BEIJING -- This was supposed to happen five years ago.
In 2014, Spain was hosting the FIBA Basketball World Cup. They had won silver at the Olympics two years prior, and they had a stacked roster, with a lot more continuity than that of the United States, and with 10 players who had played in the NBA at one point. They also had 2017 Euroleague MVP Sergio Llull, who could be in the NBA if he wanted. It was the best team in the history of Spanish basketball.
But in the quarterfinals against France, Spain shot 32 percent and saw its tournament end two games too early. We never got the much anticipated, USA-Spain matchup in front of a raucous crowd at the Palacio de los Deportes de la Comunidad in Madrid.
The headline in one newspaper the next morning was "Desastre de España en su Mundial."
First sentence calls it the best Spanish team in history. Hard to argue. pic.twitter.com/V1H04ZY8Yi— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) September 11, 2014
Five years later, with a team that had just six players with NBA experience and with nothing close to the expectations of 2014, Spain has won its second world championship, defeating Argentina 75-55 in the gold medal game on Sunday.
That Spain beat Argentina was not a huge surprise. That both of those teams outlasted Australia, France, Serbia and the United States certainly was.
"When you look at the rosters," France's Evan Fournier said after his team won the bronze medal earlier on Sunday, "do I really feel like the best two teams are Spain and Argentina? No, but they played better. They won, so they deserve everything they have. But that's FIBA basketball. It's just one game and if you make the adjustment, you start making shots, you can beat anyone. That's what's so beautiful about it, but also that's [why] it's so hard to win."
This was definitely a World Cup where the "anything can happen on any given night" cliché was applicable, even more than in 2014, when the United States won its fourth of five straight major tournaments. Still, that it was Serbia, and not Spain, that the U.S. beat that year was a stunner, especially because Spain had cruised through its first six games, beating France and Serbia by a total of 40 points in pool play.
"I felt that we had the best team in 2014, but we had one bad game," Marc Gasol said after winning his second championship in a little over three months. "That's the kind of tournament it is. In the FIBA tournament, you have one bad game and you're out."
This year, it was Serbia that looked like the most dominant team early on, winning its first four games by an average of 41 points. And then, after losing to Spain in the second round, the Serbs were upset by Argentina in the quarterfinals.
Argentina's magic didn't run out there. In the semis, they beat the team -- France -- that knocked out the Americans. After dominating the U.S., France's Rudy Gobert was ineffective against a team that didn't have a single NBA player. Argentina had seemingly benefited from playing in a weak group in pool play, but then they made an anything-can-happen run all the way to a silver medal.
"It's surreal to us to be in the final of the Worlds," Argentina's Patricio Garino said after his team's incredible run finally came to an end against Spain. "We believed in each other, but to be in this position is kind of crazy."
That Turkey team that would have beat the United States had it not gone 0-for-4 from the free throw line in the closing seconds of overtime? It went on to lose to the Czech Republic and New Zealand, and its only wins were over Japan and Montenegro (by just five points), teams that finished the World Cup a combined 1-9.
Australia, meanwhile, will look back and shake their heads. They were in control of their semifinal game against Spain for most of regulation, only to lose in double overtime. And in the bronze medal game, the Boomers blew a 15-point, second-half lead to France. Anything can happen in any given quarter, apparently.
France's Nicolas Batum saw it coming, especially with the USA not bringing its best roster.
"I said before the tournament that it's going to be the weirdest and maybe the greatest FIBA tournament in a while," Batum said, "because it was so open. And that's what happened. We got so many teams that can reach the final or get a medal or have a big goal. It was so open, and there were so many surprises in big games. That was fun to watch."
We weren't the most talented team. We weren't the biggest team. But we were the team that had the biggest heart. And we showed it tonight. We showed it the whole tournament.
On Aug. 17, Spain lost to the United States in an exhibition game in Los Angeles. Four weeks later, the Americans were already home unpacking their bags as the Spaniards were receiving their gold medals.
"I'm not that surprised," Gasol said. "I'm not going to say that it was our main goal. But I believed that we could do it, because once I saw the U.S., once you started breaking down every single team -- you don't do that until you're here -- I'm like, 'OK, well, I think we can beat anybody.' And then once you have that mindset, you get one game against the best teams and let's go."
World Cup MVP Ricky Rubio, who averaged 16.4 points and 6.0 assists over the tournament (with 20 and seven on Sunday), wouldn't speak to his team's expectations in 2014 vs. those of this year, but said that he had a different mental state this time around.
"Personally, it was totally different," Rubio said. "Here I came with a mind set. The mind set was winning the gold medal, no matter what. I know that it was one of the hardest things to do, but I was telling Coach [Sergio] Scariolo that I was working out this summer just thinking about the gold medal, and I was ready to win it. In 2014, we had so many weapons. Sometimes, it doesn't work out our way."
Sometimes, it does. And though anything can happen on any given night, one team is going to be the last one standing. This World Cup could have gone any number of ways, and ultimately, it went the way of Spain.
"We weren't the most talented team," Rubio said. "We weren't the biggest team. But we were the team that had the biggest heart. And we showed it tonight. We showed it the whole tournament. I couldn't be more proud to have the teammates and the coaching staff that we have. We feel like this is going to go down as a memory for us as a family. That's bigger than just winning the World Cup. It's a family for life."
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