During the NBA playoffs, more media members cover each game than you can stuff into already crowded locker rooms. To make things easier, postgame chats with each contest’s top performers are conducted in a separate interview room, up on a stage, with spotlights shining on the athletes and cameras carrying every question and answer to the fans at home. Only a select few ballers take part in these postseason Q&A sessions — if you’re one of them, you just had what’s called a “podium game.”
In the Olympics, of course, “podium” carries a slightly different meaning. At the end of each day of hoops competition in London, we’ll bridge the gap between the two, celebrating those performers who shone for their national teams, helped their squads get closer to the medal stand, or both. This is Podium Games.
The gold goes to … France’s Tony Parker. To be sure, Parker didn’t win this one alone — multiple teammates made timely contributions to France’s huge 71-64 win over Argentina, FIBA’s third-ranked team in the world (France is 12th).
After an (allegedly) Opening Ceremony-induced disappearing act against the U.S., Nicolas Batum’s strong first quarter (eight points, three rebounds, one assist, one block) got France off to a good start. Young guns Nando De Colo and Kevin Seraphin played huge minutes in the second quarter that let coach Vincent Collet rest his starters; swingman Mickael Gelabale’s three third-quarter 3-pointers kept Argentina at bay. But with the game in the balance late, France turned to its bespectacled leader. And he responded, scoring eight of his team-high 17 points in the final 5:04 of the fourth quarter.
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While Parker shot just 4 for 17 from the floor in the game, two of the makes came late and were huge. On the first, he dragged exhausted 35-year-old Argentine point guard Pablo Prigioni out near half-court, made him fight through three straight screens from center Ronny Turiaf and then, after losing him, drained a jumper from the top of the key to make it a two-possession game. Less than a minute later, after a Luis Scola miss, Parker danced with the Argentina defense, darting back and forth from left to right around multiple screens before eventually getting what he wanted — a one-on-one mismatch with the lumbering Scola at the free-throw line.
Up four with 4 1/2 minutes left in the game and six seconds left on the shot clock, Parker drove straight at Scola. He broke past him to the right, split a late-coming double-team brought by his San Antonio Spurs teammate Manu Ginobili, gained the lane and elevated around center Leonardo Gutierrez to get the ball on the backboard. It went down, and France went up six. Later, with France up five and just over a minute left, Parker darted left and somehow snuck a pass past a reaching Manu for a finish by Seraphin that put the game away. Don’t let the glasses or wonky stroke fool you — this was Tony Parker, one of the best and most dangerous players in the world, and nothing less.
“He’s the master,” said NBC color commentator and NBA head coach Doug Collins after Parker’s layup over Gutierrez. On Tuesday, when it counted, he was. As a result, France’s medal hopes — which would have been on life support had they dropped to 0-2 in Group A — are as strong as ever.
After splitting its first two games against the two toughest draws in Group A, France finds itself in a four-way tie for second place in the group with Argentina, Lithuania and Nigeria — all of whom still must face the United States. Meanwhile, France’s final three preliminary-round games will come against Lithuania (blown out by Argentina on Sunday), Nigeria (blown out by Lithuania on Tuesday) and Tunisia (beaten by Nigeria, blown out by the U.S.). France has a real shot of ending group play 4-1, finding itself with a favorable draw against a lower-tier Group B qualifier in the quarterfinal, and stand a chance at medaling for the first time since Sydney in 2000.
What a difference a day makes. What a difference a point guard makes.
The silver goes to … Brazil’s Tiago Splitter and Marcelinho Huertas. During Brazil’s Olympics-opening win over Australia on Sunday, NBC’s announcers made mention more than once of the fact that the Boomers didn’t feel like they had to double-team Splitter on the block. He certainly didn’t offer much reason why they should, hitting just two of his 10 shots and spending most of his time looking like he’d rather be somewhere else. The Spurs big man looked much more comfortable and potent against Great Britain on Tuesday, helping his Brazilian side come roaring back from a miserable first quarter with sharp, efficient work. (And I mean miserable — Brazil scored just four points in the first 10 minutes, missing 18 of their 20 field-goal attempts, including their last 16.)
Time and again, Splitter established good post position, made decisive moves in the paint and finished well around the basket, all areas in which he has at times struggled in spite of his estimable physical gifts. He showed no such signs of struggle Tuesday, bulling his way to a game-high 21 points on 9-of-11 shooting as Brazil held off a fiery Great Britain squad for a 67-62 victory that kept Ruben Magnano’s squad level with fellow Tuesday winners Russia and Spain atop Group B.
That “holding off,” though? That was all Huertas, the 29-year-old point guard who displayed his fantastic control of the game late in the proceedings to bring Brazil home.
The FC Barcelona triggerman followed his strong outing against Australia by commanding the final stages against Great Britain. After a rare 3-point make by Luol Deng (just 4 for 17 from deep through two games), Great Britain held a one-point lead with 4:02 left in the fourth. From there, Huertas took over.
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On the next possession, he ran a picture-perfect high screen-and-roll with Splitter, getting into the lane and drawing three British defenders before dumping off for a layup that put Brazil ahead for good. Then, after a Pops Mensah-Bonsu miss, Huertas pushed the ball up the left flank, crossed the 3-point arc and, upon seeing British guard Nate Reinking square up to defend him, swung the ball to the middle to a streaking Alex Garcia, who quickly made the extra pass to a wide-open Marcus Vieira in the corner for a 3-pointer that pushed the lead to four.
Two minutes later, after a missed Reinking corner three led to a long rebound, Huertas beat Britain’s Joel Freeland down the floor to the ball. After corralling it, he looked back up-court as if to indicate he planned to slow things down until his teammates joined him, so that Brazil could run the clock down. Then, naturally, he whipped a no-look pass across his body to Nene, who was streaking open on the left side of the lane and crammed on a too-late Freeland to put Brazil up six and effectively seal matters.
Huertas would add one more assist (to Splitter, the recipient of four Huertas dimes on the day) and two free throws in the final minute, capping off a sterling late-game performance that saw him finish with 13 points, eight assists against just two turnovers, and one big W.
Next up for Brazil: a Thursday tilt with a Russian squad that’s looked very sharp in its first two games. With Russia’s deep frontcourt looming, which version of Splitter turns up could go a long way toward determining which team remains undefeated on Friday. But that’s just conversation — what hoop heads ought to be drooling over is the matchup at the point between Huertas and marvelous youngster Alexey Shved, which promises to be stellar.
The bronze goes to … Victor Khryapa of Russia. His star teammates Shved and Andrei Kirilenko earned headlines for their strong play in Russia’s opener against Great Britain, but it was their CSKA Moscow compatriot whose all-around floor game shined in Tuesday’s first contest, which tipped at 9 a.m. London time. Khryapa scored just seven points on seven shots in a comfortable 73-54 early morning win over Yi Jianlian and China, but his contributions helped give Russia the balance it needed to cruise past an overmatched Chinese side.
Kirilenko (16 points on 7-of-12 shooting, nine rebounds, four steals) provided the early offensive threat. The interior combo of Sasha Kaun (13 points on 5-of-11 shooting, six rebounds, four blocks) and Timofey Mozgov (10 points, 4 of 6 from the floor) scored seemingly at will against the feckless Chinese front line in the second half. Shved (14 points on 6-of-11 shooting, six assists, two steals) added a bit of panache and alley-oop spice to the proceedings. All Russia needed was someone to serve as the connective tissue and pull their performances together, and Khryapa answered the bell.
The 6-foot-9 forward pulled down a game-high 12 rebounds — including three on the offensive glass, and six in the first quarter alone — while serving as an auxiliary playmaker (six assists without a turnover in 27 minutes) and adding two steals against a Chinese team that often seemed eager to give the ball away (16 turnovers, compared to just seven assists). He did everything Russian coach David Blatt needed of him, which freed up Russia’s other threats to do enough to cleanly dispatch China early. We celebrate the glue guys here at Fourth-Place Medal; Khryapa was that, and then some, on Tuesday.
Today’s Fourth-Place Medal goes to … Makram Ben Romdhane of Tunisia. The basketball-watching world viewed the Tunisian national team as little more than a sacrifice to be served up on the altar of the United States’ greatness, with the U.S. entering Tuesday’s game as staggering 55-point favorites. I guess nobody told Makram Ben Romdhane, a 6-foot-8, 23-year-old Tunisian pro who went at Team USA from the opening tip, scoring five points in the first three minutes of the game to stake Tunisia to a shocking 8-4 lead.
The Americans, of course, sloughed off their early game doldrums in the latter stages of the opening quarter behind pressure defense and sharp shooting from the second unit of Russell Westbrook, Deron Williams, Andre Iguodala, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Love, eventually humming along to a 110-63 victory. (A win that, it should be noted, never got up to a 55-point margin). But Romdhane — who scored 12 points on 14 shots in Tunisia’s Sunday loss to Nigeria — just kept coming, refusing to back down from the big bad USA and keeping his motor revving for all four quarters.
The result? Twenty-two points on 9-for-18 shooting, 11 rebounds (five offensive), four assists, a steal and just two turnovers in 36 minutes of floor time. In sum: Makram Ben Romdhane had the game of his life against the best players in the world, on the biggest stage in the world, and became a national hero. Not a bad night.
The Olympic creed reads, “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.” Makram Ben Romdhane did not win on Tuesday, but he damn sure fought well — about as well in defeat as a player can. It was a remarkable thing to watch, and a performance we’ll remember for some time.
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