Spain has been Team USA's biggest international rival for over a decade. The two teams played in gold medal games in 2008 and 2012, and after Team USA was knocked out of the 2019 FIBA World Cup, Spain went on to win the tournament and earn the title of world champion. In what will likely be the final Olympic contest for key Spanish stars Pau and Marc Gasol, Spain took one last shot at its longtime nemesis in the quarterfinals.
They gave Team USA all they could handle. In the first half, Spain led by as many as 11 points. But ultimately, Team USA's shotmaking was too powerful for them to handle. Kevin Durant led the way for Team USA with 29 points as the Americans overcame that deficit to win, 95-81. They managed to do so despite a legendary game from Ricky Rubio, who scored 38 points in the loss.
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Spain has now been knocked out of the tournament. Team USA faces Australia in the semifinals after the Aussies dispatched Argentina with ease. If they win that game, they will face France, Slovenia or Italy in the gold medal game. Here are the three biggest takeaways from the Team USA victory.
1. An all-time Olympic duel
Ricky Rubio is primarily known for his deficiencies as a scorer in the NBA. He isn't a slouch. He's averaged 11 points per game in his career, but that is the lone weakness in his otherwise stellar skill set. If Rubio were a better shooter, he might be an NBA All-Star. In the FIBA game, he's certainly played like one. Rubio broke Butch Lee's record for most points scored against Team USA in the Olympics by notching 38 of them in this loss. He got to the rim frequently and hit jumpers that he rarely even attempts in the NBA. It was a special performance. Had his teammates stepped up for him, it might have helped him complete the upset.
But Kevin Durant was nearly as good. He scored 29 for Team USA, and when they were struggling to score in the first half, he was their only steady source of offense. His teammates woke up in the second half. Jayson Tatum hit a number of big buckets on the way to 13 points, and Jrue Holiday, Damian Lillard and Zach LaVine all got to double digits as well. That was the difference. Three of Spain's starters were held scoreless. Durant got the help he needed. Rubio did not.
Still, it was a remarkable sight on such a big stage. Durant has battled many all-timers in high-stakes moments. In the NBA, Rubio hasn't exactly been one of them. In the Olympics, he got to be. He pushed Team USA in this game, which may have been the best he's ever played at any level.
2. Size continues to be a problem for Team USA
When Spain built its first-half lead, it did so on the glass. They opened this game with a 25-12 rebounding advantage. Team USA was better from there, but was still ultimately out-rebounded 42-32. Even when Spain was missing shots, it managed to find points in the early going by rebounding them and putting them back up. The lead as a whole was built inside.
Opponent after opponent is having that same interior success against this team. Bam Adebayo and Draymond Green, for all of their other virtues, are not traditionally-sized centers. That has given opponents easy access to the basket on drives and rebounds. Spain lost this game in part because it couldn't take advantage to the degree that it needed to. They missed several makeable layups and bunnies inside that could have shrunken this margin.
If Team USA reaches the gold medal game, it will likely either be against France, a team that beat them thanks in part to Rudy Gobert's interior excellence, or Slovenia, a team that has Luka Doncic, who can get to the rim at will. This weakness is going to be tested again before the tournament's end.
3. The end of an era
Marc Gasol heavily implied that this was his last international tournament for Spain after the loss. Pau Gasol is 41 years old and unlikely to return. Rubio is the spring chicken of the Spanish core at 30. Rudy Fernandez is 36 and Sergio Llull is 33. In all likelihood, we have seen the last of a Spanish group that has undoubtedly been the best non-American national team in the world for the past decade.
They never quite made it over the hump. In 2008 and 2012, they pushed Team USA in gold medal games. They took home bronze in 2016 despite Marc Gasol missing out due to a broken foot. The stars just never quite aligned for them. If Team USA's disastrous 2004 team had come four years later, they might have a gold medal instead of Argentina. If Gasol is healthy in 2016, perhaps they push an American team that played several close games then.
It's a sad ending for one of the best international teams in FIBA history. Now Spain will attempt to reload around younger players like Usman Garuba, Alex Abrines and Willy Hernangomez. They may remain competitive, but it may be years or decades before they capture the same success as this group had. Team USA's greatest rival is officially out of the tournament, and possibly out of contention for the foreseeable future.