[Ed. Dwight Howard is reportedly headed to the Los Angeles Lakers in a 4-team trade. Details here.]
Well, Wednesday marked the quarterfinal round of the 2012 London Olympics basketball tournament and, as you know by now, all hell broke loose.
With Portland Trail Blazers big man Joel Freeland and Great Britain already eliminated after failing to advance from the group stage, the two remaining Blazers in the field -- forwards Nicolas Batum of France and Victor Claver of Spain -- found their respective countries facing off in a rivalry game in the quarterfinals round. That game ended with massive global headlines, as Batum intentionally punched Juan Carlos Navarro in the crotch in the closing seconds of Spain's victory.
Spain 66, France 59
Victor Claver: DNP - CD
This was a win-or-go-home game against a heated rival. Spain's rotation essentially went eight players deep and even Serge Ibaka saw his playing time squeezed to just 13 minutes. Juan Carlos Navarro was moved into the starting lineup and the resulting quintet -- the Gasol brothers, Rudy Fernandez, Navarro and Jose Calderon -- all played big minutes, with Sergio Llull getting 23 minutes as well.
Claver, who hasn't played much in the tournament and hasn't done much when he has played, was left on the bench. There, he punched zero nuts and did a nice job of cheering on his teammates.
Next up: Group B's No. 3 seed Spain (4-2) takes on Group B's No. 1 seed Russia (5-1) on Friday
Victor Claver's Game Rating: 0 out of 10
Nicolas Batum: 9 points, 5 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 block on 3-for-12 shooting in 32 minutes
There's no place to start here except for at the end. Batum's punch has no place in basketball. Lest you think I'm even more of a humorless, pretentious loser than you already do, I want it noted for the record that I spent an hour on Wednesday coming up with a list of phrases that included: sack slapper, groin grinder, privates puncher, crotch crusher, and on, and on, and on.
It's not that there's no humor in this situation -- especially now that it's clear that Juan Carlos Navarro was not horrifically injured -- it's just that it doesn't belong on a basketball court. Not even during a heated rivalry, not even against an uber-annoying opponent, not even in the middle of a frustrating battle, not even at the end of a tough game, not even when national pride and four years of hard work is at stake. It was dirty, it was inexcusable, it was cheap and, like Batum later admitted, it was "stupid."
Full disclosure: Over the last five years, Rudy Fernandez has made me want to punch so many balls! He has that innate ability to sneak into the darkest corners of your mind with his foul simulation, over-dramatizations, self-centered outlook on his career and all the rest of it. He knows it too! He enjoys it! That probably makes it even more frustrating. But who hasn't wanted to just rage out on a stranger's or colleague's lower mid-section after Fernandez pulled his "I'm not going" stunt at media day, or complained about his role, or gave his 135th disgruntled interview to Marca (I met one of their writers in Las Vegas and he was an A+ class guy, by the way, but I digress)? Fernandez is and was so annoying that he often made me want to punch myself in my own groin without the aid of a pillow, cup or other outside object. Just kapow -- to feel immense pain as distraction. Surely, I'm not alone here.
Resisting the urge to let out frustration, anger or resentment in such an overtly destructive and violating manner is a major part of being an adult. Every day that you don't punch a fellow human in the private parts for no reason is a good day, a success. You don't get a gold medal for this restraint but it's a golden rule, and one that is reinforced as a golden unwritten rule on the hardwood.
For Batum, that restraint is a major part of being a franchise building block, a "$46 million man," a leader on and off the court, a competitor, a professional and a representative of both his organization and his country. He needed to do much better. He was right to apologize. Blazers coach Terry Stotts was right to say that he would address the incident in the future with Batum and Blazers GM Neil Olshey was absolutely wrong to try to sidestep the issue at the press conference by claiming he hadn't seen it. As the face of the franchise's management, it's Olshey's job to have seen it -- regardless of how busy his schedule was -- and to hold his player accountable in public rather than try to downplay it. Sure, he's the new guy and it's a tough stand to take. But you've got to stand for something or, at the very least, do better than play dumb and blind.
This play will follow Batum for years. Every time he messes up, no matter how big or small, the incident will be recalled, just like similar incidents have followed Reggie Evans and Chris Paul. Having watched Batum grow and play since Summer League 2008, that's unfortunate. He's a competitor, tougher than most people realize and very sharp. He let himself down. He did not live up to the very high standard he began setting as a teenager. Surely, whether already or in the future, he will regret this action.
To cheer on this type of play or to revel in it as a sign of his development in the "toughness" category is total folly. That type of aggression is the least useful type of aggression in basketball. It usually winds up with an ejection and suspension and it costs your team. Real aggression comes in scoring off the dribble, rebounding in traffic, stepping up in crunch time and carrying your team emotionally through difficult moments. Batum did some of those things during this Olympics run. The Navarro strike was a case of that development getting chucked out the window in favor of senselessness, not a reinforcement of those strides.
This is basketball, not blood sport, and Batum generally plays the game as it should be played: smoothly and gracefully with flashes of explosiveness. To want more of this is to distort or discard real skill. That type of revenge rage is -- always -- a losing play. Period.
Let's hope that there is someone in the Blazers organization with the backbone and the communication ability to reinforce that with Batum.
With that, let's take a look at how Batum found himself in this situation.
For much of the game, Batum was matched up with Fernandez, his former Blazers teammate, and the two players both were "up" for the match-up, although they finished with similar, somewhat disappointing stat lines (Fernandez had 9 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and 1 block on 3-for-9 shooting).
Minor annoyances for Batum built gradually well before the endgame. Early, he tried to take Fernandez off the dribble but got hung up with his handle, settling instead for a kickout pass for a bail out Boris Diaw three. He missed his first three, set up nicely in the right corner by the familiar drive-and-kick from Tony Parker. He then used a high screen to attack off the dribble to his left, finding himself in trouble before deciding to throw up a wild shot over Marc Gasol, one that never had a chance. Defensively, after some nice help in the post on Marc on one possession, he was beaten off the dribble by Navarro for his beautiful, signature floater. Other than some free throws generated by taking Fernandez off the dribble hard to his left, that was it for Batum's first quarter.
After Batum hit a very nice catch-and-shot three from the right angle set up by a skip pass, Fernandez kept chipping away. Batum was slow fighting through a high screen while defending Fernandez and the Spaniard dribbled quickly into space, stepping into a long two that he drained. Soon after, Fernandez got out in transition and made a lay-up at the rim after Batum was unable to stop the ball or properly contest the shot.
Then, it was back to matching up with Navarro and a stretch of what was his best play of the night. He successfully contested a Navarro runner that missed and then swatted a Navarro transition lay-up easily in his favorite chasedown style. The play was a thing of beauty, as he caught the ball near the apex with perfect timing, slapping it aside with a flick of the wrist. In between, the two players exchanged fouls. Batum was called for holding Navarro off the dribble and then drew a foul by selling a shove on the ensuing inbounds play. There was contact but he worked hard to make sure everyone saw it.
The offense just never got going and the outside shot just never started falling. Batum scored so many easy points against Tunisia and Nigeria and there was definitely an element of fool's gold at play there, one reason why his game ratings weren't through the roof despite nice stat lines against the weaker competition. In those games, he scored without expending much effort; here, he tried, often too hard, and mostly came up empty.
One long three wound up way short, an airball. Then, he hit his defender with a crossover from left to right, getting to the corner but absorbing a bump, which seemed to throw off his running attempt. His one memorable make was a sensational play but it was also almost by accident. Check out this whirling dervish, a prayer thrown up over his own head as he corkscrewed following an offensive rebound. Unfortunately, not repeatable. After that, two missed threes from the left corner and then a missed tip-in at point blank range following up on a Parker miss. In such a heated game, these little moments surely led to an accumulation of aggravation.
Defensively, he made a series of nice plays in the second half. He smartly created a turnover by knocking a loose ball off of Navarro on the sideline to steal a possession. He had a deflection on the perimeter that knocked the ball out of bounds, forcing Spain to re-set. He contested a Fernandez corner three that wound up missing. He tipped a defensive rebound in traffic to a teammate. This was impact defending. But then, unfortunately, more frustration. He jumped a passing lane, nearly stealing a Serge Ibaka pass to Fernando San Emeterio. A steal would likely have led to a momentum lay-up but he was ultimately unable to secure possession, the ball slipping out of bounds.
This was real energy expended and, given the nip-and-tuck nature of the close game, Batum was sent to the bench for a quick blow in the middle of the fourth quarter. Before that happened, though, he had a pretty drive past Ibaka from the left wing into the paint, nailing the runner for his most natural offensive moment of the second half. He needed more of those.
Nothing good happened after he returned from the rest, as the theatrics increased. He crashed to the floor simulating a foul on Marc but was unable to bait the ref. Then, at the 1:31 mark, he pushed Fernandez in the back while fighting for a defensive rebound. Fernandez went flying on the play, allowing his body to give way so that he crashed with real force on the baseline, where he lay for an extended period of time. Batum was hit with the foul and was clearly unhappy. Fernandez hit both free throws, giving Spain a 3-point lead.
The following two possessions saw this game slip fully away. On France's possession, Parker missed two shots, one of which Fernandez deftly blocked, and Ronny Turiaf was unable to get up a shot to the rim to keep the possession going. On the other end, the Gasol brothers worked their magic for a Marc lay-up, assisted by Pau. The basket gave Spain a 5-point lead with 45 seconds left, forced a France timeout and set the stage for the ensuing meltdown.
Boris Diaw missed France's attempt coming out of the timeout and then Turiaf fouled Fernandez near mid-court. Again, he went down hard and sold it even harder, eventually being carted to Spain's bench where he lay on the floor on his back. Turiaf was hit with an unsportsmanlike foul, Jose Calderon made one of the two ensuing free throws, and then Spain inbounded the ball to Navarro, whose crotch was immediately crushed by Batum.
Calderon and Marc took exception, Batum grabbed Calderon's arm, NBA referee Billy Kennedy stepped in to separate the group and another unsportsmanlike foul was given. Batum wasn't ejected but a hard-fought game was clearly determined already, so it mattered little. That was that.
Given the level of the competition, the overall intensity level and the fact that some players would let up if their offense was so obviously struggling, Batum deserves some real credit for his work in this game. His offense was needed, though, and he had no consistent answers.
In the global storyline version, none of the positives will matter, of course. In his development arc, they might not either. That's up to him. Who knows what lessons he will take from this one? Only time will tell.
Nicolas Batum's Game Rating: 6 out of 10
PS a few notes.
1) Retrospective Olympic rundowns for Freeland, Batum and Claver are coming next week.
2) I very much liked Dave's message regarding the passing of Tim Allen of Canis Hoopus. I had met Tim on a few occasions and respected his work a lot. Indeed, I linked to it as recently as eight days ago. In addition to what Dave said about there being human beings behind the screen, I'd like to add that Tim is an excellent example of someone who made significant sacrifices in his life to pursue his passions for basketball and writing.
He took the plunge and put himself out there, writing under his real name, networking with media members and team staffers, covering events on credential and he did it all while working a day job. He took the initiative to travel to Boston for the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference because he loved stats. That's where I first met him. He was at Las Vegas Summer League covering the Timberwolves this summer.
He succeeded at becoming an influencer from scratch. He helped create and grow an amazing community of like-minded individuals. That takes daily (and nightly) effort that few are willing to make and even fewer are willing to sustain. Sports writing isn't rocket science but it's real work and it can require a lot of time. I'll miss Tim's voice and also the drive behind it. Canis Hoopus is -- without question -- an elite basketball blog; Tim was a big reason why. Donations to the Minnesota Humane Society can be made in Tim's honor right here.
Finally, here's a video preview of Friday's semifinals pitting the United States vs. Argentina and Spain vs. Russia.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter