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Game Breakdown: Nicolas Batum -- France vs. Greece in EuroBasket Quarterfinals

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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, and here's a look at his play against Spain last Sunday. We proceed with his play versus Greece on Thursday. Sorry for the delay in posting this. In case you're interested, The Basketball Jones also recorded a podcast about this game here.

The Stage

Despite tanking against and losing to Spain in its most recent game, France entered the final, knockout stage of the EuroBasket tournament with a match-up against a young Greece team in the quarterfinals. France entered the game as the favorite. Here's a full schedule.

The Opponent

Greece has just one NBA player on its roster: Kosta Koufos (Denver Nuggets). They also have Nick Calathes who was picked in the second round of the 2009 NBA Draft but currently plays professionally in Greece.

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). 

Gameflow

Greece took command of the game early, holding France to just four points in the game's first seven minutes. Shooting struggles and the inability to defend France's superior talent plagued them throughout, keeping the game close pretty much from start to finish. Greece led through the first three quarters and had real hope for pulling out the upset when Noah left the court for an extended period with a cut on his nose. But, with their tournament life on the line, France relied on their talented NBA trio of Parker, Noah and Batum to kick things up about two and a half notches in the fourth quarter, making key plays on both ends to escape with a 64-56 win.

Here's the boxscore. Batum finished with 15 points, two rebounds, one assist, one steal, one block and and three turnovers on 6-for-9 shooting in 35 minutes.

Batum: Quarter By Quarter

Against both Turkey and Lithuania, I lamented Batum's late-game errors and passivity. As one of the most talented players on the court any time he suits up in this tournament, I had hoped for more from Batum: more energy, more impact plays, more solid decision-making, more aggressive forays to the hoop, more trust in his ball-handling. His performance against Greece wasn't perfect, but it was darn good, especially in the fourth quarter. If there was a fault to be found it was that he was overly aggressive and a little loose with the ball as a result. He played his best when it mattered most and that play directly influenced the outcome of this game. There was plenty for him to be proud of on this night.

Here are a few notes.

First Quarter

As mentioned, France came out very slowly on offense. Batum made a silly early turnover, attempting a poorly conceived entry pass from the perimeter that was deflected. In the scrum for the loose ball, he was shoved and looked surprised that there was no call. Greece was delivering an early message that this would be a scrappy and physical game. 

Batum's response was well-intentioned but a bit ambitious. He used his next offensive possession to drive hard to his right from the top of the key, beating his man off the dribble by a half-step, but not enough to turn the corner. A help defender rotated over and while Batum saw him coming, he tried to loft a shot over him anyway. The result was a solid block that landed well out of bounds. France salvaged the possession thanks to Parker, who hit a jumper even after some poor spacing out of the inbounds set. This possession would be a sign of things to come, though, as Batum accepted responsibility for getting a bucket when France needed one and set out to create one rather than standing and watching.

That mentality would be rewarded soon after when he found himself receiving a cross-court skip pass in the right corner. Greece's attempt to close out to him was amateurish and Batum easily drove by the defender to rise and finish a gliding dunk. That's become his signature move of this tournament. 

Attack mode continued later in the quarter when he found himself defended tightly in the left corner. Batum created a bit of space with a fake and then accelerated to his left, much too quickly for his defender, who was forced to give the foul to prevent another dunk attempt. 

Batum's aggressiveness expressed itself in other ways. He again found himself in the right corner with a defender closing out. He rose, as if to shoot, but then fired an excellently timed pass to Noah, who was open at the rim. Greece had to rotate and foul to prevent an uncontested dunk, sending Noah to the free throw line. Smart, crisp, assertive, split-second decision.

Defensively there wasn't much to talk about. He recorded a steal by stepping into the passing lane from the weakside. Later in the quarter, he tried to take a charge but his flop wasn't rewarded, and Konstantinos Papanikolaou, now wide open, finished the play with a basket.
 
France trailed after one quarter, 17-14. Batum had two points.

Second Quarter

France trailed by double digits late in the first quarter, so Vincent Collet changed up his rotation, leaving Batum in for the entire first quarter rather than subbing him out with two or three minutes remaining like usual. As a result, Batum's rest came shortly after the start of the second quarter and continued until the midway point. 

Batum was quiet when he reappeared. He was fouled to prevent a transition opportunity after he corralling a block shot and was off to the races. Other than that, he didn't attempt a shot and nothing much stood out one way or the other on defense.

Greece had been hoping for a slow down, ugly game to neutralize France's athleticism, and that's exactly what they had through halftime. Batum showed some early spark but there was plenty to worry about for France as their offense wasn't generating many quality looks and they seemed a bit over-eager to play one-on-one basketball.

Greece led at halftime, 31-27. Batum still had two points.

Third Quarter

Batum played the entire second half without a rest, out of necessity.Things had gone from bad to worse when Noah went out injured early in the third quarter. France was forced to juggle its line-ups defensively, with Batum spending a fair bit of time defending in the post. (Sidenote: Where have we seen this before?)

Matched up against the thick Greek power forward Konstantinos Kaimakoglou, Batum had his hands full. Backing him down in the post, Kaimakoglou was able to pump fake Batum into the air, forcing him to give the foul. Batum got his bearings quickly, though, when Greece tried to isolate him in the post on the very next possession. Batum stayed down, arms extended above his head, forcing Kaimakoglou to attempt a tough shot, which missed. 

Offensively, the third quarter was a mixed bag. His confidence picked up when he hit an early three pointer. It was a wide open look because his defender had collapsed well off of him. Feet set, bang. He got himself in trouble later in the quarter, forcing a drive attempt against significant on-ball pressure that resulted in him losing the handle completely, sending the ball caroming out of bounds as he drove without the defender actually touching it. Sloppy.

To make up for the turnover, Batum smartly drew a charge by standing his ground and allowing Nikolaos Zisis to run him over as he tried to cut towards the paint from the perimeter. With his shoulders square to the contact, there was no doubt and the referee made the easy call. 

As the quarter neared its end, Batum short-armed a three-pointer, looking a bit winded with the effort. That was that. The commentator cursed Batum's play through thirty minutes with the worst words we have all heard before: "He has not been a factor." In this case, it was a slightly harsh assessment meant to characterize his third quarter play only, but France was still in need of a second half push.

Although France had come all the way back to tie the game at one point in the third, Greece led after three quarters, 43-40. Batum had five points.

Fourth Quarter

Saying a switch flipped for France in the fourth quarter would be both accurate and an understatement. From France's first defensive possession it was clear they had kicked up the energy and intensity, with Batum setting the tone by getting down in his stance to apply serious ball pressure well outside the three-point line.  

Similar impact was felt offensively as he opened the quarter by draining a left corner three on a dish from Parker, who had broken the defense down. The announcer immediately offered an apologetic line: "Anonymous in the third quarter, he's shown up here."

Batum's assertive play knew no bounds in the fourth quarter. He committed his third turnover of the game by attacking the paint too hard without a plan, getting stuck in the air when Greece triple-teamed him. Instead of shrinking from that mistake, Batum kept on at full tilt, knocking down a right corner three on a great outside-inside-outside series of passes sparked by a sweet no-look shovel pass by French guard Nando De Colo. 

Batum continued with a heat check three off of an inbounds play, which was long, and then knocked down a more reasonable jumper at the free throw line extended off of France's favorite curl play. The confident, on balance basket came with just under two minutes to play and pushed France to a 58-54 lead.

That shot began a dominant, minute-long sequence for Batum. Whereas his late-game plunders had allowed opponents back into games earlirr in this tournament, this stretch essentially put the game out of reach in France's favor. Following his jumper, Greece's ensuing possession saw Batum cleanly block a driving runner by Calathes. It was a difficult play to make on the move without fouling and it was made all the better when Noah recovered the loose ball. His confidence now clearly at an all-time high for this tournament, Batum and Noah lined up for a pick and roll on the left side of the floor. After Noah cleared to the hoop without forcing Greece's defense to switch, Batum simply escape dribbled to the baseline where he knocked down a mid-range jumper as cool as a cucumber. The basket put France up 60-54 with 1:12 to play. They would need only to make free three throws to ice the win.

Put simply, Batum had four points and a block shot in a span of 38 seconds to break open a one-possession game with his team's tournament life at stake. It doesn't get much better than that.

The final score was 64-56 in France's favor. Batum finished with 15 points, 10 of which came in the fourth quarter. Seven of those 10 game in the game's final six minutes.

Match Rating

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 Greece, Batum earned a four for the first half and a nine for the second half based almost entirely on his play in the fourth quarter. We'll call that a 7 overall. It wasn't a complete start-to-finish performance but his play was evidence of two basketball truisms: it's better to make mistakes aggressively rather than passively and it's better to play big late rather than early.

Remember, if you want to watch the games check out ESPN3.com. A write-up of France's semifinal game against Russia is coming later tonight. France next plays in the EuroBasket final on Sunday at 11 a.m. in a rematch against Spain, the tournament's favorites.

-- Ben Golliver | benjamin.golliver@gmail.com | Twitter