Saturday marked Day 4 of the 2012 London Olympics' basketball group play. Portland Trail Blazers forward Nicolas Batum and big man Joel Freeland took the court for France and Great Britain, respectively, while forward Victor Claver was hit with a DNP-CD for Spain.
Round-robin group concludes on Monday with an 8-team knockout round commencing thereafter to decide the gold medal.
Here's a look at the performances of all three Blazers on Saturday. Game ratings -- on a 1-10 scale -- are included. A Day 4 video regarding the United States' near loss to Lithuania is at the bottom.
France 73, Tunisia 69
Nicolas Batum: 19 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks on 6-for-9 shooting in 27 minutes
This game was not nearly as close as the final score indicates. France (now 3-1) played in third gear, went very deep into its bench (nine different players saw double figures in minutes) and held a 20-point lead in the second half. Tunisia (now 0-4) got another great night from Makrem Ben Romdhane, who has been one of the best off-the-radar performers in this tournament and who has arguably the greatest middle name known to mankind (even if it's the first part of a two-word last name, whatever).
For Nicolas Batum, this was a more extreme version of Thursday's game against Lithuania. The competition was weaker, the points (and highlight plays) came even easier and he needed to do even less to ensure victory for France. He had a solid game but wasn't often challenged; when he was, he responded as if saving his energy for future wars rather than trying to win the battle. Put simply, there was a conservation of energy vibe to both player and team. It's a totally understandable strategy: France played its three toughest opponents in its first three games and now gets to bide its time against lesser competition (Nigeria is next on Monday) before moving on to the knockout stage.
Batum's scoring came with ease. He opened by grabbing a defensive rebound and driving coast-to-coast through traffic as if participating in the NBA's annual "skills competition" before getting bumped on his lay-up attempt and heading to the free throw line. His first made field goal came on an easy lay-up after Mickael Gelebale found him with a long outlet pass. Soon after, he repeated that trick, hauling in a long pass from Nando de Colo for a running lay-up and a foul. The play of the game also came in transition: de Colo left a pretty one-handed behind-the-back pass for a trailing Batum, who finished the play with a smooth dunk. He was also on the passing end of a run out play, hitting Parker with a deep pass that was finished for an and-one.
Most of Batum's halfcourt impact came as a spot-up shooter. He did have one lay-up in a half-court setting, picking the ball out of the air and laying it in after Ali Traore badly missed a lay-up. He also did well to find Kevin Seraphin with a big-to-big pass along the baseline that ended with Seraphin finishing the play easily. Otherwise, it was a lot of standing and watching as Parker, Diaw and de Colo did most of the ball-handling. The passivity wasn't a liability in this one. More could have been asked for and given, one would assume, if needed.
His distance shooting didn't involve anything we haven't seen to this point. He missed his first three attempt from the left corner after stepping backwards to catch a skip pass, he later missed another contested three from the left corner on a drive-and-kick from Parker, and he missed a right corner three on another Parker kick out. But Boris Diaw found him with an extra pass around the perimeter for a left angle three and de Colo found him on a standard drive-and-kick for a straight-on three, leaving him 2-for-5 from behind the arc on the night.
With less competition for rebounds, Batum did a nice job on the glass, especially early. He showed an unusual flash in snaring one with one hand and he rose high in traffic among three Tunisians to secure another.
This was Batum's least remarkable defensive performance of the week. Mokhtar Ghyaza backed him down and juked him for a bucket, Mohamed Hdidane spun past him and got him in the air on a pump fake for a late basket, Ben Romdhane got basket side on him for an offensive rebound and forced foul, and Batum lost Ben Romdhane on another defensive possession, allowing him to cut freely through the key where he received a pass and finished a lay-up. These plays weren't caused so much by a lack of focus, his main problem area on defense earlier this week, as they were the result of France's purposeful team-wide attempt to chill.
Batum had two blocks: one in a help situation in which he was one of three Frenchmen harassing Ghyaza and the other on Ben Romdhane, who he caught near the rim. He did hit the ground for one loose ball on an offensive possession, a hustle play that eventually resulted in him getting the ball back and attempting to decapitate Salah Mejri with a vicious dunk attempt that rimmed out. His aggressiveness on the play earned free throws.
This game really did nothing but reaffirm the assumed pecking order. France continued to track towards the No. 2 seed in Group A while Tunisia continues on its path towards the expected winless Olympics. Batum sails along as a tier two talent in the tournament, able to excel against the weaker competition with ease, able to hold his own with some of the best here, but still with unfinished business against the truly elite. Of the four games so far, this was the least meaningful. Unless France relaxes too much or Parker no-shows, Nigeria should be more of the same.
Next up: France (3-1) vs. Nigeria (1-3) on Monday
Nicolas Batum Game Rating: 5 out 10
Russia 77, Spain 74
Victor Claver: DNP-CD
This was just zany. Spain (now 3-1) built a 20-2 lead before going through a massive drought in the second and early third quarters that let Russia (now 4-0) all the way back into the game. Despite the fact that Andrei Kirilenko never got anything going on offense and Alexey Shved had little impact, Russia got big nights from Vitaly Fridzon (24 points), Anton Ponkrashov (14 points) and some impact play from Timofey Mozgov (12 points and 9 rebounds) to pull off the come-from-behind victory.
Coach Sergio Scariolo played 10 players against the Russians; Victor Claver was not one of them. Following three straight non-impact games and playing against the top competition in Group B for the right to hold the No. 1 seed, it wasn't a terribly surprising coach decision. Indeed, I guessed that Claver could be riding pine after his non-play during Thursday's narrow win over Great Britain.
While this was Claver's first DNP-CD of the tournament it was also arguably his best performance in London. (I said arguably.)
Next up: Spain (3-1) vs. Brazil (3-1) on Monday
Victor Claver Game Rating: 0 out of 10
Australia 106, Great Britain 75
Joel Freeland: 16 points, 7 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 block, 2 steals on 5-for-14 shooting in 26 minutes
If Spain/Russia was wacky, Australia/Great Britain was goofy, but what else should we have expected with Patty Mills, vice president of goofball operations, leading the way for the Aussies?
Britain's (now 0-4) over-reliance on their Luol Deng and Joel Freeland two-man show was bound to catch up with them at some point. That point happened to be midway through the third quarter, when the wheels came completely off of what was shaping up to be the Brits' first win of the tournament.
Through 21 minutes of action, Australia (now 2-2) had just 36 points; over the last 19 minutes, Australia scored 70 (!) points. They went from averaging 1.7 points per minute to 3.7 points per minute, with Mills' game-high 39 points on 14-for-22 shooting doing most of the damage. Of course, the big night came against Nate Reinking, a 38-year-old guard who graduated from Kent State in 1996 (seriously). Mills played effortlessly, as if no one was guarding him. Very often, no one was.
Freeland's frustration with his lot on this roster has been mentioned in previous write-ups and it came back in full force here. He started well but, as the game unfolded and it became clear Deng (who shot 3-for-15 for 9 points) wasn't on, his will appeared to break. Silly, unforced errors resulted.
This was clearly Freeland's worst game of the tournament but it was no disaster. His energy wasn't equivalent to its peak levels against Brazil and Spain but it was still above-average. Australia mostly played three bigs -- David Andersen, Matthew Nielsen and Aron Baynes -- and Freeland saw time against all of them.
His night saw the same early highs and late lows that the scoreboard showed afterwards and his best defensive plays were all front-loaded in this game.
Early, he overplayed an entry pass to center Aleks Maric very well, coming out with the clean steal after deflecting it with one hand. It was the type of play that he had attempted against the Gasol brothers but hadn't been able to execute. He also showed a new level of quickness laterally, moving his feet very well as guard Brad Newley tried to turn the corner on him going hard to the right. Newley was not successful and he eventually ran into the baseline, where he panicked and threw the ball away. Freeland also read an alley-oop play developing before it started, getting himself into the right position to easily deflect a looping pass towards the rim before a catch was even possible.
Taken together, those plays showed good smarts, effort, physical tools and instincts. That's an excellent combination, but the impact was short-lived and, really, his defensive play was all downhill from there.
Interior team defense has been a persistent problem with this team and it was again on Saturday. Shortly after breaking up the alley-oop, Freeland got stuck on a high screen, which freed his man rolling to the basket for an open lob. Britain's weakside defense wasn't there to provide help and Freeland wound up trapped in no-man's-land between the ballhandler and the big when the play unfolded. Later, Freeland was late in providing help defense on two possessions in quick succession. The first allowed Nielsen to finish a lay-up because he was late providing shot defense and the second saw Baynes sneak in for a putback dunk after Freeland left him to help and no one rotated over behind him.
Signs of fatigue also showed on the defensive end. He was picked on an inbounds play, the kind of pick he was bullrushing around earlier in the week. Here, it caught him up enough to free Andersen for a wide-open mid-range shot. He didn't recover to contest at all, something that has been way out of the norm for the week. Andersen, not a physical specimen by any stretch, caught Freeland flat-footed and beat him to the spot for rebounding position on another play, creating a tap out and second chance basket for one of his fellow bigs. In the third quarter, Freeland picked up two pretty cheap fouls, one for clearly hooking his opponent's arm as he attempted to steal an entry pass again and a second on a more dubious call for getting tangled up in the paint. That foul sent him to the bench with 3:15 remaining in the third quarter and Australia's floodgates beginning to open.
Offensively, he worked but never found the rhythm that he felt during the Spain game.
His first basket, a strong dunk, came on an excellent and unprecedented high-low pass from center Robert Archibald. A bit later, he hit his go-to right-handed sweeping hook through the paint after getting good position. He followed that with a wide open long two on the left wing that was created by a Pops Mensah-Bonsu drive-and-kick.
Freeland's fights for positioning were regularly note-worthy and a key in Great Britain building its early lead. He got an early assist for passing out of the mid-post when double-teamed, finding found Dan Clark for an early 3-pointer. He worked hard on the offensive boards early, missing a putback but drawing free throws on one possession and running the court at full speed to get ahead of multiple defenders to establish early offensive rebound soon after. That hustle moment paid off in an offensive rebound. Later, he completed a putback for a bucket.
When he used his position to go at the basket, he did well. He unveiled a drop step on the left block that got him to the rim with his two hands, forcing a foul to stop the lay-up. He also hit Baynes with a spin move going towards the baseline, getting underneath the rim to finish with his right hand. The shot didn't go but he again drew fouls. He needed to do more down low, especially in the game's latter stages, and simply didn't.
There were a few early warning signs -- missing an early three, heaving a jacked up long two out of frustration, making a turnover that resulted in a Baynes lay-up, settling for a turnaround jumper from good post position -- but the early play was mostly solid.
Then, as mentioned, everything fell apart and the two-man gameplan became unsustainable. The second half's sole highlight came immediately: Freeland nailed a 3-pointer to open the third quarter. After that, straight off the ledge. He was whistled for an offensive foul for pushing off a defender that was fronting him, a call he clearly didn't like. Rather than immediately going back to the post, his next attempt was a missed jumper. That was followed by a two-handed, close-range attempt that rimmed out, a fadeaway step-back that missed, a forced shot after backing down that wound up getting blocked, and then a crosscourt pass that he threw into the bleachers because his guard spaced to the corner and he threw it to the angle.
After that unforced turnover, the television camera caught him yelling "Duck!" (or possibly a word that rhymes with it that is often used to vent). To make matters worse, he missed an alley-oop attempt soon after, unable to finish a lay-up as he couldn't get the balance and finish quite right with a defender standing underneath him.
Soon after, Great Britain's coach Chris Finch mercifully waved the white flag, taking out both Deng and Freeland as Australia's out-of-nowhere blowout was now out of reach.
What to make of this one? Freeland's energy isn't boundless and a rested Freeland is significantly more effective than a tired Freeland, on both sides of the ball. Foul trouble and missed shots seemed to get to him and further impact his second half spiral. That's not unusual for bigs by any stretch of the imagination but the difference between "good" and "bad" was pretty stark, even against mediocre competition. Something to keep in mind when planning your depth charts and playing time breakdowns.
This loss did eliminate Britain from advancing to the knockout stage. The silver lining: Britain has a very good shot to leave on a winning note as their finale will come against Group B's other winless team, China. The Freeland/Deng combination should be enough in that one, assuming they have something left in the tank and assuming Finch plays for the win rather than letting all the deep reserves get playing time. Given the home crowd, the smart money sees Britain going out with a bang.
Next up: Great Britain (0-4) vs. China (0-4) on Monday
Joel Freeland Game Rating: 4 out of 10
Here's a Day 4 video regarding the United States' near loss to Lithuania.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter