TOKYO — The concept of rivalry is a tricky one for international basketball, but it would be fair to say no country has consistently commanded the respect of the United States for two decades quite like Spain.
No matter which players have been there for the Americans, it has always been necessary to pass the Spanish test on the way to gold, creating some of the most memorable and dramatic moments during Team USA’s run at the last three Olympics. Of any national program in the world, none has been a more worthy foe.
But those days are likely ending after Team USA’s 95-81 victory in Tuesday’s Olympic quarterfinals, a result that was partly about this group of Americans taking more steps toward their potential and partly about the closing of a great chapter in basketball history.
NEVER MISS A MEDAL: Sign up for our Olympic newsletter now
TEXT WITH US AT TOKYO OLYMPICS: Subscribe to texts, where we’ll be your official guide to the Games
The old, battle-tested Spanish mainstays gave it one more good run – and, for awhile, had the U.S. team frazzled and uncertain. But at the end, this great era of Spanish basketball was handed a fitting end that sums up both the competitiveness and the frustration of coming up short to the Americans at now four consecutive Olympics.
“This is a time to really enjoy the moment,” longtime Spanish national team coach Sergio Scariolo said. “Being part of a legend is a privilege.”
It is difficult, perhaps, for someone of American sensibilities and expectations to understand why this Spanish core of Ricky Rubio, Rudy Fernandez, Sergio Rodriguez and, of course, the Gasol brothers would be regarded as legends despite twice coming up short against the Americans with a gold medal on the line.
But even more than the prizes they won – and, certainly, the Spanish did their share of that too – it’s the respect they earned for basketball in their country, year after year, until they had nothing left to give. Which is likely now.
As the U.S. survived one more fourth-quarter push to secure a place in Thursday’s semifinal against either Australia or Argentina, the greatest generation of Spanish basketball finally got old.
Marc Gasol, now 36, played just 10 minutes Tuesday and wasn’t particularly effective. His brother Pau, who pushed off retirement to have one more chance at this, played six minutes. Fernandez, who dutifully played for the national team since 2006, didn’t score a single point. No matter the result of this game, these Olympics were always going to be the end.
And yet there they were Tuesday, putting the U.S. in a 10-point hole in the second quarter. There they were, fighting as hard as they could to contain Kevin Durant as he started making shots in waves. There they were, pulling within six points with 10 minutes to go and forcing the U.S. to come up with answers one more time.
“To go down by nine or 10 whatever it was and stay in it and find a way to actually win is very satisfying,” U.S. coach Gregg Popovich said. “But I give them a great deal of credit for what they do and what they’ve done for many years. It’s an unbelievable organization.”
Ultimately, it will be impossible to put this U.S. victory alongside the 2012 classic they played for the gold medal or the 2008 finals when the American “Redeem Team” shot 60 percent from the field and only won by 11. But for awhile, it felt like the kind of matchup where something unique might be possible.
Much of that was due to Ricky Rubio, who was just 17 years old when he debuted at the Olympics in 2008 and became an international sensation who would be drafted No. 5 overall the following summer. Now 30, Rubio has carved out a reputation in the NBA as a workmanlike but flawed player whose inconsistent shooting has prevented him from living up to what so many hoped he could be.
But when Rubio puts on the red and yellow Spanish uniform, it might as well be Superman’s cape.
“He’s a hell of a player,” U.S. forward Draymond Green said, “but when you get over here, it’s even different. He showed that tonight. He gave them a chance at the game and we eventually pulled it out.”
Rubio’s assault on the Americans’ defense was unrelenting. He finished with 38 points in 27 minutes, made four 3-pointers, got to the rim seemingly whenever he wanted and shot eight free throws. It was an effort good enough to get Spain within 83-75 with 4 ½ minutes left, but he didn’t have enough help to go further. Outside of Rubio, the Spanish team made just 16-of-44 shots – a pedestrian 36 percent – and quietly faded away.
“We didn’t expect anything less,” Team USA point guard Jrue Holiday said. “Ever since he was, what like 12, he’s been doing this. So for him to come out here and just display the type of talent that he is, it’s cool to be a part of and to see.”
Of course, the downside to the Spanish core lasting this long is that ultimately you need more talent coming behind it. It’s why Team USA doesn’t really have an era but rather a rotating cast of stars that are defined only by whether they put the gold medal around their necks. It isn’t romantic, but it’s usually effective -- as long as someone the caliber of Durant keeps showing up.
After the U.S. upped the intensity on both ends of the floor to erase a 10-point deficit in the final few minutes of the first half, Durant began the third quarter with 13 points in a span of 5:27, a streak that helped the Americans relax and showed how devastating they can be when the ball whips around to open and finds open shooters.
Following a stretch in the first half that Green described as “panicked” from Team USA, this was as confident and commanding as they’ve been against a quality team. And it wasn’t just Durant benefiting from the improved offensive flow. After poor 3-point shooting in the first half, they started to go in for Jayson Tatum (3-for-5, 13 points) and Zach LaVine (2-for-5, 10 points), too.
“We’re in a good spot now,” Durant said. “We just have to finish it. We’re supposed to be here. So for us, it’s about getting the gold.”
For so many of these Olympic runs, Spain has been right there as the Americans’ foil, as the team most likely to prevent that from happening. Now they’re in the rear-view mirror, perhaps for a long time to come.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: USA Basketball's win vs. Spain at Tokyo Games closes epic chapter