It'll be Argentina v Spain for the the FIBA Basketball World Cup crown.
Following two weeks of drama in China, including a bunch of nations securing qualifying berths for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, we're down to the battle for silverware.
Here are our key takeaways following the semi-finals.
Luis Scola is captain of a whole country!
Seventeen years after the Indianapolis Basketball World Cup final’s defeat to Yugoslavia in overtime, Argentina is back to play for a title the whole country has been craving since 1950!
In the tournament first-ever edition, the South-Americans had gone all the way, led by legendary forward Oscar Furlong. Now they are all lining up behind the one and only Luis Scola.
“He is not just the team captain. He is the captain of our whole country, our body, spirit, and heart, our inspiration,” guard/forward Patricio Garino praised the 39-year-old centre after his team’s 80-66 win over France, in a semi-final that turned into a triumph for Argentina.
“We have 25 minutes to celebrate. Then we stop dealing with social media and dedicate ourselves to winning the gold medal,” Scola ordered his teammates in the locker room, following a huge individual performance with 28 points (on 5-of-13 for two, 3-of-4 for three, and 9-of-10 free throws), plus 12 rebounds and two assists.
The French never really got in the game, and were always behind. “We tried to forget the win against the United States and stay concentrated, but ran into amazing opposition,” French forward Nicolas Batum admitted.
“Defense-wise, this is the best game I’ve coached in my life, and this makes me even prouder,” Argentina Coach Sergio Hernández commented.
A new golden generation of Argentinian basketball stars?
The Spanish are building a legacy
Since 2005, over 15 major basketball tournaments (Olympic Games, World Cups, European Championships), Spain has failed to make the top four just twice. “It’s becoming a relay race from one generation to another, and that’s how a legacy is built,” coach Sergio Scariolo stressed after his team survived a thrilling double-overtime semi-final against an impressive Australia team.
Teams were tied at 71 in regulation time and at 80 after the first five extra minutes.
The Boomers led by as many as eleven points, but the Spaniards used their experience and know-how in this kind of situations to come back. Magnificent Marc Gasol was the go-to guy for the 2006 World Champions, finishing with 33 points on 8-of-10 for two, 3-of-9 for three, and 8-of-8 free throws, to go with his six rebounds, four assists, and two blocks.
Sergio Llull, maybe the ultimate clutch player, was present once more with two huge three-pointers in second overtime to send Spain to victory.
“Τhe more you play, the more you win, the more you learn and know how to win crucial games,” the Italian coach Scariolo added following La Roja’s 95-88 win.
Kobe Bryant: 1992 Dream Team days are over
Kobe Bryant’s splendour made the Beijing Wuksesong Sport Center even brighter.
The retired superstar, a five-time NBA Champion with the Los Angeles Lakers, Olympic gold medallist in 2008 and 2012, and Basketball World Cup Global Ambassador, attended both semi-finals. He was there with his former opponent Manu Ginobili, himself a four-time NBA Champion with the San Antonio Spurs.
As expected, Kobe stole the show.
“The days of the 1992 Barcelona Dream Team are gone, over,” the Black Mamba said, commenting on Team USA’s failure in the tournament.
“Here in Beijing, in the 2008 Olympic Tournament, we were the Redeem Team, which returned to the summit after eight years. Even then, though, we had a hard time in the gold medal game against Spain, and needed a hell of a fourth quarter to win. Team USA cannot dominate anymore as it did in the past, since there are many good teams scattered all over the world. They can all respond to challenges and be competitive. The redemption goal in 2020 in Tokyo has become even harder.”
Team USA looking forward to “sweeter” medal
Two-time defending champions United States were not only left out of the Basketball World Cup semi-finals, but will also finish in their worst-ever position in tournament history.
Team USA failed to become the first team ever to achieve a three-peat and will play against Poland for 7th place in the final standings on Saturday (14 September) in Beijing.
This is only the fourth time the Americans have not made the final four in 18 appearances in the Basketball World Cup. In 1970, in then-Yugoslav city Ljubljana, as well as in 1978 in Manila, Philippines, they finished in fifth place, while they were sixth in 2002, on the Indianapolis home soil.
“We’re also the ones who stepped up to the plate when others stepped down. We qualified our nation for the Olympics, we got some work to do to rebuild a legacy that was left before us were on the wrong side of history indeed. But that’s gunna make the next medal that much sweeter,” Indiana Pacers centre Myles Turner posted on Twitter.
Coaches have weapons
Serbia beat the United States, 94-89, on Thursday in Dongguan, in a game many believed was going to be the Basketball World Cup final, but ended up being a match for places 5-8.
On 9 August 2019, Serbia Coach Aleksandar “Sasa” Đorđević, referring to a possible meeting of his team with the Americans, had made a much debated upon statement, which was criticized as provocative and became viral.
“We play our basketball, they will play their basketball, and if we meet, then may God help them,” he had said.
It was only natural for the 1996 Olympic silver medalist and 1998 World Champion as a player to be asked about that statement after yesterday’s game.
“If you take out the irony, out of my weapons as a coach, then I don’t have a lot left. I meant no offense. On the contrary, it was something I said to my guys to make them feel confident and secure. I work with their minds a lot, and wanted to send out the message that we were ready. Perhaps we were not, after all. I don’t believe I insulted anyone, every competitor is free to speak his mind.”
On Gregg Popovich’s reaction, Đorđević commented: “He told me we were a couple of losers, using a bad word I cannot say right now. We were looking at each other, saying that we should be playing for a medal instead.”