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Game Breakdown: Nicolas Batum -- France vs. Turkey in EuroBasket Group E

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A few brief background vignettes to begin.

First, I had a chance real-life encounter with a Blazersedge die-hard reader/commenter on Tuesday. This doesn't happen all that often. (The primary reason for that is I don't get out much.) But, anyway, there I found myself, neck deep in boredom from the lockout, entering a fully sanitized medical office, surrounded by sixty-year-olds, when a Bedger popped up out of nowhere, eager to discuss the Blazers and, in particular, forward Nicolas Batum and his play in the ongoing EuroBasket tournament currently being held in Lithuania, or roughly 7,000 (?) miles away from the sanitized medical office.

"Did you see his head bandaged?!"

Indeed, I did. And, pardon my French, but that's what the [bleep] I'm talking about. Interest in both the NBA and the Blazers has waned in a big time way over the last two months; it was great to come across someone else who is still fully invested, despite the ridiculousness of the CBA negotiations and the lack of real news.

Second, Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus fame sent over an unusual message the other day. This time of year, Pelton's communications consist of two, and only two, topics.

One: Begging me to buy WNBA tickets. Really, that's a year-round practice of his but it's particularly strong in the late-summer and early-fall. Two: Trying to convince me to copy edit his annual Basketball Prospectus season preview book for free and justifying the (lack of) compensation situation by pretending that he purchased pizza for both of us 2.5 years ago. (Never happened.) The begging is generally followed by a few status report seeking emails with just "??????" in the body, wondering why it's taking so long to copy-edit 25 page PDFs full of mathematical formulas, references to the 1992 Seattle SuperSonics and television shows that no one under the age of 60 has watched. As if I wouldn't rather be out enjoying the sunshine, trying to ride my bike and pitching myself over the handlebars because I don't really know when to use the front brakes. By the way: Buy his book when it comes out.

Anyway, the second lightning bolt struck when Pelton asked simply: "Have you been watching Nicolas Batum at the EuroBasket? He's been killing it."

To penetrate KP2's ticket-hawking, book-writing membrane (force-field, really) it takes something fairly special. To keep fans engaged halfway across the world when there's no immediate promise of a season and after months since the last season takes something fairly special. 

I don't think it's a coincidence by any stretch that the "something fairly special" is Batum. As we've written about at length over the last few years, his game and personality combine to provide something for everyone. He's polite, yet tough. He's graceful, yet forceful. He's immensely talented, yet provides promise because he still gleams with potential. He's a team player, with an upbeat attitude, a fascinating background and he's still on an affordable rookie deal. He has started and come off the bench, played multiple positions and provides more highlight reel plays -- dunks and blocks -- than anyone on the squad not named LaMarcus Aldridge.

Of course, at 22, he's also shown that he's far from perfect and far from totally consistent. He also lost his starting spot in the aftermath of the trade for Gerald Wallace. Going forward, the Blazers -- minus healthy versions of Brandon Roy and Greg Oden -- will need a lot from him but the frontcourt is all a bit awkard right now. No one seems to want to play the positions they will need to play unless Oden reappears from the mist to set everything right.

With that "something fairly special" in mind, I thought we'd track Batum's progress through the rest of the EuroBasket tournament in a bit more detail.

The Stage

Quickly: EuroBasket is a 24-team tournament held every two years. This year's EuroBasket is in Lithuania.

Round one consisted of four groups of six teams. The top four teams from each group advanced to round two. Round two consists of two groups of six teams. The top four teams from each of these groups advance to a quarterfinals knockout stage.

France swept its first round group, 5-0, to advance to the second round. France began second round play against Turkey on Wednesday and will play Lithuania on Friday and Spain on Sunday. Here's a schedule.

The Opponent

Wednesday morning, Batum and France squared off against a Turkey team loaded with NBA players: Ersan Ilyasova (Milwaukee Bucks), Hedo Turkoglu (Orlando Magic), Omer Asik (Chicago Bulls) and Enes Kanter (Utah Jazz).

Batum is joined on France, who is considered one of the top two or three teams in the field, by a number of fellow NBA players: Joakim Noah (Chicago Bulls), Kevin Seraphin (Washington Wizards), Tony Parker (San Antonio Spurs) and Boris Diaw (Charlotte Bobcats). 


Turkey went out to a quick first quarter lead thanks to a slow offensive start from France. That lead dissolved in the second quarter thanks in large part to Batum, who was aggressive on both ends. France opened up a double-digit lead in the third quarter as Parker started to assert himself, and the game looked like it would be another routine win for France, until some shaky fourth-quarter shot selection and decision-making let Turkey climb back in the game with a 13-2 run over a six minute stretch. Turkey made a costly turnover on a five second call on an inbounds play out of a timeout and France cashed out some free throws, holding on to win, 68-64, and remain undefeated in EuroBasket play.

Here's the boxscore. Batum finished with 13 points, one rebound, one steal and two turnovers on 5-for-11 shooting in 26 minutes.

Batum: Quarter By Quarter

Everything you need to know about Batum's play can be summed up quite simply. In the first half, the commentators gushingly compared him to Julius Erving; In the second half, they called his play "bone-headed" (they later apologized, but they meant it, and they weren't necessarily wrong). 

Here are some scattered notes to fill out that story.

First Quarter

Batum got off to a quick start, stepping into the passing lane on the perimeter to rip a dead duck and run it back for the uncontested, swooping dunk. Unfortunately, those two points would be France's only points in the first 5+ minutes of the game. 

Despite France's slow start, Batum seems in good rhythm, confidently bringing the ball up the court and dribbling the ball with both hands interchangeably under ball pressure. On one play, he projected calm but ultimately picked up his dribble a bit too early against a harassing defender. There was no cost this time, as he could see over his defender easily and make the entry pass regardless.

In the first half, Batum is tasked with guarding Omer Onan, a stocky chucker who likes to put up threes (he would finish with 8 points on 3-for-10 shooting). Batum does fine against Onan but is run through a fair number of picks that often leave him a touch late closing out when the ball swings. On one play, he's picked twice in a row and he's quite late, leaving Onan wide open near the top of the key. Batum salvages the situation nicely by creating contact with Asik, who is sliding into his pick noticeably, and selling the impact by falling to the floor. Asik is whistled for the offensive foul. Cheeky and intelligent play but you might prefer he simply trailed through the screens more tightly.    

On another defensive possession, Batum applies some pressure of his own on Onan, increasing the urgency as the shot clock winds down. Feeling boxed in, Onan shuffles the ball off to Turkoglu, who is actually standing almost immediately behind him, well outside the three-point line. Turkoglu, not surprisingly, has no remorse over hucking up a long, long three with the clock expiring and Batum does a nice job of moving out to contest that shot, too, without fouling. Very versatile play that results in a low-percentage brick.

Near the end of the first quarter, Batum made an excellent instinctive play on a cross-court pass, appearing to tip the ball in flight so that it ends up bouncing off of his man, resulting in a turnover. (Another possibility is that Batum's motion simply distracted the pass's recipient and Batum didn't actually contact the ball, and the pass just sailed directly out of bounds. They didn't show it a replay but, either way, Batum's action forced the turnover.) 

With nothing else going really, France looks to get Batum very involved offensively. First they find him for a wide open catch-and-shoot three-pointer at the left angle, which he buries in stride. Soon after, France turns Turkey over and pushes the ball ahead to Batum, who eagerly attacks his defender in the open court, forcing the foul. 

Most interestingly, France has been using Batum coming off of screens and curling at the free throw line, giving him the ball while he's in motion so that he can either hit a pull-up jumper, continue dribbing hard to his right to the basket or take a dribble and then find one of the French big men cutting on the weakside as the defense adjusts for his action. This isn't revolutionary stuff basketball-wise but it's a pleasure to see Batum put into such an active situation in which he can put his length, quickness and decision-making skills to good use. In the first quarter, France executes the play, Batum cuts through the paint, hoists a runner over three people, extended over the defense, drawing a two-shot foul in the process. He makes one of the free throws. 

Quarter one ends with France trailing 14-12. Batum has six points.

Second Quarter

Batum rests through the first three or four minutes of the second quarter but wastes no time in making an impact on the game once he returns. Right off the bat he drives hard to his right hand, easily beating his man off the dribble near the three-point line and gliding in for the uncontested, skying dunk. No chance for the defense to rotate.

His confidence is near its peak now and he proceeds to hit two jumpers in succession, with the second one drawing a foul. He converts the free throw and completes his personal 7-0 run in less than two minutes. 

At this point, the commentators call him the "offensive player of the game," note that his career has "taken off," opine that he plays with "no fear factor," say that his nickname should be "St. Nic" and compare him to Dr. J., all in the span of like three or four breaths. 

Shortly thereafter it's halftime and France is leading 31-27. Batum has thirteen points.

Third Quarter

And that's when a game that had the potential to be truly memorable for Batum went off course. The second half begins with him attacking again, coming off of a curl screen to launch another close-range runner, which happens to rim off. 

The energy and activity are clearly there in the opening minutes of the third quarter but, for whatever reason, luck isn't. Batum takes a foul, his first of the game, to prevent Asik from taking an unmolested close-range shot attempt. Less than a minute later, Batum tries to draw a charge on a cutting Asik but his foot is inside the protected circle, and the referee get the call right. Perhaps frustrated or pressing, Batum commits his third foul of the quarter by pushing recklessly in transition and getting whistled for the charge. He is sent to the bench at the 7:22 mark (10 minute quarters, remember) and remains there for the rest of the third quarter.  

In Batum's absence, Parker asserts himself offensively and France exploits its overall talent advantage to push open the lead to 57-44 after three quarters. Batum is still stuck on 13 points.  

Fourth Quarter

Batum doesn't return to the game until the 7-minute mark, meaning he's sat an entire quarter of game time. If you're suspecting rust would be an issue you are correct: He immediately coughs up a turnover while dribbling in the open court by getting pick-pocketed from behind. 

From there it continued in various shades of ugly. He missed a zone-busting three from the left corner (a good shot), he made a nice extra pass to free up Parker for an open three (who bricked it), he rushed another three from the right corner (he bricked it) and he cut to the hoop to follow up a Parker foray only to have his shot blocked relatively easily by Ilyasova. The last one was an excellent scoring change but he was not able to elevate sufficiently in traffic. Batum wasn't solely at fault. France really melted down pretty hard, content to jack up bad threes with Turkey in a zone and to play back on its heels with the lead.

If there was a bright spot for Batum it came on an offensive sequence with the clock winding down. Hiding in the corner -- as he did far more often (and too often) in the second half -- he received a pass, pump-faked to draw Turkoglu into the air, and then smartly escaped forward to space while leaning in to draw contact. All this while the clock was winding down. Worst case scenario: he would have gotten a cleaner look closer in. Best case scenario: Turkoglu was whistled for the careless foul. (Which is what ended up happening.) 

That was a minor victory though. The wheels fell off on Batum's night at the 1:21 mark in the fourth, with France clinging to a 63-56 lead. Inexplicably, Batum hand-checked Emir Preldzic as he dribbled the ball across halfcourt. The foul stopped the clock, Preldzic hit both free throws and, following Ilyasova's block of Batum's lay-up attempt, Turkey scored again on an Ilyasova and-one. When that dust settled, the score was 63-61, just 36 seconds after Batum committed the unnecessary foul with his team up seven.

Later, with seven seconds to play, Preldzic beat Batum to a loose ball for an offensive rebound, but this was more bad luck than anything else, as the carom came off long and unpredictably. Batum recovered to play solid defense on Preldzic, who backed up and drained a three-pointer in his face to pull Turkey within one at 65-64. Now the anxiety was really going for France. Soon after, though, relief came when Turkey gave away an opportunity to tie the game by failing to inbound the ball in five seconds, and Parker iced it at the free throw line. 

The commentators dropped the "bone-headed" label on Batum's foul at the 1:21 mark. They clearly felt bad about doing so but they should done so free of regret. Parker's foul of Ilyasova on the and-one wasn't much better and Turkey's eventual choke job five seconds inbound violation was the worst of the bunch. Had the final few minutes of this game played out with Batum in a Blazers uniform, it would have led to some serious hand-wringing and second-guessing.

France held on to win 68-63. Batum was scoreless in the fourth quarter and finished with 13 points. 

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 Turkey, Batum earned a nine for the first half and a two for the second half. We'll settle on a 6 overall.

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-- Ben Golliver | | Twitter