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Last night Luis Scola delivered one of the more memorable performances I’ll ever witness in my lifetime. Each one of the 37 points (14/20 from the field) he put through the net captured the imagination of the fans in the arena, both Brazilian and Argentinian. Marceo Huertas showed the world that it’s possible to rack up the points without limiting the flow of an offense, and that few point guards in the world—from the ACB to the NBA—can run a team as effectively as he. The last time I had as much fun in a basketball arena, Josh Childress was dunking home a Teodosic miss in this year’s Euroleague Final Four. Still, that Olympiacos-Partizan game couldn’t captivate me buzzer to buzzer quite like this one.
But drink some coffee and snap out of it. It would be a mistake to let the Scola-Huertas hangover cast a haze over a fantastic quarterfinal match-up between two of Europe’s most powerful sides, Spain and Serbia.
I had never seen Pau Gasol play a more forced and ineffective game of basketball, and Nenad Krstic and Serbia made the most of it. It was only the first day of Eurobasket 2009 and the Spanish favorites had already been exposed 66-57. Turkey kicked them while they were down a few days later and the waters were murky for the reigning World Champions. Then Rudy Fernandez and Pau woke back up and they starting dishing the punishment: five games with an average winning margin of 19.2 capped off by a 22-point vengeance final against the Serbs who had knocked them off at the start.
A year later in Turkey the story had a similar opening sentence, this time a loss to Vincent Collet’s French side, followed several days later by a Lithuanian upset. Then in a match-up of the Eurobasket semifinalists, Spain took on a Greek side who, like them, had lost two games of their first five despite coming in with title hopes. One of them would end up remembering these World Championships as a failure. As it turned out, Spain might still have a chance to look back on it fondly.
But Serbia won’t go down as smoothly as they did in Katowice, Poland last year. The youngest team at both tournaments, they’ve matured as a unit this time around without losing that fearlessness that makes them so dangerous. Spain’s zone approach was the difference against Greece, but Serbia’s style is less affected by the opposition than anyone here. They go for the knockout blow every time without minding that they’re left vulnerable to a body shot; Dusan Ivkovic’s men don’t let the little things add up. Occasionally down but never dejected, the Eurobasket runners-up know they’ve got 40 minutes to do their damage, which is exactly why an 8-point deficit after the first quarter couldn’t soak their spirits against Croatia. It was an ugly game, but a 73-72 win nonetheless as their output was 20 points below their tournament average.
The worst part for Spain is that Euroleague MVP and All-Eurobasketer Milos Teodosic has been quiet, averaging 11 through four games after his suspension and netting only three in the Croatian affair. We all know he’s due for an explosion, but it’s on Spain—mainly Ricky Rubio—to extend that mini-slump for 40 more minutes. If Milos gets the looks from 14-to16 feet that Nikos Zisis did in the Greece game, he’ll put up 25 in his sleep. Nenad Krstic has led Serbia’s scoring charge with 16 ppg to go with 7 rebounds, but it might be Dusko Savanovic’s job to crack the defense should they choose to zone or play a loose man, both of which we’ve seen thus far from the Spaniards. If Dusko can get Felipe Reyes to creep out to 18-feet with him, everything opens up for guards or fellow forwards like Novica Velickovic to make hay in the lane. Still though, I’d give the edge to the Spanish bigs based on defense and rebounding. Croatia shot only 42% against the Serbs but beat them up on the offensive glass 13-7 to slap on some extra possessions. Luckily, the Croats hit only 20% of their threes; they won’t get so lucky with Spain, who’ve connected 37% of the time this tournament. A concern for Spain, though, is the health of bigs Marc Gasol, who missed Monday’s practice due to tonsillitis, and Reyes who flew back to Madrid several days ago to have his neck checked out by a specialist. He hurt it while grabbing 10 rebounds against Greece. They’re both expected to play though, so we’ll count those minor setbacks as just that: minor.
Prediction: Although Serbia have the firepower and the nerves to pull it off, I think it takes more than that to beat Spain in this stage of the tournament. Spain 86-81 Serbia.
Game tips off at 15:00 GMT, 11:00 EST and 18:00 local time.