Two weeks back, we kicked off a series of posts regarding 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, here's a look at his game against Lithuania, here's a look at his play against Spain last Sunday and here's a look at his game against Greece in the quarterfinals on Thursday. We proceed with his play versus Russia on Friday in the semifinals. Sorry for the delay in posting this. In case you're interested, The Basketball Jones also recorded a podcast about this game here.
France won an ugly game over Greece in the quarterfinals to earn a match-up with Russia in the semifinals. France entered the game as a slight favorite. Prior to the opening tip, the announcers predicted that whoever won the match-up between Batum and Russian forward Andrei Kirilenko would likely win the game. The tournament stakes were high. This game's winner would advance to face the tournament's prohibitive favorite, Spain, in the championship game and would also secure a spot in the 2012 Olympics. Here's a full schedule.
Russia was led by two NBA players: Kirilenko (Utah Jazz) and Timofey Mozgov (Denver Nuggets). Two players who are probably familiar to Blazers fans -- Sergey Monia and Victor Khryapa -- also get major minutes.
Batum is joined on France by fellow NBAers Tony Parker (San Antonio Spurs), Joakim Noah ( Chicago Bulls), Kevin Seraphin (Washington Wizards) and Boris Diaw (Charlotte Bobcats).
After getting bogged down against Greece in the quarterfinals, France played its best game of the tournament -- by far -- in the semifinals. France played poised, confident basketball throughout a game that saw a number of lead changes, working to find balance on the offensive end and continuing to play solid team defense. They also dominated on the glass, winning the rebound battle, 35-21.
Importantly, France had just one dry spell offensively, something that has been their Achilles Heel throughout EuroBasket. It occurred at the beginning of the third quarter and was fortuitously followed immediately by a game-changing third foul call on Kirilenko, which sent him to the bench for more than five minutes. In his absence, France went on a 13-5 push to break open a game that had been tied. Continued intelligent, confident play through the fourth quarter saw France to a 79-71 victory.
Here's the boxscore. Batum finished with 19 points, seven rebounds, four assists, two blocks, one steal and one turnover on 6-for-8 shooting in 34 minutes. His play was as good as that line indicates.
Batum: Quarter By Quarter
It was no coincidence that Batum played his best game of the tournament at the same time France played its best team game. This was a special all-around night from Batum, who played hard, effective defense for four quarters and stepped up his offensive game in the second half, as he did against Greece in the quarterfinals. Here, though, he found a better balance between assertive and aggressive, cutting down on the out of control plays and keying France to a major, major victory.
If you have enjoyed watching Batum's development over the last three years, I can't recommend watching the tape of this game enough. The last time France played in the Olympics was 2000, so not only was this a well-timed performance for the tournament, Batum made a huge contribution to a decade-long highwater mark for his country. Good times. As you might imagine, the French crowd was going nuts in the final minutes of this one.
Here are a few notes.
The standout feature of the first quarter was the impact Batum can have at multiple positions defensively. France began the game with Boris Diaw guarding Kirilenko, leaving Batum to match-up against Anton Ponkrashov, a burly forward who clearly lacks the foot speed to keep up with Batum. Five minutes into the game, Ponkrashov had been called for a foul trying to slide laterally to stay with Batum off the dribble, had struggled to get anything going offensively and had hucked up a desperation three-pointer that missed terribly. He was immediately subbed out of the game and was screamed at by his coach, David Blatt. He wasn't heard from again until the closing minutes of the third quarter.
With Ponkrashov out of the way, Batum then defended Aleksey Shved, who served as Russia's primary ballhandler for stretches. Within a minute of that match-up beginning, Batum had ripped the ball clean out of his hands near the top of the key before a Russian possession ever had a chance to get started.
He made just one obvious defensive mistake in the first quarter. Forced to switch with Noah as his man drove to the hoop, Batum got caught behind Mozgov, who had crashed the paint nicely in Noah's absence. A quick dump pass found Mozgov for an easy slam, with Batum stuck behind him, helpless to influence the play.
Offensively, Batum was overly patient. Aside from drawing that early foul, there wasn't much going. In fact, the announcers hit him with a "he's hardly had a touch, France needs to get him going" and a "he's just standing over there in the left corner" before he subbed out with 2:23 to go in the first quarter. Feeling like it had good footing in the game, France was back to its usual substitution pattern.
France led at the end of the first, 17-16. Batum had yet to score.
Batum checked in about a minute into the second quarter, as per usual, and got straight to work. Guarding Shved again, he stayed with him as he drove into the paint. This time, he read the play's intentions and was ready when Russian power forward Semen Antonov collected a dump pass and prepared to go up with a shot attempt. Batum blocked the attempt cleanly from behind and France collected the ball, ending the possession.
On the other end, Batum finally got going, although it was a bit chippy. He missed a quick trigger left angle three-pointer without taking a gather dribble or a second to collect himself. Realizing he had been to quick to settle, Batum made great work of his next touch, using what I will call a slip dribble to get into the paint. He put the ball on the floor with his right hand as he moved full speed forward and to his left, leaving his defender to trail behind him as he attempted to turn the corner near the free throw line. There was plenty of contact, Batum got the whistle as the defender was moving, and he flipped up a shot back across his body as he continued in motion, an attempt launched at almost a 45 degree angle, that somehow went in. Lucky shot but born from good intentions. He made the free throw.
Batum missed another three-pointer, a step back jumper after a foray off the dribble didn't net him an advantage, at the 4:20 mark of the second quarter. This would be his final miss of the game.
Russia then looked to disrupt France's comfort level by applying some full court pressure out of a timeout. France broke the press brilliantly, getting the ball to Batum near the left sideline at center court. He proceeded to thread a long, hard diagonal pass -- through four Russian defenders who were chasing the play -- to French guard Nando De Colo, who caught the pass and finished a tricky lay-up. Just beautiful.
By now, Batum had drawn the assignment on Kirilenko, although France was liberally switching on most screens. As with the Jazz, Kirilenko was moving constantly, and he smartly beat Batum backdoor for an easy catch-and-finish lay-up. This was one of the few clear mistakes of the game for Batum. Kirilenko has been playing excellent ball for Russia and had his name in the EuroBasket MVP discussion entering this game so the error was no crime.
Soon after, Batum had a great defensive series against the larger and stronger Russian power forward Andrey Vorontsevich. He began by working hard, moving his feet and keeping his arms out and up to deny Vorontsevich both position in the paint and an entry pass. Russia then switched the point of attack and found Vorontsevich later in the possesssion on the right block, where he looked to shoot. Batum rose straight up on the shot attempt, deflecting it ever so slightly and then recovering the ball, seemingly in one motion. That lead to a transition opportunity for France. Another possession saved on defense.
With the second quarter coming to a close, Batum found his three-point shot, thanks to a nice dribble hand-off opportunity created by Parker. This was a deep shot but a quality look, and he hit it. The announcer now pondered whether Batum might be "letting the game come to him."
The final noteworthy play of the half from Batum came on defense, when he trailed Russian guard Vitaliy Fridzon through a screen a bit late, allowing Fridzon space and time to hit a three-pointer over him before he could close out. While Batum has seemingly been trailing poor shooters on purpose in hopes they would fire up ill-conceived deep balls, Fridzon has been shooting it well from outside in EuroBasket and is known as a threat from range. This wasn't a terrible error but it stood out from the rest of his defensive effort, which was locked in and turned up.
France led Russia at the half, 39-34. Batum had six points.
As mentioned, France got off to a cold start in the beginning of the third quarter. Batum's best play in the opening minutes was actually a foul on Mozgov, preventing a dunk. Mozgov only made one of the free throws, so this was a point earned back for France.
This game tilted for good at the 6:55 mark of the third quarter, when Batum collected a routine pass on the perimeter at the left angle. For whatever reason, Kirilenko gambled on the pass, getting his body into Batum's as he collected the ball, making obvious contact. The foul was given and it was Kirilenko's third. Blatt responded by sitting his star for the next five minutes.
Without Kirilenko's insane length and versatility on the defensive end to clog everything up, France was free to take full advantage, and they did. Batum's best two-way sequence came when he fought hard over a screen to discourage a jumper, broke out in transition when France later secured the defensive rebound, and found a sweet spot trailing the transition play at the right angle. Batum spotted up just in time to collect a great pass back from Parker and dropped in a three-pointer in rhythm. Feet set, bang. Shortly thereafter, history repeated itself, as Batum set up as a trailer in transition again, collecting a pass from Parker at the left angle this time and dumping in another three-pointer. Feet set, bang.
Two other, minor plays stood out in the closing minutes of the third quarter. First, Batum drove into traffic, drawing a double team. He wisely found French big man Ali Traore, who converted a bucket. Just a heady pass, nothing fancy. Next, he smartly broke up another backdoor play to Kirilenko to help keep France ahead comfortably as the third quarter closed.
After three, France led 55-47 and they felt in solid command. Batum had 12 points.
Just like the Greece game, Batum saved his best for last, putting on a two-way performance that drew rave reviews from the commentators. At one point in the fourth quarter, the play-by-play announcer said, "He's played near perfect basketball tonight." This praise was quickly followed up a few possessions later by the color commentator saying, "He's playing perfect basketball, he hasn't gone looking for anything, it's all come to him." Both agreed he had been the game's MVP, no small feat considering that Parker, a three-time NBA All-Star, played great -- 22 points and 3 assists -- and Kirilenko, a former All-Star and All-Defense selection, was an all-around beast, scoring 21 points and grabbing three rebounds.
The fourth quarter actually began with Batum on the bench for two and a half minutes. I loved this substitution pattern by French coach Vincent Collet, as Batum was expending tons of energy on both ends and had played the entire third quarter. Batum finished the game having played 34 of the 40 minutes, getting roughly three minutes of rest at the end of the first quarter and again at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Perfect.
It was instant impact upon re-entry. Batum cruised ahead in transition, going in for a monster dunk when he was thwarted by a hard foul across the arm from behind by Kirilenko, his fourth. The Russian forward would remain in the game but obviously had to be cautious with an ejection looming.
Batum sensed the caution like blood in the water. Sizing up Kirilenko at the left angle, he used a jab step to his right to rock Kirilenko on his heels and then exploded past him to his left, heading for the baseline. Poor Monia tried to come over and provide help defense only to wind up in the two-handed poster and nailed for the foul to boot. Batum converted the free throw. It's worth watching this dunk over and over on repeat. Sensational. France's play of the tournament.
Two points were given back on the ensuing possession, when Kirilenko beat him backdoor again for a dunk, but the damage was done. All that was left was for France to hang on, and they did so by continuing to play hard, rather than tensing up, and by taking care of the little things.
Batum made his final minor error of the game when he was whistled for a tough offensive foul -- it was the correct call -- for clearing out with his left hand as he rose to put back an offensive rebound in transition. This foul didn't bother me much, if at all. In one of these write-ups from earlier in the tournament, I scolded Batum for not sticking with a play in transition, allowing a potential offensive rebound go the other way for a run out when De Colo wasn't able to finish a lay-up opportunity. Here, presented with the same situation, Batum stuck with the play after Parker failed to convert, grabbing the loose ball and instantly attacking the paint. Exactly what you want him to do there. Sometimes you get that foul, sometimes you are called for a charge. You definitely live with that call.
From there, it was a clinic on being in the right place at the right time. In order, Batum: collected a loose ball after one of his teammates stripped Shved; cut backdoor to collect a pass from Noah and flush a two-handed dunk to make Russia pay for applying extreme defensive pressure; nabbed a defensive rebound to end a "must score" Russian possession; secured one final offensive rebound with France up nine to help really put the game on ice; and then fouled Kirilenko to prevent a dunk in the game's closing minute, covering up for a teammate's bad turnover. Five smart plays in the final few minutes by one player. Just great to watch.
All of those little plays added up to a clear French win: 79-71. Batum finished with 19 points, 13 of which came in the second half. He also had seven rebounds, the most he has secured in a 2011 EuroBasket game.
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 Russia, the temptation is to give Batum a perfect score. While he won the match-up against Kirilenko, he didn't completely dominate it, and he needed to rely on some good fortune with the foul calls. I'll give him an eight for the slow-starting offensive first quarter in the first half and a perfect ten for the second half. We'll call that a 9 overall. Yes, that's a strict nine.
Remember, if you want to watch the games check out ESPN3.com. France next plays in the EuroBasket final on Sunday at 11 a.m. in a rematch against Spain, the tournament's favorites. Spain has dominated France in the two most recent meetings between the teams, so this game will be pitched as an opportunity for revenge.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter