Juan Carlos Navarro pumped his fists in exultation and looked to the rafters for the roaring approval the basketball gods now owed. His second three-pointer did more than seal Spain's 80-72 victory over Greece. One final long-distance grenade allowed the reigning tournament champs to escape a minefield of degradation and advance to the quarterfinals with another shot to exude world dominance.
La Bomba's 22-point outing served as another sterling, explosive addition to his big-game curriculum vitae. Rudy Fernandez needed the moment, and the triumph, more. Greece and Spain reprised the testy 2006 gold medal game in a manner any semifinalist foes will struggle to top.
The Greeks struck early, with Vassilis Spanoulis and Niko Zisis demolishing the Spaniards inside. A pair of Navarro floaters--you know, the rainbow shot that could lull a caffeinated and intoxicated Snooki from Jersey Shore to sleep--closed the first-quarter gap. Spain snatched the lead back thanks to timely scores from reserves Fran Vasquez and Alex Mumbru.
Jonas Kazlauskas' squad appeared better prepared for this unexpected knockout clash featuring two teams that had been pre-tournament gold medal favorites. In many ways, this was a battle for redemption, and a scramble to avoid the punishment that often accompanies indolence.
Spain began group play with an inexplicable loss to a French team missing five NBA players. Another defeat to Lithuania followed two nights later. That forced the Spaniards to spar for second place.
Greece nipped a deplorable Chinese squad without 7'6" anchor Yao Ming and surrendered to host Turkey. A clunker--some have called it a thrown game--against Russia forced this premature engagement. Playing dead only works if the tricks stored away can best those of the opponent.
It is fitting, then, that the Greeks--who slammed Australia by 74 points in an exhibition match that prompted many to crown them before Istanbul's apex--bled out in gruesome fashion Saturday night. No one could have predicted two weeks ago that one of these international giants would bow mere days after the conclusion of round-robin play.
Spain survived spurts of flawless execution by Greece and pulled away late. Navarro collapsed the defense, Vasquez flushed a demoralizing put-back, and Fernandez emerged again as a difference-maker. Ricky Rubio's vanilla effort (2-8 shooting, six assists) necessitated fiery performances from the national team mainstays.
No basketball player has trashed his image more this summer than Fernandez. LeBron James, at least, still has a job and city brimming with fans ready to adore him and cheer his slam dunks, chest bumps, and his fast-break sendbacks. What does Rudy have now?
A playing time dip last season frustrated Fernandez and prompted him to squeal for a trade. He infuriated Portland Trail Blazers' coach Nate McMillan to the point that the two were not on speaking terms, reports suggest.
He even insisted he will sit out the remaining two years on his NBA contract if the front office does not grant his hoggish demand. He wants to return to Europe, where life is easier and stardom comes with less maintenance.
Fernandez' wish for more crunch-time minutes would have been understandable, given a repeat of his overflowing-with-potential rookie campaign. Instead, he pouted after an uneven year in which McMillan's decision to drop his daylight by just three minutes should have been seen as philanthropy. His confidence wavered with his play.
Spain's best perimeter athlete departed Portland after a first-round exit with one foot in his NBA grave and another stomping out the fire that was supposed to define his game. Fernandez arrived in the United States with a chance to become the next Manu Ginobili, a deceptively quick and studious player with a penchant for making an endgame impact akin to Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.
No shooting guard--save for Bryant and Dwyane Wade--can do more to take over the final five minutes of a contest than Ginobili. Fernandez showed the same potential. When he scored 25 points against the Houston Rockets in a close road playoff defeat? The expectations stuck.
His determination to keep McMillan on his side did not. Fernandez' retribution: $55 million for Wesley Matthews and a trade for the draft rights to Luke Babbitt. He will also compete for reserve wing minutes with Nicolas Batum, and his fourth-quarter role alongside Brandon Roy remains in doubt.
He aired his protest without any leverage and must now cope with reality. He wants out of Portland, but no one in the front office is obligated to appease him.
The last thing Fernandez needed was an early tournament flameout. Rudderless Spain stumbled much as it did in last year's Euroleague Championship. The danger of underachievement, though, seemed greater. Greece's versatile frontline posed numerous challenges, and Spanoulis provided the hard-to-handle perimeter presence that could draw game-changing fouls and sink momentum-shifting buckets.
Dimitris Diamantidis ranks as Europe's best individual defender.
Kostas Tsartsaris, who poured in 17 first-half points in a friendly against the United States, is the third string center. Sofoklis Schortsanitis and Ioannis Bourousis have alternated the starting spot.
Give Spain's interior defense credit: Bourousis and Tsartsaris combined for a listless 22 minutes that included 33 percent shooting, four rebounds, and one assist. Schortsanitis puffed up his totals with a fourth-quarter stretch that featured a pair of and-one garbage buckets and a gimme pick-and-roll layup.
Diamantidis soared for two spectacular blocks and dialed in 16 points, but Spanoulis sputtered after a conspicuous first half. Greece still managed to connect on 50 percent of its shots, but Spain was better when it mattered.
Zisis' 8-of-15, 16-point night included a crunch-time miss beyond the arc and a turnover. Antonis Fotsis woke up at the wrong time after an unconscious third quarter. He could not find the net after a Schortsanitis three-point play and an empty Spain possession left the door ajar with fewer than two minutes remaining.
The start looked nothing like the revealing end. Fernandez threw up an air ball on Spain's first possession and tossed an errant pass on the next one. He bricked his first three shots and allowed Spanoulis clear sailing for a layup. In short, he did everything that led to his court action decrease.
His superior second-half justified Coach Sergio Scariolo playing him 29 minutes. Then, he teamed with Navarro and a rotating cast of support men to send Spain on to a quarterfinal match with Serbia.
Greece now wears the dishonor of its speedy vacation, while the tournament champs live to defend their crown.
Just as Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban can stow his FIBA distaste if it affords Tyson Chandler supervised rehab and a chance to advertise himself as a primo addition to skeptical fans, the Blazers can do the same for Fernandez. A slew of elimination-round masterpieces would spike his trade value and lessen the embarrassment his petulance has caused.
One game can change a perception. One quarter can provide the ultimate launchpad to salvation. When Navarro's punctuation-mark trey swished, Fernandez solemnized the occasion.
One shot did more than spare Spain its presumed comeuppance for its round-robin play dalliance. It exonerated Fernandez, at least until his next trial date against Serbia.
He brought an unforgiving jury on himself with a foolish trade demand and a budding, unwelcome diva act. Saturday night, his Spanish teammates helped him win a compelling opening argument. His stoic glance seemed to celebrate the postponement of the judge's gavel as much as the final score.