25 July, 2021
07 August
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Day 2 all about champions: The habit of winning is impossible to kick

TOKYO (Japan) - Whether you're at the start of your career, like Luka Doncic, or at the end of it, like Pau Gasol or Luis Scola, chasing the wins will always be priority #1 for champions.

We are well aware of our privilege to be right here in the Saitama Super Arena, witnessing greatness firsthand, but while Luka Doncic was setting the world on fire, a single thought rushed to the heads of our staff on hand in Tokyo. We were among the rare people in the world who have seen Luka Doncic lose.

It happened during Media Day, two days before the competition started. Team Slovenia were done with their photoshoot and there was still enough time in the small practice court for Doncic and Klemen Prepelic to shoot a few shots from halfcourt. The venue confines allowed for more or less only a stand-still shot as there was zero room to get the run-up for a shot in a forward motion.

After missing two rounds of five shots, Klemen Prepelic moved a bench that was blocking his potential movement to the right. While his teammates teased him that he was nowhere near the bench anyway, and that surely the matter of missing from halfcourt was not about a bench, Prepelic silenced the laughter by knocking down not one, not two, but three of five shots from halfcourt.

Doncic rimmed out his attempts, and Klemen celebrated a win in a friendly shootaround. But it was so easy to see how furious Luka was because that's just who he is. Hates losing even when a simple game like that is in question - even when it's his friend and teammate.

"I don't care about records that much. We got a win. That's what we came here for. (The record) doesn't matter. It was three or four minutes before the end, and we won the game at that point," Luka Doncic said after torching Argentina with 48 points in a 118-100 win. He was asked about the potential of chasing Oscar Schmidt's 55-point record, but all he was replying was the "it doesn't matter, as long as we win" phrase.

When you know the story from above, you know that his words about caring only about the W are completely accurate. Doncic also had 11 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 blocks, but don't get fooled thinking Slovenia are a Doncic team, with zero help from others.

Prepelic had 22 points, Vlatko Cancar scored 12, Mike Tobey picked up an 11-point, 14-rebound double-double, and Zoran Dragic goes into the history books as the man who scored the first Olympic points for Slovenia.

"This game was really special, not just for me, but obviously for our team and the whole of Slovenia," Doncic said. "These are our first Olympics. We won our first game, it's got to be special for everybody in Slovenia." 

Along with the 22-year-old Doncic, we've also witnessed a pair of 41-year-olds proving they still belong on this stage. Luis Scola scored 23 points in 27 minutes for Argentina, who are still alive in this group but must chase the 18-point minus in their next two games to give themselves a better chance of making it to the Quarter-Finals.

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Scola is playing his fifth Olympics. Same as Pau Gasol, whose path to this summit was unbelievable. He said that not many doctors gave him chances of rehabbing his injured foot and that the stories of him retiring and joining the Portland Trail Blazers staff were "just wishful thinking, without consulting me" by the Blazers.

Gasol came off the bench for the reigning world champs with effectiveness, scoring 9 points in just 13 minutes on the floor, helping Spain to an 88-77 win over the hosts, Japan. Tokyo Gasol proves a comeback is possible at 41, even after being sidelined for 14 long months.

"I've seen him all the time during the preparation camp, and very often throughout his whole process of coming back. I'm proud of him. He didn't have to do this. But that's who he is, a role model as a human being and an athlete," Marc Gasol was smiling when asked about his brother.

"I love the game. I wanted to finish my career playing, didn't want to end on an injury. It was a difficult and challenging injury. But (playing at the Olympics) was worth the effort and worth the risk," the elder Gasol said. "The pandemic actually helped me because if the Games weren't postponed I wouldn't have made it back from my injury in time to play in 2020." 

Spain did what they usually do in major events. They dominated without making too much noise, doing just enough to keep their opponent at bay. Japan showed massive signs of improvement compared to 2019 but improvement alone will not win them games in this loaded group with the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 finalists (Spain, Argentina), and the FIBA EuroBasket 2017 winners (Slovenia).

"I'm feeling much better about our team now than two years ago. We played a good game. But to beat a team like Spain, good is not enough, you need to be excellent," Japan head coach Julio Lamas said.

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Rui Hachimura and Yuta Watanabe were impressive for the hosts, combining for 39 points on the night. But it wasn't enough, because not only do the Gasol brothers have their neverending habit of winning big games, Ricky Rubio feels the same - 20 points and 9 assists in just 22 minutes of work for the point guard.

Argentina will be the next team to challenge Spain, while Japan have the unpleasant task of slowing down Slovenia. Game Day 2 promises to be equally as exciting as this one in Group C.