Nikola Jokic and Serbia were knocked out by Italy immediately following the group stage. Giannis Antetokounmpo thrilled for Greece until a quarterfinal loss to host Germany. Luka Doncic exploded for 47 points in a group-stage win, only to see Slovenia shocked by Poland in the quarterfinals. The last NBA headliner left standing was Rudy Gobert, whose French team suffered an 88-76 upset loss to archrivals Spain in Sunday’s gold medal game in Berlin.
This was a signature victory for Spain Coach Sergio Scariolo, who is overseeing a youth movement after the retirements of Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and Sergio Rodriguez last summer. Toronto Raptors forward Juancho Hernangomez carried the torch with a game-high 27 points and seven three-pointers against France, while his brother, New Orleans Pelicans center Willy Hernangomez, won tournament MVP honors. Spain delivered the equivalent of Nick Saban leading Alabama to a national title after losing his quarterback and the entire defensive line in the NFL draft. This wasn’t supposed to be their year, and yet Europe’s premier program triumphed anyway.
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For Gobert, and NBA observers keen to gauge his play after the polarizing blockbuster trade that sent him from the Utah Jazz to the Minnesota Timberwolves in July, the story wasn’t as tidy or inspiring. Indeed, EuroBasket proved to be a reminder that extracting maximum value from Gobert’s skills as a shot-blocker, rebounder and finisher requires carefully-crafted strategies and the right set of teammates to cover his limitations.
The three-time Defensive Player of the Year earned all-tournament honors alongside Antetokounmpo and Dennis Schroder by averaging 12.8 points and 9.8 rebounds across nine games, but he had precious little impact against Spain. Gobert finished with just 6 points, six rebounds and two blocks in 27 minutes, as France fell into a 21-point first-half hole and never recovered.
Unlike Jokic, Antetokounmpo and Doncic, to take three convenient examples, Gobert lacks the range of offensive skills necessary to drag a team through a mid-quarter slump, to consistently set up his teammates for easy looks, to punish a mismatch on the block, to stretch a defense with outside shooting or to take over a close game with a fourth-quarter flurry. France needed at least some of those qualities with its offense sputtering against Spain, yet the 30-year-old Gobert, who was seeking his first national team gold after claiming silver at the 2020 Olympics and two FIBA World Cup bronzes, was easily stymied.
Seeking to involve Gobert offensively, France regularly deployed him near the free throw line, hoping to use him as a distributor in a high-low configuration. But Gobert committed two of his three turnovers by forcing passes, a consistent theme for the French, who had 19 turnovers on the night.
“Our weakness has been turning the ball over since the beginning of the tournament,” France Coach Vincent Collet said. “[Spain] scored 35 points from our turnovers. We scored seven from theirs. What can we say? This figure is enough to tell you about this game. We survived [overtime games] against Turkey and Italy, and we could have died already because of these turnovers.”
Down the stretch, France turned to New York Knicks guard Evan Fournier, who finished with a team-high 23 points but never found much success in the two-man game with Gobert. In Utah, Jazz coach Quin Snyder engaged Gobert as a screen-setter and pick-and-roll target with shooters deployed around the arc to give him as much room to work as possible. Spacing is harder to come by in international play, and Gobert spent most of the night lost in a sea of Spanish interior defenders.
Instead of challenging Gobert directly, Spain expertly neutralized his defensive impact through methodical, careful offense and hot outside shooting. By turning to spread lineups and moving the ball ahead of France’s defense, Spain generated high-quality perimeter looks and driving lanes once Gobert was dislodged from the paint. Of course, Gobert has faced similar strategies in the NBA playoffs, when opposing offenses have forced him to move as much as possible and to guard smaller, quicker ballhandlers in space.
The takeaway for the Timberwolves, who parted with four first-round picks and a package of players to land Gobert, is simple and profound: their new center can quickly appear mortal without the right support systems and personnel.
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Utah managed to have a league-leading attack with Gobert by keeping three or four capable shooters on the court with him at all times, and by bombing away. That’s promising news for Minnesota, which was the only team to attempt more three-pointers than Utah last season. Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell are all high-volume shooters who should allow Gobert to roam freely around the basket, where he’s most comfortable.
Russell will carry an added burden of feeding Gobert in the pick and roll, though, as both Towns and Edwards are naturally wired as score-first players. Meanwhile, Edwards and Russell should serve as Minnesota’s closers, covering up Gobert’s lack of shot-creation and off-the-dribble skills. While there’s plenty left to work out, Minnesota’s offensive ceiling is very high.
Defensively, Towns and Gobert will continue to find themselves targeted by opponents who want to exhaust them, lure them out of position and get them into foul trouble. The Timberwolves’ postseason fate could hang on whether the two big men can move well enough to contribute to a functional perimeter defense. After all, Utah conceded 15.5 made three-pointers per game in their first-round series loss to the Dallas Mavericks — nearly double the Jazz’s average — and France allowed Spain to shoot a blistering 15-for-31 from outside on Sunday.
The Gobert gambit has the potential to deliver Minnesota’s first playoff series victory since 2004, and perhaps more. To reach those heights, the Timberwolves must reflect on France’s flop and cast Gobert as the piece capable of nudging them over the top, rather than asking him to be a franchise savior.