[ed. bumped to top]
Thursday marked Day 3 of the 2012 London Olympics' basketball group play. All three members of the Portland Trail Blazers in the Olympics -- France's Nicolas Batum, Great Britain's Joel Freeland and Spain's Victor Claver -- competed and, in a twist, two of them took the court in the same game for the first time.
Round-robin group play continues until Tuesday 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 Thursday. Game ratings -- on a 1-10 scale -- are included. A Day 3 video regarding the USA's historic blowout win over Nigeria will go up on Friday.
France 82, Lithuania 74
Nicolas Batum: 21 points, 6 rebounds, 3 blocks, 2 steals on 8-for-11 shooting in 34 minutes
France should have -- and did -- win this game with a degree of comfort. While Lithuania's basketball history is better than most, their current squad is middle of the pack in London and led by Linas Kleiza. Their perimeter players are not NBA quality and promising young center Jonas Valanciunas plays limited minutes.
I'll go through some of the play-by-play but the most impressive sequence of Nicolas Batum's night embodies this game's overall dynamic. During crunch time, Batum succeeded in blocking multiple shot attempts by Martynas Pocius. On one, he got his hand well above the rim to slam the ball down like it was a volleyball spike. (Here's a GIF in super slow motion for your enjoyment and here's video thanks to ehmiliano.) The telling aspect of the sequence, though, wasn't that Batum executed the blocks so cleanly and emphatically. No, the big reveal came when French guard Nando de Colo tried to offer help defense as Pocius drove past Batum and was whistled for a foul. Batum was caught on camera scolding de Colo for bothering to help, gesturing as if to say, in a rope-a-dope sort of way, "Don't worry if he drives, I'm just going to block his shot anyway."
This wasn't ego or over-confidence from Batum, it was fact. Pocius was very, very aggressive (and fairly effective, scoring 15 points on 6-for-10 shooting) but he was still over-matched, as was Lithuanian starter Rimantas Kaukenas, who drew three fouls in the first five minutes as he struggled mightly to deal with Batum on both ends, eventually giving up and just trying to detach one of his arms on a defensive rebound. That didn't work, the referees saw it, and off to the bench he went for an extended sit.
The talent disparity really helped make this game look easy for Batum and most of his 21 points came in transition opportunities, with Lithuania failing to take care of the ball, or get back properly, or both. There were plenty of highlights given those circumstances. Batum filled the right lane and collected a great push ahead bounce pass from Boris Diaw to finish a right-handed dunk. He stepped into a passing lane to create an easy push-ahead play for himself, which he again finished with a dunk. He beat Simas Jasaitis with a pump fake, missed the shot, but easily finished the follow with no interior presence to worry about.
He finished against transition defenders, too, picking up his dribble for two large steps before flipping up a runner in transition as he drew contact, earning an and-one. Then, with 4:08 remaining in the fourth quarter, Batum gave France a 74-61 lead when he deflected a perimeter pass, collected it for a steal and then ran out to finish the play with a two-handed dunk. That was an early nail in the coffin.
Diaw's presence in this game (10 points, 6 rebounds, 8 assists) was a major factor. France got a great game from Tony Parker (27 points on 9-for-14 shooting) but Diaw's vision and passing from the high post created countless easy baskets, and Batum was one of the recipients. In the fourth, he snuck backdoor to get a dunk after Diaw found him. Earlier in the game, a high post pass from Ronny Turiaf, after Diaw had collapsed the defense on a drive-and-dish, led to another easy basket with Batum reading the play well and making a hard cut into weakside space.
Defensively Batum did most of his damage reading perimeter passing lanes, as mentioned. He did well to play help post defense against Valanciunas, successfully contesting a shot without fouling and got blocks by providing help defense on Antanas Kavaliauskas and by looming over the 6-foot-4 Kaukenas.
This week Batum has committed a few defensive blunders -- usually because of a lack of focus -- and there were two obvious ones in this game, both of which resulted in baskets. First, he was beaten backdoor by Jasaitis, who collected a pass from the high post on the right side before going under the hoop to finish with his left hand on the left side. Batum was literally spun around 360 degrees on the play, his body positioning and footwork a total mess.
Second, he struggled to get over a pick on an out of bounds play, allowing Kaukenas to take an uncontested mid-range pull-up jumper. The play caused Batum and Turiaf to point at each other, as Batum felt Turiaf should have stepped out and Turiaf felt Batum should have fought through the pick. It wasn't a particularly debilitating pick, and Batum was late recognizing that it was coming and then didn't bother to close out once he realized what had happened. Not a game-changer but still not ideal.
One could argue that those plays were offset by Batum drawing two charges, an important element in the international game and an area in which he is showing elite skill this week.
His offensive night, aside from feasting in transition, was fairly mundane. He knocked in an easy three after a de Colo drive-and-kick, he was short on another three from the right angle, he drove left from the top of the key and threw up an off-balance shot hoping to get a call (he didn't) and he randomly and humorously had the ball slip out of his hands when he hauled in a pass off of a curl, causing a turnover. Other than that, the ball was dominated by Parker and Diaw late in the game as it should have been, given their effectiveness.
There was one scary play: Batum tried to rise and dunk over Jonas Maciulis and wound up getting undercut on the play, crashing hard to the ground. He lay face-down on the court for an extended period of time before teammates and a referee came to check on him. After getting his wind back, he pounced back up quickly, all fired up, only to double over in pain once he made it to the free throw line. The entire series of events -- after it was clear that he wasn't injured -- caused the announcers to laugh. Here's video of the fall thanks to old friend Bruno Pluye.
So where does all of that leave Batum's night? Well, Against Argentina he played a good game against a very good opponent. Here, he played a very good game against average competition. The two performances feel about the same in terms of total value and there's still untouched upside here. Keep that in mind that when you see the game rating.
France (2-1) next plays Tunisia (0-3) on Saturday.
Nicolas Batum Game Rating: 7 out of 10
Spain 79, Great Britain 78
Joel Freeland: 25 points, 7 rebounds, 1 block, 1 steal on 10-for-19 shooting in 32 minutes
There was so much going on with Joel Freeland in this game -- which wound up being a nail-biter down to the final seconds -- that it's hard to know where to begin.
In this tournament, Freeland is now clearly cast as the Hemingway protagonist. He's destined to lose but he's going down with full nobility. As Spanish point guard Jose Calderon eluded attempts to foul as he ran out the clock's dying seconds, you could see the energy whoosh out of Freeland's body as he bent over, exhausted, and hugged the bottom of his shorts.
Following Britain's loss to Brazil, the London Evening Standard's headline was Freeland's frustration. Given the ratio between the amount of energy he expended in that game (enormous) versus his statistical production (not enormous), the sentiment was inevitable. After going against Tiago Splitter, Anderson Varejao and Nene Hilario on Tuesday, Freeland faced Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka on Thursday. Tough week.
Pau finished with 17 points, 3 rebounds and 5 assists; Marc finished with 12 points, 3 rebounds and 1 assist; Ibaka finished with 5 points, 3 rebounds and 1 assist. Spain won this game with its depth and because Britain is essentially a two-man team (Freeland and Luol Deng combined for 51 of Britain's 78 points and made 20 of the team's 29 team field goals). Despite some late-game klutziness and the absence of star guard Juan Carlos Navarro due to injury, Spain was clearly the better team and deserved the win.
The issues Freeland has defending height one-on-one in the post -- both before and after the catch -- were evident throughout. The Gasol brothers run a beautiful (and interchangeable) high-low game and Freeland was their victim on more than one occasion. The prettiest saw him fighting hard to deny a pass from the wing only to have the point of attack switch to Marc in the high post, feeding Pau slipping behind for an easy basket.
Against Pau's height and length, Freeland sometimes looked a bit like an oversized child in comparison. On one second-half play, Pau backed him down, initiating the back-to-chest contact to escape into space and set up an easy right-handed jump hook over his left shoulder. On another, Freeland had to foul Pau to prevent a dunk after he was moments late jumping the entry pass.
His height issues came up elsewhere: Spanish guard Jose Calderon scored over him easily in the basket area on two occasions, as if he wasn't there. Switch Freeland for LaMarcus Aldridge and most likely neither shot is attempted.
There weren't too many notable run-ins with Marc or Ibaka on the defense end. Ibaka did bully him off his rebounding spot to claim an offensive rebound and uncontested lay-up. It was the typical tough stuff you see in the paint and Freeland didn't appear to expect the contact, giving way extremely easily. He got that bucket back much later in the game, coming over from the weakside to reject a close-range Ibaka shot attempt. It wasn't a high-flying affair but it was well-timed and showed a step-ahead feel on defense. He tried to come over late to contest a Marc dunk attempt on another play but had no chance against the strong finish.
His activity level stood out again and the drop-off for Britain when he went to the bench was substantial. He looked extra-motivated in this game and rose to the challenge against more talented competition, thriving in the mano-a-mano duels. There were multiple opportunities for Britain to fold and Freeland/Deng prevented that from happening. There was good fortune in some of the fourth-quarter shots falling to make this a game but you can hear the high school coaches shouting "Hard work makes good luck," can't you?
Freeland came out blazing on offense and he went to permanent heat check mode, the likes of which very few fours and fives ever see in an NBA game. This was his personal home run derby. Back on his heels, swinging for the fence over and over and over.
He opened by nailing a three-pointer over Marc and then set a nice high screen for Deng, finding a good spot to hit a mid-range face-up jumper. That was following by a left corner three over Marc, again, and within three minutes he had almost reached his entire scoring output against Brazil.
The fireworks abated for a bit, as he missed an "I'm feeling lucky" three and then found that working inside against Pau was a bit tougher sledding. He tried to back down Pau but couldn't get to ideal position, setting instead for a sweeping right-handed jump hook through the key that missed badly. It was a shot attempt that he would go to over and over in this game, with mixed results.
He had better luck on the inside with his hustle plays, finding a tip-in basket on the weakside and making good things happen indirectly on a few other plays. Gasol blocked one of his shots in the paint, but his follow work helped the deflection wind up in one of his fellow big's hands for the basket. He also tipped an offensive rebound towards Dan Clark, who missed an uncontested sure thing at the rim. Finally, he caught Pau a little too far under the hoop on a rebound opportunity, snaring the offensive board from behind his man and quickly finishing over the top before Pau could react.
Hustle created opportunities on the defensive end as well. He started a fast break by corralling a loose ball and pushing it ahead quickly to Pops Mensah-Bonsu, who finished an and-one in traffic. In another transition situation, he conducted a pretty two-man give-and-go with Deng, finishing on the run at full speed.
Aside from those sequences and the running hooks, most of the work was done on the perimeter. As in the home run derby analogy, it was big hit or big miss. He hit a turnaround jumper over Gasol; he airballed a turnaround jumper over Ibaka. He missed two face-up jumpers and airballed a three; he nailed a late three off the dribble like he was a two guard.
In addition to all of that, there were two moments of real technical skill. First, and less obvious, he drew a foul on Felipe Reyes by establishing good, low position early in the clock and rotating his body to create an excellent passing lane. Sealed and beaten to the hoop for what would have been an obvious basket, Reyes had to give the foul. It was a unique combination of good thinking, good footwork, proper strength and the right timing/recognition from his teammates; the result was simply a side-out but it was worth mentioning. The second came very late in the game, on a pretty drive-and-dish by Deng. Freeland collected the pass confidently despite traffic, pump-faked Pau off the ground and finished softly at the rim as Pau flew by, helpless. Impressive stuff.
Freeland might not have been the steadiest or most consistent big man in the game but he wound up having the most impact, an impressive feat considering the headlines that have surrounded Spain's "potentially USA-beating" frontline. He nearly matched the Gasol brothers combined in scoring and he out-rebounded each of them individually. He played harder than every other player on the court, with the possible exception of Deng, who is also a man on a mission.
You can place as many disclaimers on Olympics basketball not translating to the NBA game as you want. Who cares? This was Freeland raised to his own exponent, both his strengths and weaknesses fully explored. After Sunday's game, I suggested watching Freeland's work in these Olympics. After this one, I'm demanding that you watch. This isn't a hype thing; it's a joy of the game thing.
Great Britain (0-3) next plays Australia (1-2) on Saturday.
Joel Freeland Game Rating: 9 out of 10
Victor Claver: 3 points and 1 rebound on 1-for-3 shooting in 6 minutes
And that leaves us with Victor Claver, who played a brief first half stint of empty calorie minutes and was never heard from again. Nor should he have been.
On the bright side, Claver finally scored, knocking down a wide open three from the right side, showing some of the 3/4 range that had been advertised.
His other two shots: a missed three from the left corner and a missed chippie on a beautiful soft lob set-up pass from Sergio Rodriguez. Disaster struck at the first moment he decided to do anything other than stand around, though. Finding himself with the ball and space on the left wing, he first looked afraid to take an open jumper and then spent too long deciding it was time to attack off the dribble. Matched up one-on-one against Freeland, he couldn't beat him to the baseline going left and countered by attempting a quick, hard spin back to his right towards the middle of the court. The help defense was there waiting, of course, and contact was made. No bail out call was given because he was clearly swimming in the deep end of the pool and telegraphing his chaos the entire way. The play resulted in an ugly turnover that went the other way.
Defensively, he was matched up on Deng, mostly, and trailed him through screens just fine, contesting jumpers when necessary. His one nice play came on his sole rebound, as he quick outletted to Sergio Llull, forcing Britain to foul to stop the transition opportunity.
Otherwise Claver accomplished nothing and didn't really look comfortable or engaged. It wasn't a night that bodes particularly well for his playing time as the tournament progresses.
Spain (3-0) next plays Russia (3-0) on Saturday.
Victor Claver Game Rating: 1 out of 10
Here's a Day 3 video regarding the USA's historic blowout win over Nigeria.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter