2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup

Luis Scola, Marc Gasol behind surprise FIBA World Cup final

Commitment 'completely worth it' for battle-tested international stars

BEIJING — After Argentina came up empty on its first two possessions of its 2019 FIBA World Cup semifinal against France on Friday, Luis Scola grabbed an Evan Fournier miss. Scola saw Rudy Gobert had chased the offensive board under the basket, and raced the other way.

It wasn’t the fastest of fast breaks, but it ended with the 39-year-old Scola taking both a bump and a hit on the arm from France guard Frank Ntilikina, finishing through the contact for an and-one that gave Argentina its first three points.

On the next possession, Argentina’s Marcos Delia blocked Gobert, and the ball ended up in Scola’s hands. Again, he took off. And with the ball, he outpaced France’s Amath M’Baye, finishing over Fournier to give Argentina a 5-2 lead.

“That was smooth, huh?” quipped the ageless Scola. “I was fast!”

* World Cup: Scola lifts Argentina to final

* World Cup: Spain reaches final round

For the second straight World Cup, France pulled off a major upset in the quarterfinals, only to lose in the semis. This time, it was because Scola — who first played for the Argentine senior national team in 1999, when Ntilikina was but 1 year old — and his teammates were a step ahead of Gobert and the French all night. Scola finished with 28 points and 13 rebounds; Gobert: Three points, 11 boards.

Afterward, Argentine forward Patricio Garino was asked if Scola ever ceases to amaze him.

“Never,” Garino answered. “I’m not the only one. The whole world is still amazed by what he’s doing. After all these years, it’s really impressive.”

And so Argentina (7-0) will meet Spain (7-0) for the World Cup title on Sunday (8 a.m. ET) in a bit of a throwback game, and one nobody could have predicted at the beginning of this tournament. Both teams have young contributors, but they’re led by Scola and the 34-year-old Marc Gasol, respectively. For his part, Gasol first played for the Spanish national team in 2006, and posted a game-high 33 points in Spain’s double-overtime, semifinal victory over Australia on Friday.

Afterward, Spanish head coach Sergio Scariolo explained how the experience of his team’s core — Gasol, Ricky Rubio, Sergio Llull, Rudy Fernandez and Victor Claver — paid off down the stretch against the Boomers.

“Winning feeds the ability to keep winning,” Scariolo said. “The more quarterfinals, semifinals, finals you play, and the more you win, the more you know how to do it, how to manage it and how to win it.”

And because those veterans keep coming back to play for the national team, the younger players, like Juancho and Wily Hernangomez, benefit.

“Some of our players, the five that finished the game, have been in many of those games,” Scariolo said. “And they are great leaders for the rest of the players.”

Having played with the Toronto Raptors until late June and now entering a contract year, Gasol had more of an excuse to stay home than any of the dozens of American and Canadian NBA players who declined or withdrew from the squads that ultimately had disappointing results here in China. But dedication and duty to one’s national team is just a different thing outside of North America.

“I’m very fortunate,” Gasol said about the opportunity to win two championships in the span of three months (which Scariolo — a Raptors assistant — has as well). “I know that committing to the national team this summer would not be easy physically, because we were so lucky to stretch our season and [come] away with a championship. But it’s completely worth it, and not because we’re playing in the final game.

“It’s because of the responsibility of passing along that commitment, that loyalty to the team, those values that we were taught through so many years with older players. Now it’s our turn to pass on that legacy to the next generation. That’s not talent. That’s just commitment, because when you come to the national team for 8, 10 weeks during the summer, it’s not very practical, because you don’t get to work on your game, you don’t get to recover, you don’t get to work on your body like you would if you had close to 20 weeks off. You’re committing to a lot of time and to your teammates. And it’s completely worth it.”

Scola’s season in China ended back in March, but he shares the same commitment, and the same passion for playing with his countrymen. Scola is still going, with the rest of Argentina’s “Golden Generation” having retired. At the conclusion of Argentina’s win over France, he turned toward the crowd and pointed to the “Argentina” on the front of his jersey before celebrating with his teammates.

“We have fun out there,” Garino explained. “Everything pulses together when we all know each other and have that chemistry on the court. It’s simple. It’s fun. We have no pressure. We are here to win, obviously, but to have fun.”

Argentina isn’t just a cohesive unit offensively, where it ranks 10th at the World Cup, having scored an estimated 112 points per 100 possessions. Through Friday’s semifinals, Argentina has the tournament’s No. 1 defense, having allowed an estimated 91 points per 100. Spain also ranks higher defensively (3rd; 92 allowed per 100) than it does offensively (13th; 109 scored per 100).

With the United States’ streak of five major tournament titles having come to an end, we’re going to crown a new world champion, though both of these nations have won this event before. Spain won gold at the 2006 World Championship, beating the team (Greece) that beat the United States in the semifinals that year. Argentina won the inaugural World Championship, playing at home in 1950. And no, Scola did not play for that team.

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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