25 July, 2021
07 August
4 Luís Scola (ARG)
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Day 10: Group winners and USA through on an emotional day in Tokyo

TOKYO (Japan) - The Gasol brothers cracked a few openings in sports fans the world over earlier in the day, so by the time Luis Scola received his standing ovation at the end of the Australia v Argentina game nobody was even trying to hold it in anymore. Three massive figures - both physically and metaphorically - announced their retirement from international basketball in a matter of hours.

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For Luis Scola, the writings were on the wall. He'd shatter that wall by completely dominating the last group game against Japan to get 40 more minutes in the Saitama Super Arena, but Australia were always going to be a tough task for this edition of the Albiceleste.

For Pau and Marc Gasol, the case wasn't all that clear about Tuesday, August 3, 2021, being the date of their last game together in the shirt with Espana emblazoned across its front. Especially when you analyze the first half of their matchup with the mighty USA.

It was just another masterpiece of a half by Sergio Scariolo and his golden generation. Victor Claver took on the mission of tracking Kevin Durant just two days removed from his battles with Luka Doncic. Willy Hernangomez picked up three blocks in the first half as the USA struggled to get anything going against the 3-2 zone and the "Next" defense that Scariolo deployed over the first 20 minutes.

But, somehow, out of nowhere, the USA erased a 10-point deficit in the last two minutes of the half and went into the locker room with the score  tied up at 43-all against the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 winners. By not trailing at that point, they were actually winning.

"It was a wonderful game in the sense that we feel absolutely great about the victory, knowing full well there's a lot of work to be done," coach Gregg Popovich said after a 95-81 triumph and continued to express admiration towards the opponent.

"Spain are a terrific basketball team, with an amazing coach in Sergio Scariolo, one of the finest in the world. The way his team executes is just remarkable to me, it's very impressive the way they play under his tutelage."

This is not just Coach Pop being polite. You could sense that he was really enjoying the game - a bit more than usual since his team managed to get out of the hole we mentioned two scrolls ago, at the end of the first half.

"To go down by 9 or 10, whatever it was, and stay in it, and find a way to actually win - it's very satisfying. But I got to give them a great deal of credit for what they do, and what they've done for many many years. Unbelievable organization, and my 'hats off' to them."

Two of Durant's team-high 29 points

The feeling in the arena was that the USA would take over in the second half, just based on the fact of their high-energy squad compared to Spain's much more experienced roster. Pau Gasol is 41, Marc Gasol and Rudy Fernandez 36, Sergio Rodriguez 35, Sergio Llull 33, Victor Claver 32. It doesn't take a scientist to notice that Spain had their troubles in every single second half in Japan.

Spain started missing layups. Each one of those misses was just an invitation for Durant and his friends to run and the breaking point came in the fourth quarter. With Spain down eight, Sergio Rodriguez drove to the paint and has his layup snatched off the rim by Jayson Tatum.

Straight away in transition, Spain helped on Zach LaVine from one pass away, and the ball came to the same man who started the play, Jayson Tatum. He knocked down a three-pointer from the left 45, followed it up with free throws on the next possession. He then reigned down another three-pointer from the other corner.

Instead of this being a six-point game with that Rodriguez layup, Tatum sent the American to 15-up in a single minute. Spain did their best to comeback. Ricky Rubio set his own career-high, which was also the single-game record for Spain in the Olympics with 38 points - the most anybody has scored against the USA since the professionals started playing in 1992.

It wasn't enough. Team USA moves on to the Semi-Finals, while Spain have to come up with a new plan because this defeat also signaled the end of international careers for both Pau and Marc Gasol.

"You can really overcome anything if you put your mind and heart to it. Just the fact that I was able to come back, play, compete at this level, just a huge success in itself," the elder Gasol said. "This was my last game for the national team, I'll have to talk to my family and see whether it's worth for me to keep playing (at club level) or to move on to other goals in life."

Added Marc: "Younger guys have to play. And in order for them to play, the older guys have to move out of the way."

Marc is still under contract with the Los Angeles Lakers, at least we get to chance to see him continue playing club basketball. Later on Tuesday, we had to face the music - that Argentine tango - one last time.

"I wasn't thinking about it, I just came here to play," Luis Scola said after losing the Quarter-Finals to Australia. It wasn't a close one, Australia won it 97-59 with a 37-11 fourth-quarter explosion that was only stopped for two minutes when there was less than a minute to play. 

A classy move by coach Sergio Hernandez, who took Scola out of the game one last time, to give him an opportunity to hear what his peers think of him. Classiness moved through the entire arena, Team Australia also stood up and applauded the man, the referees did the same, as well as the team delegations in the stands, the volunteers and the entire media tribune.

It went on and on. Louder and louder. To those who watched basketball over the past 20 years, we all have a Luis Scola story somewhere in their mind. Everyone of us who watched him play that one game when he was unstoppable. Everyone of us who knows a friend from a friend who has a colleague whose brother played with Scola. All of us, all over the world, have been influenced by the man with the number 4 on his back, one way or another.

"Obviously I am 41 and most likely I won't play anymore," Scola said. "I don't think I have the energy to do the things that I had to so to play at the level I want to play. It's just a matter of time. But most likely I won't play (anymore)."

The whole moment when the game stopped was equally emotional even for the Boomers on the other end of the floor.

"It's the least we could do - to have a moment there for him. It was a rock in the throat type of situation. We always talk about how great he is as a basketball player, but he is an even greater human. A family man. And we now wish him all the best in this next chapter of his life," Patty Mills said.

To get back to the games and the Games, Mills dominated on the court. He knocked down 3-of-4 three-pointers en route to team-high 18 points. After the game, he had a simple message to his boys in the locker room.

"We haven't done s*** yet," the 32-year-old said.

That's also the experience of two straight fourth-place finishes on the global level, at the 2016 Rio Olympics and the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019. Mills feels like this time around Australia could pick up a medal. He is not alone, either.

"Over my 15 years, I don't think I've ever gone into a game thinking I couldn't win it. That's the worst possible mindset," Joe Ingles said. The Boomers are feeling confident because they already defeated Team USA in 2021, 91-83 back in the Las Vegas exhibition game. Anything to take away from that game, at all?

"Not from the result, but from the film on what we did good and what we can do better against them," Dante Exum explained.

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On the other side of the draw, we have an all-European Semi-Final between Slovenia and France. Luka Doncic had 20 points, 11 assists and 8 rebounds to continue his triple-double tease in Tokyo, but in that 94-70 win over Germany, Zoran Dragic was the man who led the charge with 27 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists.

The 90+ point Slovenian offense is no news by now. The have scored 90+ in every single major event game since the Round of 16 in FIBA EuroBasket 2017. But the 70 points allowed are a sign that they can defend on a high level, too. And while all the talk is about Doncic, Dragic, Klemen Prepelic and Mike Tobey, one man is happy to stay in the background and enjoy the show.

"He was always with us for the past few years and knows every player to the bone," Dragic said about Aleksander Sekulic, the head coach. "He knows what he needs to do to get 100 percent from each of the players. He has a big respect from everybody and he respects us. This is the most important thing and we have the best possible coach for this national team."

The best one of Doncic's 11 assists, behind his head, for a Mike Tobey three-pointer

For Germany it was a memorable summer in which they upset a lot of favorites, not just by reaching the top eight phase here, but also by winning the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Split.

"We talked a lot about their offense, but they were impressive on defense. They played aggressive deny, full-court pressure, gave us something new to work with that I think we haven't seen at this tournament," Niels Giffey admitted.

Slovenian defensive firepower will be tested in the Semi-Finals in a battle with France. Vincent Collet celebrated his 200th game as the French playcaller with an 84-75 win over Italy to get Les Bleus back to the final four for the first time in 21 years.

They were just too big, with Rudy Gobert, Moustapha Fall and Vincent Poirier playing. Meanwhile, Meo Sacchetti had to use Nicolo Melli and Danilo Gallinari as his five guys. Italy kept it close, Simone Fontecchio tied the game in the fourth quarter at one point, but a timely three-pointer by Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot sent the game the French way.

Gobert had 22 points and 9 boards, Evan Fournier finished with 21, but the real hero was Nicolas Batum with 15 points, 14 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals and 2 blocks. Just a captain, doing captain things.

"That was the most nervous I had got since I started playing for the national team in the past 13 years," Batum said. "I could not lose that game. I have gotten medals in the World Cup and won the EuroBasket, but personally, I miss the Olympics. I was super nervous and made mistakes to start the game which cost De Colo two fouls and so I really had to step up for the team, show the way and it was a good team win."

Batum will now face his NBA Playoffs foe Doncic in the Semi-Finals, while Italy have a year to enjoy before running it back in their own backyard. In Simone Fontecchio (23pts) they have a new star. In Nicolo Melli, a true captain.

But in Danilo Gallinari, they have a Scola-like figure. He had just finished his NBA season and had no obligations to go and play for his national team over the summer.  But came he did and left his bones for his country - almost literally. Gallinari was playing through a serious knee injury, yet still picked up 21 points and 10 rebounds against France.

Maybe he was risking too much in that moment. But with guys like the Gasols, Scola and Gallinari, there is no other way. This means too much for them.

Which is exactly why they deserve that game break and that two minute standing ovation, even thousands of miles away from their homeland.