On Sunday, all three Portland Trail Blazers competing in the 2012 London Olympics made their debuts in group play. Forward Nicolas Batum and France lost to USA, 98-71. Forward Victor Claver and Spain beat China, 97-81. Big man Joel Freeland and Great Britain lost to Russia, 95-75.
Round-robin group play continues for the next week before an 8-team knockout round will commence to eventually decide the gold medal.
Here's a look at the performances of all three Blazers on Sunday. Game ratings -- on a 1-10 scale -- are included, as they were during last year's EuroBasket tournament.
USA 98, France 71
Nicolas Batum: 7 points, 2 rebounds, 1 block, 2 turnovers, 2-for-6 shooting in 18 minutes
This was a thoroughly forgettable performance on a massive stage for Nicolas Batum.
France, led by one-eyed Tony Parker and without Joakim Noah, looked unprepared for Team USA, who has been training and playing together for a few weeks in preparation for another stomp towards a seemingly inevitable gold medal. The French were the opening night grapes in London, outclassed in every facet of an easy blowout that remained close for only a quarter.
The match-ups did Batum no favors, as he was forced to check Kobe Bryant on defense and deal with LeBron James and Kevin Durant on offense. In other words, every competitive second of this game was spent with an MVP candidate within an arm's length. As the game developed, Batum also saw time against James Harden and Deron Williams.
Batum played passively throughout, making his impact felt on just two occasions. In the first half, he swooped in for a signature chasedown block of Durant in transition; in the third quarter, he finally managed a productive offensive stretch, turning the corner on USA center Tyson Chandler to dunk and then, a play later, establishing paint position and finishing an interior pass from Ronny Turiaf for an and-one. Other than those moments, he played fairly invisible basketball.
Batum's best moment, the block (video here via meru in the FanShots), was followed up quickly by a similar transition play, in which Batum trailed Durant after James threw a spectacular court-length bounce pass. Batum was whistled for a touch foul, unfairly, and Durant finished the play. That incident was compounded by a frustration hoist of a three on the other end, which felt a bit like a premature white flag.
Most disconcerting was the effect of James' presence on Batum's decision-making. Multiple times in the first half, he opted for pump fakes or quick passes with James defending him rather than stepping into shots or trusting his handle. On one first half-possession, he passed up a make-able mid-range baseline jumper with James eyeing him, only to later miss a right corner three against the shot clock. In the second half, he made a hard cut to receive a dribble hand-off on the baseline only to panic when James and Kevin Love collapsed on him, ultimately throwing away a careless pass.
Elite play-makers describe facing a defense with so much confidence that they are already looking past their primary defender, focusing on the second layer of defense, which will determine whether they drive, pull-up or pass. In this game, Batum was so consumed with thoughts about his primary defender that it was painful to watch. He rarely drove or considered driving. When he did on one second-half possession against Harden, he never had a chance at turning the corner and pulled back quickly. He made the driving hoop over Chandler, drew one foul off the dribble on Kobe Bryant and badly forced a second-half drive into traffic that ended with a running pass being deflected by two USA defenders. Otherwise, he settled for three-pointers, on which he shot 0-for-4. Even then, he was often leaning back, not stepping into his shot and/or rushing a bit more than necessary.
It's too easy to say that James, the NBA's reigning MVP, was "in his head" and it's too much to say that Batum was "scared." But an unfair physical face-off was exacerbated by an even more lopsided match-up of focus and intensity.
There was one heady second quarter moment: Batum was able to get free throws by taking advantage of an unaware Russell Westbrook, who committed a silly foul on a broken play well outside the three point line as the shot clock expired. Batum threw up a simulated shot and was able to get to the free throw line. More high IQ plays were needed from Batum in this one.
Batum had some moments on the defensive end, making Bryant work to generate tough looks. But there was a futile feel to all of it, especially after the first quarter. On one possession, a contested Bryant shot that came after an extended flourish of tight defense wound up in Durant's hands on the weakside, where he buried an unguardable three. Shortly thereafter, Bryant came back down and hit a three in Batum's face. A shoulder slumping sequence for any opponent.
That he had essentially zero impact on the glass on either end isn't particularly surprising -- given the athleticism and length of Team USA -- but there was one real gear-grinder for armchair coaches worldwide, when Batum lost contact with Durant in a defensive rebounding situation, allowing a Carmelo Anthony back-tap to reach Durant at the top of the key. Durant quickly fed the ball back to Anthony for an easy bucket. Batum's offfensive game simply isn't developed enough to excuse positioning and focus miscues like that. An A-level scorer gets away with that by "getting it back on the other end." That wasn't happening in this one.
The timing and cuts of France's ball movement were simply off on Sunday. Batum had a number of nice looks that could well have developed into assists had the pass been received and/or located a bit better. One of which, a dump off to a cutting Boris Diaw for a short-range basket, was apparently not credited to him in the box. It was a rare flash of properly executed team movement in this one; as with any team in this tournament, anything short of an "A" effort won't be enough against the USA.
Batum began favoring his back as this game wore on, something that first became noticeable in the third quarter. With France trailing by more than twenty points in the second half, he sat for the entire fourth quarter. John Canzano of The Oregonian reports that Batum chalked up the back soreness to standing too much during the Opening Ceremonies.
France next plays Argentina on Tuesday.
Nicolas Batum Game Rating: 3 out of 10
Spain 97, China 81
Victor Claver: 0 points, 2 rebounds, 3 fouls, 0-for-2 shooting in 2 minutes
The strength of the Spanish squad, considered by far the toughest competition for the United States, is the size and skill level of their frontline, which heavily features a rotation of Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol and Serge Ibaka down low. Sergio Llull and Fernando San Emeterio logged most of the minutes at the three, leaving only two minutes of garbage time for Claver in the opener.
Spain sleep-walked through this game, allowing China to keep it more competitive than you would expect through three quarters thanks to a 30-point explosion from Yi Jianlian and 7-for-16 shooting from deep as a team. Still, the Spanish never had to shift past third or fourth gear. Pau Gasol, an impossible cover for the Chinese, finished with 21 points and 11 rebounds, and Serge Ibaka added 17 points, 5 rebounds and 3 blocks. The pair did most of the meaningful damage.
Claver's debut was not impressive or meaningful. Finally checking In with two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter and Spain leading by double digits, he missed both of his shot attempts, including an airball from roughly six feet. Defensively, he conceded two and-1 baskets: Yi took it to his chest while setting up a turnaround jumper and Sun Yue finished over him during a transition opportunity. Claver also had to give a foul when Spain was unable to secure a defensive rebound on a free throw attempt.
Given the All-Star caliber big men in front of him, there's simply no room for him at the four on this squad. If used at the three, Claver would be a significantly longer option than the other available candidates but his skill level and youth don't exactly command minutes from the more seasoned competition in Spain's rotation. His best bet is to hope that his team's starting backcourt ups its intensity level significantly in the coming games so that he can squeeze in some longer stretches of garbage time before the knockout round, when he will likely be relegated to towel-waving.
Spain next plays Australia on Tuesday.
Victor Claver Game Rating: 1 out of 10
Russia 95, Great Britain 75
Joel Freeland: 13 points, 10 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, 2 turnovers, 6-for-13 shooting in 27 minutes.
Freeland had the best night of the Blazers trio, albeit in a losing effort.
This game was decided by Russia's excellent ball and player movement. The Russians managed 24 assists on 37 baskets, putting star forward Andrei Kirilenko in court positions and mismatches from which he was ruthlessly efficient (14-for-17 shooting for 35 points). He was too quick and versatile for Great Britain's team defense and the Brits' pitiful outside shooting (4-for-26 as a team) eventually helped turn this into a laugher.
Freeland did a little bit of everything in this one, which is his game, even though his playing time was back-loaded and initially came in short three-minute bursts during the first quarter, in part because of two early fouls.
Most of the game saw Freeland matched up with Timofey Mozgov and Sasha Kaun. He didn't play a perfect game offensively but there were flashes. The highlight came on a nifty reverse spin to the baseline, in which he beat Kaun and finished with his right hand off the glass on the reverse side of the basket. He also had an early two-handed dunk on a bit of a broken play, where he found himself floating on the perimeter at the right time, collecting a loose ball and aggressively attacking a disorganized defense for an easy flush.
Hustle was the major theme of the night, as you might expect given his rebounding number (the only player for either side to hit double figures for rebounds). He saved one possession early in the game by tracking down a ball and leaping to save it before he went out of bounds; He turned a watery possession into wine by knocking down a turnaround jumper against the shot clock after a teammate's shot was blocked; He had an offensive rebound tip-in after flying in from the left corner over shorter defenders. (It should be noted that a few of his boards were tips of his own misses around the basket.)
Freeland didn't shoot the ball exceedingly well but he also didn't lack for confidence in attempting his shots: He chucked up three three-pointers, missing all three, stepped into mid-range jumpers, and went to a number of different looks around the rim. He got a touch out of control early in the game, attacking off the dribble from the top of key, going to a spin move in traffic before missing the resulting lay-up attempt. It's not a play you often see from a 4/5 in the NBA and it's not one he will be able to execute against a good NBA defense with any regularity. Nevertheless, Freeland offered a buffet of looks from his 13 shots.
His mid-range game had the greatest NBA appearance to it. On one play, he turned quickly and crisply to face Mozgov, before sizing up the defense and putting up a 12-footer, which missed. Near the end of the game, whose result had already been decided, he knocked down a jumper from the left elbow with the ease of a free throw. Smooth, comfortable stroke.
Britain's team defense was picked apart and Freeland was a problem on that end. The most obvious error came when he got ripped on the perimeter and then casually fouled Vitaly Fridzon, who finished an easy lay-up going away. Dumb play.
There were other defensive issues, some of which were difficult to determine whether they should be attributed to Freeland or his teammates. On one sequence, he aggressively helped on a baseline drive, leaving Mozgov wide open for a dunk off of the dump pass when no one rotated behind him. Should Freeland have stayed home or waited longer to help? Should there have been a weakside rotating defender? The defense was so scattered you couldn't really tell.
Earlier in the game, he attempted to defend Kirilenko as best he could, doing well to move his feet but really standing no chance laterally against a player of Kirilenko's caliber. One of his better defensive looks came while defending guard Alexey Shved on the pick-and-roll. He did well to position himself and move his feet, and his ability to slow down the attack resulted in an offensive foul being called on a Russian big for setting a moving pick while attempting to re-screen for Shved.
How Freeland translates positionally and how many minutes he can handle in the NBA in a best case scenario remain open questions. But this was a nice debut, which probably looked better when viewed side-by-side with Batum's and Claver's.
The takeaway from this game: it's worth your while to carve out a few hours to watch Freeland play this week. Great Britain isn't likely to advance to the knockout stage so this isn't going to be an 8-game commitment. If you've got a few hours to tape the game, catch a replay, watch a stream, or whatever, Freeland showed on Sunday that you wouldn't be wasting your time.
Joel Freeland Game Rating: 7 out of 10
Great Britain next plays Brazil on Tuesday.
Update: Here's the first of a bunch of SB Nation Studios videos I'll be doing throughout the Olympics. Your clicks are greatly appreciated.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter