Welcome to Blazersedge's coverage of the 2013 EuroBasket in Slovenia. As in years past, multiple members of the Portland Trail Blazers are competing in the tournament, which pits various European national teams against each other for continental supremacy during non-Olympic, non-World Cup (formerly World Championship) years. Spain -- regarded as USA Basketball's top international competition after taking silver medals at the 2008 Olympics and 2012 Olympics -- won gold at the 2009 and 2011 EuroBaskets.
This year, Blazers forward Nicolas Batum is competing for France and forward Victor Claver is competing for Spain, while forward/center Joel Freeland opted not to play for Great Britain. As in years past, our coverage of the tournament will focus primarily on the play of the various Blazers. Game breakdowns and individual grades will be given after every contest.
Spain and France will both play five preliminary round games before the tournament advances to a second stage and, finally, a knockout round that will crown the champion. The preliminary round opened on Wednesday, with Spain beating Croatia and France losing to Germany.
Here's a recap of Claver's performance on Wednesday. Let's get on with Batum.
Germany 80, France 74: Game 1, Preliminary Round
Nicolas Batum's line: 9 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 turnover, 4-for-11 shooting, 1-for-7 three-point shooting, -14 in 25 minutes
This was an exciting contest that stuck to the "favored team overlooks underdog, gets down early, fights back to restore order, and then pays for its inattentiveness with a loss thanks to a crazy ending" script. It's not all that shocking that France would take Germany lightly, given that Tony Parker, Nicolas Batum, Boris Diaw and Nando de Colo suited up for one of EuroBasket's strongest teams while Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Kaman, Dennis Schröder and others did not play for Germany.
The Germans triumphed largely on their hot three-point shooting, finishing 9-for-15 from deep as a team and hitting three threes in the final two minutes to stun the French. Germany got out early, nearly doubling France after one quarter, 27-14, and then kept their heads despite a rash of silly turnovers and a strong mid-game push by France.
For Nicolas Batum, back again after playing a major role and winning silver at the 2011 EuroBasket, this was a mostly disappointing debut, and his play mirrored France's fate as the game developed. He started slow, established himself in the second quarter, and briefly played the hero role in the fourth quarter, before watching as the result crumbled away in the final two minutes.
Batum's 4-for-11 shooting reflected a mild carelessness in his shot selection and form. He wasn't outright chucking and he was never totally out of control, but he did rush, lean and fade on various shots, while also passing up some easier looks. He never truly found a path to the basket to get himself going, as his zero free throw attempts and the disparity between his three-point attempts and two-point attempts both suggest. He also left a few points on the court by stepping on the three-point line during one jumper and sliding back into a long two that he seemed to think would be a three.
His role on this French team is as a traditional wing, as Parker runs the point, Mickael Gelabale fills the other wing, and Diaw teams with Alexis Ajinca in the post to start things off. As the game unfolded, Batum did get some extra opportunities as a ball-handler and an offense-initiator. When Parker is in, and he led France by playing 30 minutes, it's almost always his show, leaving Batum to man the perimeter.
With France trailing for so much of the game, Parker kicked up his attack mode in the second half, looking to blow up the German interior defense and find his bigs for easy lay-ups. Most of Batum's finest moments, then, came earlier in the game, when he had the ball in his hands. A few standout sequences: Batum hit de Colo for a drive-and-kick three; Batum attacked into the paint to set up a Joffrey Lauvergne lay-up; Batum came off of a curl at the free-throw at full speed, attracting a ton of attention before effortlessly locating Antoine Diot on the baseline for an uncontested hoop off the cut. Shortly after halftime, he made a nice bounce pass to Ajinca, who slipped to the basket and surprised everyone with a forceful finish.
The story of Batum's play-making here was similar to the story that played out last season in Portland. For nearly every nice assist, there was a bad turnover or forced action that ate into his net impact. Batum was charged with two turnovers and he narrowly avoided a few others: he stepped out of bounds early; he tried to split the defense with a pass that was deflected; he was bailed out by a fluky German kickball, or he would have committed a turnover on failed split pass; and he nearly squandered a possession with a risky pass out to the corner with four minutes left and the game tied. Lined up like that, it's easy to see the biggest problem: the risk/reward calculus on these decisions is just off. Turnovers in aggressive pursuit of very high-percentage looks are one thing; unnecessarily forcing the matter, failing to keep concentration, and losing a solid feel for spacing are a bit more frustrating.
These mistakes didn't lose this game for France, not by a long shot. Thanks in part to some good luck and friendly bounces, they wound up being more of a continued annoyance rather than a huge problem. The bigger issue was Batum's lack of attacking play against inferior competition. When he reentered the game midway through the fourth quarter, he had scored just four points, and he seemed determined to change that. He stroked a right angle three, his only make from deep on the night, to give France a one-point lead. After grabbing a defensive rebound on the other end, he promptly came down and knocked in a stop-and-pop mid-range jumper with just under three minutes to play. His balance wasn't perfect on that shot but he took it with purpose, and it seemed like the sign that France was finally done messing around. Here he was, better late than never.
Instead, Germany went on one final three-point shooting rampage and France just couldn't keep up. Batum missed his final three shots in the closing sequence: he missed another right angle three, then he came up way short on a deep three, and then he missed one last three in the game's final seconds. As a team, France looked a bit stunned by the finish and probably would like a chance to replay the game's decisive stretch, especially in the case of Batum's deep three try and its team defense on Lucca Staiger, who nailed two late triples en route to 14 points.
Batum spent time matched up against German forward Niels Giffrey, who finished with 14 points and five rebounds and shot a perfect 6-for-6 on the night. Batum didn't make an impact on the box score defensively -- no steals or blocks -- and he got caught napping on the weakside in the first half, allowing a cutter to find an open seam to receive a pass and quickly knock down a mid-range jumper.
He was more successful on the glass, where he rose high to pull down a number of defensive rebounds in traffic, but he just wasn't a big-time impact player in this game, aside from the two-possession sequence in the fourth quarter and the nice first-half assists mentioned above.
Both France in general and Batum specifically would seem to be poised for a bounceback as the rest of the week unfolds. Even with Germany's sharpshooting, this wasn't a game France should have dropped, nor one that they would have lost had they been on their A or B game.
In the spirit of soccer write-ups, we'll hand out match ratings, taking into account individual expectations for both Claver and Batum. For Batum, we'll use a 1-10 scale calibrated as such: 1 = passive, invisible; 5 = winning his match-up in unspectacular fashion; and 10 = NBA All-Star level play.
Against Germany, Batum earned a 3. It wouldn't surprise me if this turns out to be Batum's weakest game of the tournament. He looked like he needed a bit of a wake-up call. Now that he's received one, we'll see if his talent winds up winning out as expected.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter