2014, when it hosted the previous World Cup and was widely expected to topple the United States, only to lose to France in the quarterfinals and miss the medal round entirely.
“We don’t have as many players like we used to — we don’t have 10, 12 guys that have that experience,” Marc Gasol said. “But everyone wants to help the team.”