The most important game at EuroBasket 2015 wasn't for the championship. On Thursday, Spain and France, two of Europe's basketball superpowers, clashed in a EuroBasket semifinal with an Olympic berth on the line. Spain won an overtime thriller, France complained about the refs and NBA fans got the hoops fix they desired before next season begins.
Whenever two longtime rivals like Spain and France get together, it's always a big deal. They've won the past three EuroBasket titles, boast NBA All-Stars and regularly rank among the best teams in the world. Their semifinal game turned out to be the latest chapter of international basketball's biggest growing rivalry.
The implications behind this game were massive. Automatic Olympic qualification was on the line. These teams have history, including France's elimination of host country Spain from the 2014 FIBA World Cup. Finally, it was played in Lille, France, so the crowd was wild. Unless you like watching the U.S. brush foes away from its throne, this was as good as international hoops gets, even with several Spanish stars not playing.
These are basketball superpowers
The United States is the best national team in the world, but Spain and France are arguably Nos. 2 and 3. Powered by future Hall of Famers Pau Gasol and Tony Parker, respectively, the two teams have taken advantage of star power that most teams this side of America can only dream of having.
The rise of Spain really began in 2006 with the emergence of Gasol as a world-class player. The current Bulls star put on an amazing display as the MVP of Spain's 2006 FIBA World Championship run and ignited the most successful era by a non-American team in recent memory. Over the next few years, Spain would win two EuroBasket titles (2009, 2011), two Olympic silver medals (2008, 2012) and even challenge Team USA at times. For years, it was clear that Spain was the No. 2 team in the world.
Now that's not so certain, partially because of the rise of teams like France. Led by Parker, Spurs big man Boris Diaw and Hornets forward Nicolas Batum, the French team has broken away from a middling past and become one of the toughest national sides in Europe. It's hard to imagine now that the team only qualified for the Olympics twice from 1964-2008. France showed signs of life by finishing sixth at the 2012 Summer Olympics, then followed that up by winning EuroBasket 2013 and earning a bronze medal at the 2014 FIBA World Cup. Parker's now the all-time leading scorer in European Championship history.
NBA stars have been the driving force between success for both teams. The current Spanish team is led by Gasol, who's averaging 23.6 points per game in the tournament, and his Bulls teammate, Nikola Mirotic. The French team boasts Parker, Batum, Diaw, Rudy Gobert, Evan Fournier and Nando De Colo. These are impressive rosters, even if the Spanish side is missing several key names like Marc Gasol and Ricky Rubio.
However, unlike in the NBA, where opposing players can often be seen joking around, there's no love lost once these guys are representing their countries. In recent years, we've seen that quite clearly.
A growing rivalry
France's emergence on the international scene has led to some intense games against Spain. Remember Batum's below-the-belt shot on Juan Carlos Navarro in London?
That was before the two teams ended up meeting several other times. Since that game, which saw Spain eliminate France from the 2012 Olympics, things have only gotten more heated. A year later at EuroBasket 2013, France got revenge with a stunning 75-72 OT win that eliminated Spain in the semifinals. Then, at the 2014 FIBA World Cup, France twisted the knife a little further by knocking host Spain out in the quarterfinals. All that made Spain's revenge victory this year that much sweeter.
That's five straight years of back-breaking, blood-boiling defeats -- six if you include Spain's win over France in the EuroBasket 2011 final -- the likes of which everyone on both sides remember. These teams do not like each other. In April, Batum had to apologize after giving then-Blazers teammates cards that included the phrase, "We don't lose to Spanish players," which was assumed to be a slight against Marc Gasol. As part of the apology, Batum even admitted the source of his comment was the rivalry between Spain and France. No wonder France was so upset after Thursday's loss.
Other players might not be as public with their contempt, but the feelings are real. Don't expect much buddy-buddy love between these two teams when they take the court in Lille.
Even if these two weren't bitter rivals, Thursday's game was significant. The winner earned automatic qualification to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, avoiding months of headaches and a qualification tournament next summer. Now, France must work much harder to get into Rio.
Spain joins the United States, Brazil, Australia, Nigeria, Venezuela and Argentina in automatic qualification to the Olympics. The U.S. earned its spot by winning the 2014 FIBA World Cup and Brazil is the host country. The other four nations earned their spots in FIBA tournaments this summer.
Once the automatic qualifications from EuroBasket and the FIBA Asia Championship are determined, there will be three places left to be won at next year's qualification tournament. Teams that already earned spots to the qualification tournament are Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Angola, Tunisia, Senegal and New Zealand. That group, along with three other top European sides, will offer stiff competition.
So this game was a huge deal not only for bragging rights, but in terms of earning a place in international sports' biggest event. This was next step forward in one of basketball's best rivalries. If you saw it live, you should have been happy.
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Update: Spain had its revenge in an overtime thriller. Pau Gasol scored 40 points to lead his squad to the Rio Olympics. Tony Parker, meanwhile, disappointed and France won't get a chance to defend its title. Read more on the game and Pau's brilliance here.
Spain will go on to face the winner of Serbia and Lithuania in the finals. France will have a last chance to qualify for the Olympics in July.