Last Wednesday, we kicked off a series of looks at Portland Trail Blazers forward Nicolas Batum and his play for France during the 2011 EuroBasket tournament, currently being held in Lithuania. Here's a look at his performance in a win over Turkey and here's a look at his game against Lithuania on Friday. We proceed with his play versus Spain on Sunday.
France concluded its second round play against Spain. France had already qualified for the final, knockout stage by virtue of beating Lithuania, so they decided to rest starting point guard Tony Parker and starting center Joakim Noah. This decision was met with major disappointment by the announcers, who were looking forward to a match-up of arguably the two best teams in the tournament. France's quarterfinals opponent will be determined shortly. Here's a full schedule.
Spain is the tournament's prohibitive favorite. Their roster is absolutely loaded, including a host of NBA players: Pau Gasol (Los Angeles Lakers), Marc Gasol (Memphis Grizzlies), Rudy Fernandez (Dallas Mavericks), Ricky Rubio (Minnesota Timberwolves), Jose Calderon (Toronto Raptors), Serge Ibaka (Oklahoma CIty Thunder) and former NBA player Juan Carlos Navarro. Blazers international player Victor Claver is also a bit player on the team.
Batum is joined on France by Parker, Noah, Kevin Seraphin (Washington Wizards) and Boris Diaw (Charlotte Bobcats).
Spain, clearly the more talented team, recently handled France with ease in a pre-EuroBasket exhibition. Without Parker and Noah, France never stood a chance. To make matters worse, the shorthanded squad played with lackluster effort. France kept things somewhat close for a half but were blown out of the stadium in the second half thanks to a 27-4 run in the first 8.5 minutes of the third quarter. The fourth quarter was total garbage time.
Here are three facts that will give you a better idea of how seriously this game was taken. One: Batum sat out the entire second quarter even though he was not in foul trouble. Two: The color commentator took over play-by-play calling duties during the fourth quarter so that the play-by-play announcer could eat his dinner. Three: The color commentator and play-by-play commentator openly made reference to this fact on the broadcast and almost seemed to do it spitefully because they were mad at French coach Vincent Collet for denying a major match-up in front of a full house.
Spain won going away, 96-69. Here's the boxscore. Batum finished with 9 points, two rebounds, two assists, zero steals, and one turnover on 2-for-5 shooting in 21 minutes.
Batum: Quarter By Quarter
Even though France took the court with no regard for the game's outcome, it was jarring to see Batum play with so little energy and interest. I'm wracking my brains to come up with the last time I can remember seeing him take it this easy. I'm coming up empty. This doesn't mean much, other than that it serves as a reminder of how thin his margin for error has been on a Portland roster with crowded wing positions and how naturally intense he is as a person and player. This wasn't passivity. This was basketball tourism.
With that in mind, here are a few notes.
Spain came out hot thanks to Navarro, who was bombing in threes from every direction. France's defense lacked cohesion and the extra effort to rotate and close out, so they get an assist for the effort. On one of Navarro's threes, Batum was left to choose between defending Fernandez, with the ball on the angle, or staying with Navarro, who was floating to the corner. Batum chose correctly to close out on Fernandez but had no help rotating out behind him, and Navarro accepted the easy pass from Fernandez to bury a wide open three. On another, Batum was picked off on a screen by Marc Gasol, which he tried to sell as an offensive foul by collapsing to the ground. It didn't work, he stumbled on his way back up, and Navarro floated into an open look, which he knocked down.
Offensively, Batum began tentatively, passing up a three-point opportunity to work the offense on his first touch. France was just out of sync, committing turnovers of the "I thought you would be there but you weren't" variety. Batum made a nice backdoor cut a few possessions into the game only to have the entry pass deflected out of bounds. Blown chances and missed opportunities.
Batum got on the scoreboard with a right corner three, this time on a passing exchange that left the Spanish defenders' heads spinning. Quick and decisive, the outside-inside-outside sequence created a great look for Batum, and he buried it. It was easy to picture this as a Batum and LaMarcus Aldridge action.
His other nice offensive play of the quarter came off a curl route. (As we've noted in previous write-ups, this is France's preferred method of forcefeeding him.) Batum collected the ball at the free throw line extended, dribbling to his right. Entering the paint, Batum created and absorbed contact from Fernandez, who was caught off guard, and then calmly hit a leaner in the key. He got the and-one call and made the free throw.
On the other end, Fernandez caught Batum napping a bit on defense, using a screen to create a passing window for a lob to Pau Gasol. Batum was out of position chasing the play, unable to obscure Fernandez's view. The result was France being forced to foul Gasol to prevent an easy basket.
That was about it for action in the first quarter. Batum was subbed out at the 2:38 mark.
France led after one quarter, 22-21. Batum had six points.
Batum sat out the entire second quarter. Spain led at halftime, 39-38. Batum had six points.
Spain apparently reached the conclusion during halftime that it was time to step on France's throat. Batum had as good a view as anyone for the stomping.
His first offensive touch came up empty. He went hard to his left -- although dribbling with his right hand -- to get near the block, where Marc Gasol was waiting. Batum attempted to flip up a finger roll over him, but it came up way short. A few possessions later, Batum watched, back on his heels, as a weak perimeter pass headed towards him. Rudy Fernandez swooped in for a steal and an uncontested dunk. Too easy.
Right before that possession, Batum made a halfhearted effort to foul Fernandez, who was driving hard in the open court, and the referees simply ignored the bump, allowing an energetic Fernandez to go in for another dunk.
Another defensive mistake came when Batum overplayed Fernandez's left hand on a side screen and roll with Marc Gasol in the right corner. Fernandez easily drove baseline and had a clear passing lane into the heart of the paint to a waiting Pau Gasol, who finished the play without incident. Shortly thereafter, less than three minutes into the third quarter, Batum was subbed out. He would re-enter the game with 2:56 remaining in the third. This was just an awful stretch for France as a whole. Whether Batum was on or off the court made no meaningful difference. As mentioned above, the total damage was a 27-4 run in less than 9 minutes.
Spain led at the end of three quarters 68-48. Batum was still stuck on six points.
Spain led the entire fourth quarter by a huge margin so it was pretty meaningless play.
To keep this brief: Batum had a few offensive chances in the fourth. First, he collected a nice pass at the right angle and stepped, in rhythm, into a three-pointer, which missed. That miss seemed to get him a little more interested in the game, at least briefly, as he took it to the basket on his next two touches.
First, he sized up his defender, offered a nice jab step to create space and then drove hard to his left towards the baseline, where he was met by the help defense of Ibaka. He rose to shoot before Ibaka could get to the spot so he was rewarded with free throws when contact was made. His shot missed, but he made both foul shots.
Second, he came off of a curl screen on the other side of the court, heading to his left. He dribbled with his right hand through the paint, a bit unorthodox considering that he exposed the ball in front of him, but he managed to beat the help defender -- this time Felipe Reyes -- to the spot again. Reyes tried to slide in under him but Batum was too quick, and he earned two shots, making one this time.
Batum took his final field goal attempt coming off of a series of baseline screens. He wound up launching a catch and turn three pointer that was a bit wild and rimmed out. It was his only truly low-percentage attempt of the game. Then again, he only took five shots all night.
As a final footnote, Claver did well to save a wild pass from going out of bounds and then quickly reset his feet, launching a side three-pointer over Batum, who was closing out on him. He made it.
It would have been frustrating to watch this game for any French fan, but it was simply disorienting to watch if you were focusing only on Batum. He wasn't running hard in transition opportunities. He was barely getting inside 15 feet on any rebounding opportunities (on either end!). He was passively making the extraneous extra pass, going through the motions. He watched play go by him during a transition defense sequence. He was just slow-mo coasting.
The final damage was 96-69 in favor of Spain. Batum finished with nine points.
In the spirit of soccer write-ups, we'll give Batum a "match rating" for each of the EuroBaskest games from here on in. We'll use a 1-10 scale calibrated as such: 1 = passive, invisible Batum; 5 = inconsistently awesome Batum; and 10 = Better than any Batum we've seen in a Blazers uniform.
Against Spain, the only fair thing to do is give Batum an incomplete given the circumstances.
Remember, if you want to watch the games check out ESPN3.com. Now that France is in the single-elimination quarterfinals, there will be no more tanking. France's next game is set for Thursday.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter