SAITAMA – They would have talked about this night in Japan for generations. Imagine: the country’s first men’s basketball game at an Olympics in 45 years, in an arena just north of Tokyo that would have been filled with thousands of flag-waving fans, against the reigning World Cup champions.
The pandemic took away Japan’s chance at having the desired scene.
Spain took away Japan’s chance of having the desired outcome.
Ricky Rubio scored 20 points and a 19-0 run in the second quarter turned out to be the difference, as Spain went on to top Japan 88-77 on Monday night in the opening game of the Tokyo Olympics for both teams.
Victor Claver made all six of his shots and scored 13 points for Spain, the four-time Olympic medalists — three silver, one bronze.
Rui Hachimura scored 20 points and Yuta Watanabe added 19 for Japan, which spent some of its pregame meeting time talking to each other about how the country would be watching from places other than the arena.
“We talked about it before the game," Hachimura said. “We actually played here like two years ago, an exhibition game or something. A lot of people came, we were looking forward to it, but it is what it is. Can't do anything about it, and everybody is watching on TV."
Without fans permitted in the Saitama Super Arena because of the pandemic and the decision to not open almost all venues involved in the Tokyo Games to ticketholders, only a few dozen Japanese people — volunteers and workers, mostly — were there for the game. A few people stood and clapped when the host team was introduced pregame, and another man snapped a photo of the large scoreboard suspended over center court when the video screen displayed the Japanese flag during the national anthem.
Otherwise, there was no home-court advantage whatsoever.
“The world is going through something very difficult, and I think we all have to go in the same direction," said Marc Gasol, who scored 12 for Spain. “The fans are making sacrifices and we're trying to give them something to cheer for and be proud of in these very difficult times. ... In the perfect scenario, you would have this arena packed, but we know there's a lot of people watching us and we're bringing joy to them from both Japan and Spain."
Japan got down 11-2 after the first four minutes but clawed back slowly, and when Hachimura connected on a 3-pointer with 5:35 left in the half the game was tied at 26.
That’s also when Spain was finding its groove.
Spain made its final 10 shots of the half — the 19-0 run happening during that stretch — and the lead was 48-28 going into the break.
Japan got within 11 points on two separate occasions in the first five minutes of the fourth quarter, but the lead was never in doubt.
“It was a great experience," Hachimura said.
Spain: Thursday’s game against Argentina is a rematch of the 2019 Basketball World Cup final, won by Spain 95-75. Spain is 2-0 all-time against Argentina in Olympic matchups. ... Alex Abrines scored 11 points and Pau Gasol was 4-for-5 for nine points.
Japan: It’s now an eight-game losing streak for Japan in the highest-tier international events -- the World Cup or the Olympics -- since 2006. ... Japan was outrebounded 42-32.
Spain improved to 4-0 all-time against Japan in World Cup or Olympics meetings. Spain beat Japan 66-64 at the 1960 Olympics, 87-76 at the 1972 Olympics and 104-55 at the 2006 World Cup -- also in Japan.
There are no men's games at the Olympics on Tuesday. The women have the court all day, with four games scheduled including the opener for the U.S.
Spain: Faces Argentina on Thursday.
Japan: Faces Slovenia on Thursday.
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