Monday marked the fifth and final day of the 2012 London Olympics' basketball group play. Portland Trail Blazers forward Nicolas Batum (France), big man Joel Freeland (Great Britain) and forward Victor Claver (Spain) all took the court for the fifth and final game of the round-robin group stage.
France (4-1) defeated Nigeria as expected to advance to the knockout stage as the No. 2 seed in Group A. Great Britain (1-4) defeated China for its first win of the tournament, but has now been officially eliminated. Spain (3-2) lost to Brazil and advanced to the knockout stage as the No. 3 seed in Group B.
The 8-team knockout round to decide the gold medal begins on Wednesday. Here's a quick look at the seeded bracket. France will face Spain on Wednesday at 4:15 p.m. PT in an all-Blazers affair, according to this schedule.
Here's a look at the performances of all three Blazers on Monday. Game ratings -- on a 1-10 scale -- are included. A Day 5 video regarding the United States' victory over Argentina will be posted at the bottom later.
France 79, Nigeria 73
Nicolas Batum: 23 points, 6 rebounds, 2 steals, 1 block on 8-for-13 shooting
As mentioned on Saturday, France has been able to enjoy a nice mid-tournament downshift by playing Tunisia and Nigeria back-to-back to close their Group A play. Against Tunisia, France took a straightforward sleep-walking approach; against Nigeria, they opted to give star Tony Parker plenty of rest and allow his absence to serve as an equalizing element.
Against tougher competition, the difference between France with Parker and France without Parker has been night and day. Even with solid back-up guard Nando de Colo, France has usually looked like a one-man team without its one-man when he's gone to the bench for blows. In this one, I liked how French coach Vincent Collet rested both Parker and Nicolas Batum for a long stretch of the second quarter and then brought back Batum, but not Parker, to handle things down the stretch. It was an excellent "teachable moment" and real world test to see how the French would conduct themselves when they needed baskets in a close game without Parker there to bail them out and to create easy shots for the tertiary guys.
Nigeria did not offer much in the way of direct competition for Batum, who was matched up against New Orleans Hornets forward Al-Farouq Aminu. A former lottery pick of Neil Olshey's Los Angeles Clippers, Aminu has been totally clueless throughout the tournament (and his professional life, really). He finished with 0 points on 0-for-5 shooting in 27 minutes. It was as bad as it sounds. He's lost more often than not on defense, too.
As in the Tunisia game, the points came very easily for Batum, who is now shooting an astonishing 86.4 percent on 2-point field goals over five games (it's not easy to miss a transition dunk).
France ran its favorite opening play, running Batum off a dribble hand off on the left baseline and he was able to get to the free throw line immediately. After that, he executed a nice drive-and-dish to Mickael Gelabele, continuing through on the play and spacing to the left baseline, where he received a return pass and knocked down a wide open mid-range jumper.
Following that quick start, Batum sat for eight straight minutes in the second quarter as France's reserves started to give back the team's early double-digit lead. In the third quarter, Parker and Batum picked things up just enough. The point guard and the wing connected for a drive-and-kick three in the left corner as they have over and over this week. The pair then found each other on what might have been France's coolest play of the group stage. On a baseline inbounds play, Batum cleared to the right corner with Boris Diaw opting to enter the ball to the top of the key. Diaw then stepped in and set a back pick for Batum, who darted down the right baseline as the ball moved to Parker at the left angle. Before Nigeria had any clue what was happening, Parker lofted an across-the-paint alley-oop pass to Batum, who finished the play easily. Beautifully designed and perfectly executed against a clueless and over-matched opponent. It was, if nothing else, a great teaching tool and inspiration for the French junior teams.
Batum picked up his third foul in the third quarter and was rested until crunch time, when he was re-inserted and encouraged to handle the ball and do more offensively. While he continued to do most of his halfcourt work from the perimeter, he did hit a great pull-up mid-range jumper that he created for himself off the dribble. That it was so noteworthy for him to do this says a lot about how often he hasn't done this. Sure, it's a lower-efficiency shot but one he needs to add to his comfort arsenal if he wants to emerge as a No. 2 option.
Down the stretch of what was a back-and-forth game thanks to some hot shooting from Chamberlain Oguchi (35 points on 10-for-20 shooting), Batum started bombing and couldn't miss. He hit an easy right angle three over a soft zone to break a tie midway through the fourth. He then got his hands on a loose ball caused by a de Colo deflection and ran out hard in transition, drawing a foul on Alade Aminu as he finished a right-handed lay-up while coming up the left side of the court. Newly confident and inspired, he followed that play with two threes from the left side: a wide-open catch-and-shoot from the corner and another set up by a dish from de Colo that put the game on ice with less than a minute to play.
