France looks to upend nemesis Spain
LJUBLJANA, Slovenia -- "It's one of those rivalries where you'll all talk about it when you're retired," said Tony Parker.
Perhaps. About the twists, the turns, the ups and downs, the passion and the glory. All essential components. But when it comes to Spain and France, can you really call it a rivalry without some parity of esteem?
The duo knows each other well, too well perhaps, their paths crossing often. Fifteen times over the past 12 years, an era which -- by no coincidence -- spans the NBA careers of both Parker and Pau Gasol, they have squared off, mis NBA estrellas against votre NBA étoiles, always with the pride of neighbors at stake, often with a genuine prize on the line.
Friday in Ljubljana, they will match up again (WatchESPN, 2:50 p.m. ET), in the semifinal of EuroBasket. Les Bleus must hope that the tide might finally turn here, and push them to the brink of the major international prize which has, so far, eluded Parker and his longtime running mates.
With a golden generation for each at their disposal, this should have been a constant battle for supremacy, spoils shared and punches traded back and forth. Instead, it has been the Spanish who have been the heavyweights, claiming world and European titles and pushing the USA to the limit in the quest for Olympic gold. The French, far too often for their liking, have been left only to cast an envious glance. Having lost eight straight games to Los Rojos since 2010, it has gotten old.
"It is time to break the spell, it really is time," France's center Alexis Ajinca said. "This is the team to beat, every year. Everybody wants to beat them every year. We want to show it's our turn. We don't want to lose to them again."
And again, and again. A month ago, in a pre-tourney exhibition game in Montpellier, France, the hosts, led by 28 points from Parker, were six points ahead with a little over two minutes remaining. Sergio Rodriguez, with support from Marc Gasol, came with a charge straight out of Pamplona and Spain snatched an 85-84 victory.
Same at the Olympics last summer, when a 15-6 run in the fourth quarter saw the Spaniards rally for a 66-59 win in the quarterfinals. Two years ago, in the final of EuroBasket 2011 in Lithuania, the French did not suffer a late heartbreaking collapse. The life was squeezed out of the contest with plenty of time left, 27 points from Juan Carlos Navarro cancelling out Parker's individual pursuit in a 98-85 triumph.
"The mentality that they have to be ready for the big games reminds me of the Spurs, that mentality for big games," the San Antonio guard told ESPN.com. "We know how to win. There's that attention to details and what's important to win games. They just know how to win.
"The way they play reminds me of the Spurs. The way everybody touches the ball. The way everybody is aggressive and plays great defense. That's what I try to teach to the young guys on my team, to explain to them that every detail is important if you want to beat a good team like Spain."
The defending champs have not been infallible in Slovenia over these past 16 days. Far from it. In losses to Italy, Greece and the hosts, there were uncharacteristic lapses and a slide in standards. They are without Navarro, Europe's sharpest shooter, and Pau Gasol's decision to merely be a spectator here has weakened their frontcourt just enough to give others hope.
"But," said French forward Boris Diaw, "now they're not there, they play more from the perimeter. And the guys from the outside play even better. Sergio Rodriguez is better than the year before. Other guys have stepped up. They're still a very good team."
So, lest we forget, is France. And part of the reason is a collective drive that this current group should create history rather than be a footnote in the achievements of others.
"I always joke with Pau that if it weren't for his generation, I'd have a lot more gold medals," Parker said.
He has a silver souvenir from the last EuroBasket, and a bronze from 2005. More than most. "Now I'm just missing the nicest medal," he said. If not now, then when?
Until Wednesday, the genuine possibility loomed that both could depart empty-handed. Spain was stuttering, France stumbling, and neither looked like the force of old. The French, deflecting the sonic boom from the home supporters, fought past Slovenia in the quarterfinals. Spain silenced Serbia in an old-fashioned rout, one wave of pressure coming after another, a variety of weapons. It sent out the message that it is business as usual.
"We know they're going to be at a high level and we have to match that," France's Mickael Gelabale said. "We can't let them start like they did against Serbia. That was a big surprise for me when I saw that score. I was resting and then I woke up and saw the score on the TV and thought, 'damn.'"
They should have expected nothing less. And they will know what to expect. Spain will throw all four of its guards, Rodriguez, Sergio Llull, José Calderon and Ricky Rubio at Parker and try to wear him down. The French will pile its bigs onto Marc Gasol and attempt to hold him in check.
Theirs versus ours, for a place against either Croatia or Lithuania in Sunday's final.
The kings of Europe know that sooner or later, they will be dethroned. Their next challengers have more incentive than anyone to end their reign. "If someone has beaten you several times over the years, you always want to try to win," Spain head coach Juan Orenga said. "We will fight against that. We have to."
The Spanish will take confidence from the past, he added. For France, those bitter past memories must be set aside and buried. They start 0-0. The only game that counts is this one.
"It's never about revenge," Diaw said. "It's about winning the next game and winning the next event. With France, with any national team, you're always going to have different players, you never keep the same team. You know that's part of the game. But it's still France against Spain."
Sounds like a rivalry for the ages, indeed.