Spain gets unlikely assist in run to EuroBasket title

Pau Gasol's 25 points and 12 rebounds against Lithuania led Spain to the EuroBasket title on Sunday. AP Photo/Michel Euler

LILLE, France -- Pau Gasol was the deserved and unanimous choice as the MVP of EuroBasket 2015 as Spain marched to their third EuroBasket title in six years Sunday with an 80-63 destruction of Lithuania.

The team's assist leader, according to head coach Sergio Scariolo? A guy who wasn't on the floor, nor even on the bench. Marcos Fernandez, the team's director of inspiration and the cultivator of dreams.

With curtains drawn, it was 50 days ago in a meeting room in Madrid that Scariolo pressed play on a film that set the tone for the remarkable and unexpected journey ahead, a compilation tape designed to remind his players of what their country had accomplished and what still might be within reach.

Fernandez, the team's video analyst, was given a clear script from his producer and asked to bring it to life on the screen at the very outset of an international campaign when Spain -- without so many of its established stars -- was predicted to regress into the realms of the forgotten rather than forging a campaign that will be remembered for a long time.

"We put together team basketball, some important plays, not amazing highlights but ones that won us games or got us to a podium," Scariolo said. "European Championships. The Olympic Games in London. And also we put some film of these guys when they were kids.

"Because my message was that: 'The past few years, we've had this status; we must do this, we must do that'. I wanted us to go back to when they were starting out. Playing in junior tournaments at the beginning of their career, when they were enjoying basketball. Back to where it was so hard to accomplish things."

They had to fight. To scrap. To endure the heart-stopping tension in the closing seconds of the first round in Berlin when Germany's point guard Dennis Schroder went to the foul line with three attempts to force overtime, only to fall short. It was do or die, but they survived. "We had three finals: Germany, which was so important," recounted Nikola Mirotic. Then elimination games, one after another. "Greece. France. All the team was growing every single time which was amazing."

Fernandez's services were in demand. Sometimes, the opinion of the odds makers differed but Spain was not favored, at the start, even near the finish. No Marc Gasol. No Jose Calderon. No Ricky Rubio. No hope. Hence, more nights at the movie theater.

"Four days ago, ahead of playing France, I played the scene in 'The Pursuit of Happyness' where Will Smith's character is talking to his kid and saying: 'Don't let anybody say you can't do something,'" Scariolo said. "Yesterday, I played a scene from 'The Million Dollar Baby.' I was concerned they were thinking: 'We have to win'. I wanted them to remember what it takes to win."

It took two minutes and 23 seconds in the final for his players to signal that the subtle message had hit home, when Lithuania coach Jonas Kazlauskas was forced to take a timeout with his team already on the ropes. Spain's ball movement was dazzling, its defense straight out of Hollywood.

In the first quarter, they had forced seven turnovers. By the time Gasol threw down one more dunk in the second, their advantage was 34-18. The punches kept coming. By the time Gasol threw one arm into the air when he drained a 3-pointer to round off his haul of 25 points and 12 rebounds, the knockout was all but declared.

Scariolo had planted a seed.

"We believed from the first day," Mirotic said. "I think it was good for us to lose the first game against Serbia because we worked even harder and changed some things. We reacted very well after that game.

"After that, we lost against Italy. But especially the past week, we've played amazing basketball and we knew if we played great defense, we'd have options because the whole tournament, we've played great offensively. We've made shots. We've put the ball into Pau all the time and that's worked for us. The defense was important and we changed our focus to getting rebounds. Like we showed here, everything starts from the defense."

The key of the final was supposed to be how well Jonas Valanciunas could shackle Gasol. Instead the Toronto Raptors center found himself double-, even triple-teamed and worn down in waves. He fouled out near the finish, one rebound short of a double-double, punished and deflated.

"We were trying to play good defense, trying to limit their shots and stop Pau inside. But obviously we didn't do that," he said. "They brought energy, really high energy. They were pressing us all over the place. They were great on defense. When we lost the lead from the start, that was the key of their victory. They ran away so fast. It's so hard to get back."

Not when shooting only 35 percent. Not when the 35-year-old Gasol was completing a tournament for the ages, leading a European championships in scoring for the third time in his career. If Scariolo probed sneakily into the subconscious of his team, the Bulls forward was up front about his desires, screaming for others to follow him.

"The team responded really well when we had some issues," Gasol said. "When we had our backs against the wall, the team played its best and understood we needed to play good defense to beat teams and move on."

It was scoring that won out with a top-ranked offensive rating of 118.4. But the squeezes came when they counted. And it gets Spain to Rio 2016, when Gasol will participate at a fourth and probably final Olympic Games, with reinforcements ready to join the quest.

Whatever La Roja achieves there, it may not better this.

"Personally," Gasol said, "it has a special meaning and significance for sure."

The little team with the big-time performer who could, and did.

As the gold glitter fell to match the color of the medals around their necks, souvenir t-shirts were dished out with a simple message on the back. 'Duenos de Nuestro Destino,' or 'The Masters of Our Own Destiny.'

"It means that we followed our destiny and we believed we could do it," Mirotic said. "A lot of people didn't expect we could do something like this. But the more we played, the more we believed. We had ups and downs. We stayed together. And we played great, especially in the important moments."

Scenes fit to adorn a movie one day, a story of hope and belief in the impossible, a tale of improbable dreams that this night came true.