In all, he had14 fourth quarter points,12 points in the last five minutes and 9 points in the last 3:14 of the game, all without Parker. It was his most assertive stretch of offensive play in the tournament but, it must be said, it came against very weak competition.
Batum did not exert himself fully on the defensive end. That fact did not make him unique among his teammates, who were comfortable exchanging baskets with a Nigerian team that lacks any sort of consistent go-to scorer. Here, both Oguchi and Derrick Obasohan (18 points on 8-for-16 shooting) got off. Had they not, this would have been another major blowout.
The two steals were the stand-out plays on a quiet defensive evening. Both times he took advantage of Aminu. The first: he jumped back into the entry passing lane to end a possession before it had a chance to start. The second: he rode the adrenaline from one of his fourth quarter threes to pick up the intensity and surprise Aminu, forcing another perimeter turnover.
Both Oguchi and Obasohan got the better of him on occasion. Oguchi created a three off the dribble and knocked it down over a good contest in Batum's face. Obasohan drove and scored past Batum, who was stunned by a screen from behind that probably should have been called an offensive foul.
All in all, nice numbers from Batum but certainly not maximum effort. The continued efficiency despite the let-up is good to see. A bonus point was added to the game rating for stepping up late without Parker.
Nicolas Batum's Group A averages: 16.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 1.6 blocks, 1.0 steals, 60.4 FG%, 38.5% 3-point% in 25.8 minutes per game
Next up: Group A's No. 2 seed France (4-1) vs. Group B's No. 3 seed Spain (3-2)
Nicolas Batum Game Rating: 6 out of 10
Great Britain 90, China 58
Joel Freeland: 10 points and 6 rebounds on 5-for-9 shooting in 10 minutes
Saturday's prediction saw Great Britain going out with a bang against China to secure their first win. That they did. But Joel Freeland, one of Britain's two stars in London, finished up with a whimper.
The man who has provided so much to write about over the last week veered totally off course against the Chinese, picking up four fouls in just 10 minutes of action. Coach Chris Finch had no choice but to sit Freeland for long stretches of the second and third quarters. By the fourth quarter, Britain's lead was so massive that there was no point in re-inserting Freeland for any meaningful amount of time. To finally win but have little to do with it seemed like the most tortuous end imaginable for a player who has been eaten up by his team's struggles.
There really is no good explanation for his foul trouble other than it was a combination of dumb plays and bad luck. (Isn't it always?)
His first foul came on an obvious moving screen on the perimeter, with Freeland hip-checking Chinese forward Zhu Fangyu less than two minutes in the game. His second and third came back-to-back in the second quarter. The second foul was a little dubious. Freeland's left arm got wrapped up with the right arm of Yi Jianlian while battling for an offensive rebound. Yi recovered the defensive rebound during the tangle, though, so it was a call that you often see given. The third foul came on the ensuing defensive possession with Freeland collapsing hard to provide help defense as plodding center Wang Zhi-Zhi drove left into the paint from the right side. Freeland appeared to step back to avoid the contact but his aggressive early action wound up earning Wang the and-one. His fourth foul came midway through the third quarter, when he lazily pushed Yi in the back with a bent forearm while fighting for rebounding position, moving him under the rim so that he could get an offensive board. Obvious call; rebound wiped from the stat sheet.
Make no mistake, he must do better. Fouls play a much bigger role in affecting playing time in international ball than they do in the NBA, of course, because you are capped out at five instead of six and because the referees are shakier. Still, Freeland only had a legitimate dispute on one of the four calls and he re-entered the game in the second half knowing that he needed to be careful because he already had three. His hyper-hustle game is difficult to moderate but three of these calls were the result, at least in part, of mental carelessness as opposed to unavoidable motor-related carnage. That will be a big liability in the NBA if not corrected or managed more carefully.
Aside from the fouls, Freeland provided plenty of productivity in his playing time. He was able to establish post position with ease against a weak-willed and weak-bodied Chinese frontline. He missed an early jump hook after getting into the post to start the game but followed that up with a nice sequence, in which he sprinted down the court to get early offensive rebounding position, secured the offensive rebound on the weakside after his teammate missed a transition jumper, and then was rewarded for his effort by getting the ball back on the block. He whipped out his favorite baseline spin move on Wang and finished with his right hand cleanly.
