Saturday, August 28, 2010

France Believes in Miracles. Or At Least Upsets in the Prelims.

Croatia might have given the USA a good run for a quarter, but France was able to pull off the real deal. In what I'm going to call a stunning upset, the French (without Rodrigue Beaubois or Tony Parker) dealt a loss to the heavily favored Spanish team, winning 72-66. And by heavily favored I mean, like, to win the entire FIBA World Championships, depending on who you ask.

It's kind of a big deal.

So how did the French do it? First, the numbers.

Spain shot 39.2% from the field  and hit 37.5% (9-24) from deep. France forced Spain into 16 turnovers. Meanwhile, the French shot 46.9% from the field while going 6-18 (33.3%) from deep. Sounds pretty good, right? Well, France still had 19 turnovers (probably a factor of not having their country's two best PGs on the team, as much as Spain's ball hawkery).

That's +7.7% from the field, -4.5% from deep, and  -3 on turnovers for France. They were also outrebounded, although only by a single carom. On the offensive boards, Spain was +5 over France.

Perhaps more of the story is told when we see that, although the beneficiary of more turnovers (plenty of which led to fastbreaks), Spain had half as many assists as France (7-14). But really, did France have so much better ball movement and execution over that of Spain? Only in the deciding 4th quarter. (More on that later)

One area France did hold the clear advantage was in efficieny in scoring, however. Double-digit scorers for France (Mickael Gelabale, Nicolas Batum, Andrew Albicy and Alain Koffi) each shot 50% from the field or better. Meanwhile, Spain received a double-digit effort from only two players (Rudy Fernandez and Juan Carlos Navarro), with La Bomba shooting 5-12 and Rudy going 3-7, and although both supplemented their high usage with trips to the line by going a combined 9/10, France's double-digit scorers did as well, going a combined 14/16.

Don't let that fool you, however. In the halfcourt, France had to take tough looks in probably 90% of their half-court possessions. Spain didn't get going in the half-court either, judging not only by their shooting percentage, but also the eye test, which showed plenty of frustration on the Spanish side. If we call the offenses a wash from the floor, what do we have left?

Free throws. The Spanish got to the line 32 times to France's 27. So why are we talking free throws if the disparity is so minimal? Because France shot 74.1% from the foul line (for 20 points), while Spain only managed 53.1% (for 17 points). That's a 3-point swing and half of the final deficit. That means that if Nic Batum doesn't hustle and block what would have been 2 (maybe more) wide-open fastbreak layups, and Marc Gasol and Felipe Reyes shoot at least 50% from the foul line, then Spain wins this game. Even with the terrible overall shooting percentage and execution, Spain could have won this game in just about the easiest way possible, from the foul line.

But they didn't. Let's see exactly how it went down, quarter to quarter:

The Spanish generally dominated the 1st quarter, going into the post with Marc Gasol and using him to distribute if a double came. Juan Carlos and Ricky functioned as entry passers, mostly, which worked well. Spain went away from this lineup (which guided them to a 18-9 lead at the end of the 1st quarter) and allowed France to make their comeback in the 2nd quarter, however.

The Spanish offense early in the 2nd quarter featuring Llull as its key facillitator led to a few wild drives, along with some missed easy looks from just about everyone on the floor for Spain. After this failed experiment, Ricky, Rudy and Juan Carlos are counted on to bring the offense back (by way of feeding the post again and hitting open shots), but mostly the Spanish were killed by missed free throws from Reyes (in for Gasol), who also couldn't initiate any offense in the post, unlike Gasol did at different points.

On the other end, Spain did just as well as they had in the 1st, as far as effort and pressure, but France was bailed out by Gelabale several times, along with some good passing late from Diaw, who had been on the bench for most of the quarter. In fact, Diaw was the best facillitator the French had in the first half of the game, as Albicy functioned mainly to throw a single pass and watch Gelabale try to find a way to score against the swarming Spanish defense.

Compounding these problems, Spain went 3-8 from the foul line in the 2nd quarter, with Reyes going 1-6 with a turnover. With no post option, Spain started jacking quick 3s off of screens, none of which fell, leading to a meager 1 point lead at the half (28-27).

In the 3rd quarter, Spain brought Marc Gasol back out along with Reyes, Rudy, Rubio, and Juan Carlos. The Spanish defense remained stout, as did the French, and the teams essentially traded sloppy offensive possessions. Spain clearly wanted to establish Gasol as a scorer and facillitator in the post (just like in the first half), but Ian Mahinmi played absolutely great defense, denying and wrestling position from Gasol each and every time down the court. Without Gasol able to distribute, Spain ends up going to Juan Carlos Navarro again and again, along with Rudy Fernandez hitting a 3 in transition. France struggles at different points in the quarter, but really get going when Bokolo comes in to run the offense at PG rather than Alvice. Bokolo absolutely lights a fire with his passing, including the final assist of the quarter, which pulled France within 1 point of Spain to end the 3rd. Before Bokolo entered the game, France was absolutely reeling on the offensive end, which led to Spain's best offense on the game, due to the many transition opportunities afforded by the bad shots and poor passes.

The 4th opened with Raul Lopez and Bokolo in a duel of backup PGs. Raul functioned to get bigs going in the pick and roll (including a nice dish to Fran Vasquez), as well as a danger to hit deep shots. Bokolo utilized his quickness to slice through the Spanish 2-3 zone (brought out immediately in the 4th), and got both Koffi and Batum going at different points, before getting a little sloppy and being replaced by Albici.

At this point, Batum became France's PG, driving and dishing and trying to get good looks for France. Gelobale makes his return appearance with a clutch 3 just as Spain starts to get back to ball movement and interior passes that got them the lead in the 1st quarter. About mid-way through the quarter (when France got within 1 point of the lead), Spain started to get sloppy.

It went like this:\

Rudy Fernandez isolates and takes a terrible 3, leading to a rebound and outlet to Albice, who Rudy intentionally fouls before a 2 on 1 break develops. Spain gets a steal, but go to Navarro to bail them out on offense and he airballs a 3. France goes down on the other end and Spain leaves Gelobale wide open and France takes a 1 point lead. Rubio with a pass to Rudy for 3, brick. Diaw drives and dishes to Traore for a wideopen baseline 10-footer. Spain answers with a Garbajosa 3 to tie, but you can tell that this isn't the same Spain that we've been watching.

Suddenly, this is a Spanish team that's making one pass and jacking a 3 (4 possessions in a row) to answer a French team that is suddenly finding the open man and getting easy looks. The Spanish give up another drive and commit a foul.
All those missed opportunities are starting to come back to bite them.

"Timeout, Spain."
This wasn't to break a run, this was to keep composure. Batum gives France a 2-point lead and Spain is ready to answer. Whistle. Foul under the basket against Ian Mahinmi. Gasol at the line. 1st one? Clank. 2nd? Clank. But France can't control the rebound. 3 minutes to go. Where does Spain go when they need a bucket? Navarro. He gets the ball on the move and takes it through the lane. Whistle. Travel. France still leads by 2, and now they have the ball. Batum drains a 3 with 6 on the shot clock. 5 point lead, 2:30 to go. Spain finally runs offense and gets a good cut from Rudy who misses a dunk and gets fouled. He goes 1-2. Spain fouls Mahinmi on the rebound. Now things are getting serious. Mahinmi hits both. 6 point game with 2 minutes to go. Gelobale fouls Reyes. You know this guy isn't going to hit, and he doesn't. You absolutely have to feel for Reyes. France runs clock, still up 6. Gelobale slices through the lane and throws a no-look pass to Mahinmi, who is fouled by Rudy Fernandez. 1:43 to go and Spain is trailing by 6 with Mahinmi going to the line. Whistle. Rudy gets T'd up. France ends up scoring 5 points on that single possession. After a little garbage time action that might have given some hope to Spain supporters, the buzzer sounds. France wins 72-66. You just saw the defending champions collapse in the 4th quarter.

What does this mean to me? No, not that Spain isn't going to end up in the semi-final matchup against Team USA.
To me, it means that if Spain can't write anyone off, then neither can the USA. There are no guaranteed spots in this tournament.

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