BARCELONA, Spain — Maybe Spain can convince its home fans that the game doesn’t matter.
No way Kobe Bryant is buying it.
A game against the U.S. – the team that beat them for the Olympic basketball gold medal four years earlier – this time in front of their own crowd? The Spanish players are supposed to be OK with losing, because it’s only an exhibition?
“There’s not a chance,” Bryant said Monday. “It’s not just practice. It’s impossible.”
Bryant might have come away with a different opinion if he’d listened to Spain’s players talk on the same Palau Sant Jordi floor about an hour earlier. They are excited about tonight’s game and will try to win, but not at the expense of their preparations for London.
“It’s an exhibition game. I think both teams are going to try to (use) different lineups, going to try maybe different stuff, but at the end of the day you know you’re not going to show a lot of things to the other team,” Spain guard Jose Calderon, of the Toronto Raptors, said. “You’re not going to have a medal if you win or if you lost tomorrow.”
The U.S. held off Spain 118-107 in Beijing to win gold in what U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski called “one of the great games in international basketball history.” The Americans pulled away after leading by just four with under 2½ minutes left to win their first major title since the 2000 Olympics and are ranked No. 1 in the world.
Spain is No. 2, and nobody would be surprised to see them play a gold-medal rematch on Aug. 12. That’s the one the Spanish are aiming for, they say, and won’t go all out for a victory Tuesday if it means giving away any secrets they would use when it counts.
“It’ll definitely be a great test,” Spain star Pau Gasol said. “We believe in our chances, but it’s just a friendly game. Obviously we’d rather lose tomorrow and win in London.”
Bryant and Gasol are teammates with the Los Angeles Lakers, and Gasol said he’s looking forward to meeting up after they haven’t seen each other since their season ended in Oklahoma City in the second round of the NBA playoffs.
Bryant said Gasol is like a little brother, and that big brothers don’t let little brothers win.
“He doesn’t like to lose against anyone, but I’d like to maybe let him win tomorrow and maybe beat him in London,” Gasol said. “That’ll be ideal.”
Bryant countered that there’s “no way Pau is thinking this is just another game.”
And if it’s another tight one like the Beijing battle as they head into the final minutes Tuesday?
“There’s no way Pau’s sitting down,” Bryant said.
An NBA team would rarely have its top players on the floor in the final minutes of its last preseason game. And Spain, which has had to deal with injuries to Marc Gasol — whose left shoulder was wrapped in ice after practice – Juan Carlos Navarro and Rudy Fernandez on top of already losing Minnesota point guard Ricky Rubio, has plenty of reason to be cautious.
The Spanish have already shown they’re willing to play things close to the vest, even when the game does count. Krzyzewski was more amused than confused when Spain pressed in an effort to conceal strategy for a rematch in its 37-point loss to the U.S. during pool play four years ago. Yet he thinks the atmosphere surrounding Tuesday’s game will force Spain to play to win.
“I think tomorrow they’ll come after us pretty hard because we’re playing in Barcelona. A number of these guys have Barcelona ties, they either grew up here or they played here, and it’ll be an emotional night. So it would be different if we were playing them in Washington D.C., I think, or some other place,” Krzyzewski said.
The U.S. just got a stern test here, beating Argentina 86-80 on Sunday after losing most of a 20-point lead. The Argentines sure treated the game like it meant something, standing up to the Americans with their physical play and keeping their stars in the game all the way as they tried to catch up.
Spain may have something different planned, and believes the fans would accept it.
“I think everybody understands as well,” Calderon said. “We’re going to try to win for sure. We want to win tomorrow, but like I say, end of the day it’s not going to be the same kind of game like if we’re playing Aug. 12 or in the Olympics, in our minds, in their minds for sure.
“You going to try to send a message? I don’t know if it’s the best. It’s different because it’s not going to be 100 percent real.”
Marc Gasol said he knows how much Bryant likes to beat Pau, and that he himself ended up with an earful of trash talk from Bryant at the NBA All-Star weekend. He insists Spain wants to win, knowing how important basketball is to Barcelona.
The Spanish are best equipped to beat the Americans, with the Gasol brothers and Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka, a nationalized Spain citizen, anchoring a powerful frontcourt. They have loads of international experience, and the only thing to question about them is their priorities Tuesday night.
“I think we’ll get a great shot from them and they’re a great team,” Krzyzewski said. “They would give a great shot no matter what but, because it’s here we expect them to be terrific tomorrow night.”