From there his points came in various ways. Luol Deng created tons of space for him with a drive-and-dish pass and he knocked it down from the right baseline. He went to work on Yi later in the game from the block, hitting a turnaround jumper over him towards the middle. He went back at Yi in the left block soon after, exploding off of back-to-chest contact to set up his right-handed jump hook, which he made this time. Finally, after all that success going towards the middle, he finished toying with Yi one-on-one by using his baseline spin. He succeeded in getting his shoulders around and in front of Yi's defense, creating plenty of room to finish an easy lay-up.
And that was that. There's only so much you can do in 10 minutes. His tournament saw some extended highs -- particularly against Spain -- but ended on a decided low. Now that it's done, a summary of Freeland's week and some thoughts on how he will translate to the NBA will be posted on Tuesday.
Joel Freeland's Group B averages: 14.6 points, 6.6 rebounds, 46.9 FG%, 28.6% 3-point% in 25.0 minutes per game
Next up: Group B's No. 5 seed Great Britain (1-4) vs. summer vacation
Joel Freeland's Game Rating: 2 out of 10
Brazil 88, Spain 82
Victor Claver: 0 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist on 0-for-0 shooting in 5 minutes
All the pre-game chatter about this game concerned the fact that losing was in each team's best interests because they would avoid the USA's side of the knockout round bracket. Brazil did not play center Nene Hilario but still managed to win courtesy of a 31-16 fourth quarter.
The obvious "They're definitely tanking!" red flag would have been giving Victor Claver real playing time. Kudos to Spanish coach Sergio Scariolo for protecting his plausible deniability by limiting Claver's court time to just five second quarter minutes.
This won't come as a surprise but Claver did virtually nothing for the fifth straight game. He's been on the court in four of them so that's no good. He was again stricken by passive offensive play. Not only did he not attempt a shot or make an aggressive play in the halfcourt, but he didn't even consider such an idea. Jog around the right perimeter. Stand. Run back on defense. Jog around the left perimeter. Stand. Get back on defense. Stand. And repeat. Just nothing happening at all.
A dyed-in-the-wool optimist might argue that at least he isn't costing points with turnovers and that he understands his role as a time-buyer and minute-filler on a team with more talented players. That's fine. But that's an incredibly low bar to set for a first-round pick.
Claver isn't blessed with amazing strength or athleticism and he hasn't shown much natural rebounding ability either. He likes to crash the offensive glass from the wing but doesn't have a very successful hit rate when it comes to securing the ball. Sometimes it backfires. On one possession, he went hard after an offensive board but came up empty. His man, Marcelo Machado, ran out in semi-transition and Spanish teammate Victor Sada did not cover for Claver in the situation, as Claver seemed to be expecting. The result was a made open 3-pointer and some finger-pointing between Sada and Claver, who didn't make much of an effort to close out of Machado from behind the play once he realized Sada wasn't going to step up to do it.
Other than that, his defensive work was fine. He worked hard to stick with his mark through a series of baseline picks and also contested shots in set halfcourt situations. Machado did beat him off the dribble once to make a nice feed in the paint to Guilherme Giovannoni, who missed the easy shot at the rim. Claver disguised a push in the back to grab the defensive rebound and, in his one flash of aggressiveness, pushed the ball out hard in transition by himself. He found Sada on the left wing, who passed to a trailing Juan Carlos Navarro at the right angle, but Navarro's 3-point attempt rimmed off. Cheers for the brief opportunism though.
His assist was nothing special. He fed Marc Gasol at the high post from the wing for a zone-busting mid-range turnaround jumper. The ball moved from Gasol to Claver and back in the quick side-to-side play that you like to see in zone offense. The pass wasn't contested and Gasol did all of the hard work with his jumper.
Tank or no tank, Spain gets its preference by avoiding the USA until the gold medal game. They are certainly no lock to get there though. Indeed, their path is extremely difficult: France first and then likely Russia, who they lost to earlier this week. They might still be the favorites to face the Americans but only slightly. Their guards and wings will need to kick it up a notch to get through to the finals and, as a team, they'll need to play far better than they've shown to this point to give the USA (the only undefeated team in group play) any kind of trouble.
Victor Claver's Group B averages: 0.8 points, 1.8 rebounds, 12.5 FG%, 25.0% 3-point% in 6.0 minutes per game
Next up: Group B's No. 3 seed Spain (3-2) vs. Group A's No. 2 seed France (4-1)
Victor Claver's Game Rating: 1 out of 10
Here's a Day 5 video regarding the United States' victory over Argentina.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter