Spain's inclusion in the 2016 Rio Olympics was supposed to be a formality, but Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic found themselves helplessly lingering on the free throw blocks with the country's Olympic chances hanging in the balance on Thursday afternoon.
Spain had coughed up a 12-point lead entering the fourth quarter to Dirk Nowitzki and a German team playing in front of its home crowd. German point guard Dennis Schroeder had three free throws to send the game to overtime, and made the first two. A loss would have meant Spain's EuroBasket was over, and in turn ended their chances for a spot in the 2016 games.
But Schroeder missed his final attempt and Spain exhaled. Gasol and Mirotic aren't in the clear yet, though: Spain needs a win against Marcin Gortat and Poland on Saturday just to be in the mix for a spot in the FIBA World Olympic Qualifying Tournament next July. The only way Spain can avoid that qualifying tournament is by reaching the title game of this EuroBasket competition, where the top two teams gain an automatic berth to Rio.
What does this mean from the Bulls' perspective? Selfishly, maybe it would have been better for Spain to lose to Germany so Gasol could have gotten some rest before training camp instead of carrying such a heavy burden for his national team. At the same time, Pau has a lot of pride invested in Spain's success, and the Bulls have more than enough front court depth to prevent him from playing 34.4 minutes per game this year.
This tournament is a great opportunity to see how Mirotic handles high leverage situations, and those will only increase if Spain can stay alive. His decision making was often erratic as a rookie, and the best way to cure that is by playing through it. We know Mirotic has never lacked confidence. For him to take the next step forward as an NBA player -- maybe Bulls' most realistic path to the internal improvement they're banking on -- he'll have to learn how to reign himself in while also maintaining the aggressiveness that so often makes him effective.
Through five games in group play, both Gasol and Mirotic have been up and down in ways you'd expect them to be. Gasol is leading the tournament in PER and Mirotic is No. 14, but many of the shortcomings that plagued each player last year have also been exposed in this tournament against lesser competition.
For example, the Germans were shamelessly going at Gasol on the inside all game. After former UConn forward Niels Giffey -- maybe the sixth best player on their 2014 national title team -- drove at Gasol for two points in the second quarter, the announcers exploded: "Everyone is going at big Pau Gasol! I don't if this is a strategy or what, just attack Pau Gasol inside!"
Yes, it's a strategy. A minute later, Jazz rookie Tibor Pleiss did this after the Germans put Gasol in a high pick-and-roll:
That happened to the Bulls all season last year and it's not going to get any better with Pau another year older. The best solution for Fred Hoiberg -- and his biggest challenge in his first NBA season -- is going to be learning how to pick his spots with Pau. Because, as even the biggest Gasol detractors will admit, he can still be a brilliant offensive player.
He's currently second in EuroBasket in scoring (21.6 points per game), he's been passing the ball well and his jump shot looks great. Just don't let his EuroBasket leading 2.8 blocks per game fool you. Those stats are so obviously empty for a player as limited athletically as Pau. It's showed in this tournament going against college cast-offs and guys not talented enough to make the league.
Mirotic has much more invested in this tournament. His defense is going to be an issue: he has trouble fighting through screens and has failed to pay attention to shooters throughout this tournament. Fortunately, his offense has also been really good. He finished with 13 points and six rebounds on 5-of-7 shooting in a tight loss to Italy, caught fire in the second half to finish with 22 points against an undersized Iceland team, and then had his heavily anticipated matchup with Nowitzki against Germany.
He finished with 12 points in 29 minutes, that included a layup where he burned Dirk backdoor (granted, half of B-a-B commenters could do that) and this three he drilled off a feed from Pau:
Mirotic's shooting is perhaps the most encouraging thing about his performance in the tournament so far. He's hitting 38.5 percent of the 2.6 threes per game he's attempting. The Spanish guards have done a decent job creating looks for him, but they're also very ball dominant and aren't exactly looking to get the big men outside of Pau in the rhythm. That was confirmed against Germany when the Spanish guards continued to jack shots late in the fourth as the lead slipped away and even Pau couldn't get a touch.
For someone who entered the league with a reputation as a shooter, Mirotic would benefit greatly if he actually lived up to it this year. As a rookie he only made 31.6 percent of his threes and only 23.3 in the playoffs. Just having him on the floor is a boost to Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler in terms of opening up the floor, but there's also a need for shot makers on this roster, and that burden will naturally fall on him as his playing time increases.
Now it's on to the knockout round, where the stakes are even higher. Spain has a proud basketball tradition created in large part thanks to Pau's brilliance, and this is almost certainly his last chance at playing in the Olympics. Combine that with Mirotic's development, and Spain is an easy team to root for for Bulls fans.
Spain plays Poland on Saturday at 11:30 a.m. CT.