Based on how both of the teams involved performed in pool play, the gold medal game between Spain and the United States could have been a mere formality. Through seven games, Team USA was as deep and effective as advertised, but Spain—an international powerhouse with a tremendously talented roster—had struggled to find itself and faltered in its offensive execution.
Pau and Marc Gasol had played well, but perhaps weren't as overtly dominant on the low block as some have come to expect. The perimeter shooting had ranged from unremarkable to crippling, as the Spaniards converted just 32.8 percent of their long-range attempts before taking on Team USA Aug. 12. Juan Carlos Navarro—an invaluable scorer and shot-creator for Spain—had been battling plantar fasciitis and missed two preliminary games. Spain was underwhelming and inconsistent, and faced with the United States' ability to put games away in a matter of minutes, it was easy to imagine a painful dry spell by the Spaniards coinciding with a Team USA burst.
Yet basketball fans were privileged to see Spain correct almost every bit of offensive weakness against its most formidable opponent in the Olympic tournament. Spain didn't always play at a level deserving of its pre-Olympic silver medal projections over the last few weeks, but by tournament's end it was a convincing runner-up. Whether Team USA, the stage itself or the chance to build some momentum was responsible is tough to say definitively, but Spain's return to form was unmistakable.
It came—as it so often does—by way of the Gasols; Marc's impact was limited by foul trouble, but his point-a-minute pace coupled with Pau's far-reaching impact gave Spain a workable basketball foundation. It was through those two that Navarro's scoring burst came to hold real importance and that Rudy Fernandez's wild plays became a useful asset. Shots fell, defenders walled off the paint and a medal favorite cast aside its previous struggles.
That singular event may not mean a ton in the grand scheme of the global basketball culture, nor will it register to the casual fan who merely tuned in to see the United States win another gold medal. But it's worthwhile to see Spain play up to its potential, if only for a single game; as is the case with Argentina's cogent and experienced core, the Spanish national team plays beautiful, effective basketball when operating at the highest level. Spain may have been denied the absolute pinnacle of its performance with the injuries to Navarro and Ricky Rubio, but it was still well capable of a showing like this one—in which smart matchup work and good ball movement set up an entire roster for success.
It's that ability that made Spain a tough out, and the very same that makes the Spaniards such tremendous ambassadors for the game. A basketball world with an effective Spanish national team is simply a better one altogether, and though a single underachieving tournament wouldn't do anything to displace this particular squad in the context of FIBA basketball, their rightful return caps a rewarding Olympic run with the finale it deserved.