For days, weeks, and even months, a USA-Spain final in the FIBA Basketball World Cup has been assumed and taken for granted. The Americans came into the tournament riding a 54-game international winning streak. The Spaniards were looking for revenge after finishing as runners-up to Team USA in both the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.
After a lopsided quarterfinal win over Slovenia, Team USA had dominated seven opponents in a row at the tournament with an average margin of victory of over 33 points per game. Headed into a quarterfinal matchup against France, Spain was 6-0 in this year’s event, winning by 26.5 points per contest.
For the most part, the questions about USA-Spain didn’t revolve in the slightest around which team might not make the final. Instead, the storylines and discussions all looked ahead to the seemingly inevitable showdown between an American team down two of its top stars from two months ago (Kevin Durant and Paul George) and a Spain team boasting NBA talents like twin towers Pau and Marc Gasol, Juan Carlos Navarro, Ricky Rubio, and Serge Ibaka, to name a few.
Would the homecourt advantage of a tournament played in Spain be enough to finally lift the two-time Olympic silver medalists past their nemesis? Could a Team USA without some of its biggest names from years past do enough to repeat as FIBA World Champions for the first time ever? Well, to borrow one of the oldest cliches in sports — that’s why they play the games.
Spain, a team that came into the quarterfinal round averaging 88 points per game, was held to a stunning 52-point output in a 65-52 upset loss at the hands of France Wednesday. The hosts surrendered the last 10 points of the contest and saw their championship dreams shattered by an opponent they had trounced 88-64 only a week earlier.
Spain was atrocious from the three-point line (2-22 for the game) and Marc Gasol was held to just three points in nearly 30 minutes of playing time. The French team controlled the glass, out-rebounding Spain 50-28. It was a far cry from the teams’ earlier meeting when the younger Gasol brother scored a game-high 17 points and Spain actually out-rebounded France.
Just like that, Team USA’s path to the title has become, if not a complete cakewalk, as close to one as Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s team could have dared to hope for. All that stands between the Americans and gold is a Thursday date with Lithuania and then, assuming the USA takes care of business, Sunday’s final against France or Serbia.
Of course, no one can be completely overlooked — France’s performance against Spain should be all the motivation and reminder Coach K’s players need in that department — but Team USA would undoubtedly be favored against a lineup of the three remaining opponents’ best players combined. Nicolas Batum (France), Boris Diaw (France), and Jonas Valanciunas (Lithuania) are nice players, to be sure, but not in the class of a Kyrie Irving, James Harden, or Anthony Davis. Serbia doesn’t even have an NBA player on its roster, so it’s tough to see them matching up with a dozen of the United States’ stars.
Bottom line: a likely weekend championship matchup that looked like it could post a stiff — maybe even insurmountable — test for the United States just disappeared into thin air with Spain’s defeat, and the only teams left in the bracket now won’t give Team USA nearly the problems that the home team would have. While it’s probably not quite time to engrave ‘United States of America’ on the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup trophy (better safe than sorry, we always say), American fans should fully expect to see gold medals around the necks of their favorite players when the tournament concludes Sunday.