Wednesday, September 21, 2005
Parker leads France over Serbia & Montenegro
By Simon Wilkinson Special to ESPN.com
Editor's note: Dozens of NBA players, from stars like Dirk Nowitzki and Tony Parker to role players like Nenad Krstic and Darko Milicic, are participating in the European Championships in Serbia Montenegro this week. Simon Wilkinson is covering the action for The Press Association in Europe and has agreed to hook us up with daily dispatches. Here is the third of his reports.
NOVI SAD, Serbia Montenegro -- Just to prove the critics -- including myself -- wrong, Tony Parker came out to play last night in France's elimination win over Serbia Montenegro.
Tony Parker came off the bench to lead France to the quarters.
The San Antonio Spurs star point guard did not start the game, but proved a valuable sixth man instead, finishing with 13 points and three assists.
Who knows, maybe it's a role Gregg Popovich can give the French guard if he struggles at some point in the upcoming season.
From an NBA perspective, this game features nine current players: For the home side, in order of importance, Minnesota Timberwolves guard Marko Jaric, Seattle SuperSonics forward Vladimir Radmanovic and the triumvirate of centers Zeljko Rebraca of the Los Angeles Clippers, Nenad Krstic of the New Jersey Nets and Darko Milicic of the Detroit Pistons.
For the visitors, it all boiled down to the athletic trio of Parker and swingmen Boris Diaw of the Phoenix Suns and Mickael Pietrus of the Golden State Warriors.
On paper, the game looked like a sure win for Serbia Montenegro. There was no way the reigning world champions would lose again in front of their home fans.
It was just a matter of how badly they would beat up on the French. Everyone said "Les Bleus" were too small; their key players were struggling to put up numbers; and they seemed to lack the desire to play hard.
In fact, watching the French as they came on the court, they didn't look nearly as pumped up as the home side which seemed to be feeding off their fans' energy -- "seemed" being the key word. A bit more about that later.
But the trio of Parker, Diaw and Pietrus showed why they belonged in the NBA by outplaying, outhustling, outrebounding and outjumping the five NBA players from Serbia Montenegro.
Having never seen Parker play in person, I went into this game expecting him to continue to struggle. There was talk in the press room of his calf injury, and his shot wasn't really there during the warm-ups.
But I forgot one important thing: Parker doesn't settle for jump shots. That isn't his game. Instead, he attacks the basket relentlessly. And on Tuesday night, he managed to make me a believer, a hard thing to do considering I was never a big fan of his. I can even say I often look at the flaws in his game rather than the qualities.
Watching the Spurs guard navigate his way to the basket between the Serbian Montenegro giants was a beautiful thing to witness.
Granted, Parker didn't single-handedly beat Serbia Montenegro, but he made them look powerless. No perimeter player for the home team could stop him from getting to the basket -- and once there, he made Rebraca and Krstic look like nothing, going for double clutch lay-ups, switching hands in midair and even pulling off a spin move and hook reminiscent of Hakeem Olajuwon, which faked a defender out of his shoes.
Diaw's and Pietrus' shots weren't falling, but they managed to hurt Serbia Montenegro in other areas, thanks to their sheer athleticism.
Diaw had two coast-to-coast lay-ups that really hurt the fans' morale. He finished with 10 points but extended his bad run at the free-throw line, missing two foul shots in the last minute of the game that could have put Serbia Montenegro away for good.
Pietrus made up for several mistakes on offense -- turnovers, rushed shots -- by turning up the intensity on the defensive end. He blocked a dunk attempt by Rebraca and a Krstic put-back in the second half that sent a message if not to the opposition, at least to his own teammates.
But this Pietrus wasn't the better of the two brothers on the night. His older brother Florient had several crucial offensive rebounds late in the game, including an acrobatic tip-in off a Parker miss that gave France a 72-68 lead, showing that athleticism runs in the family.
France also had a lot of help from two other players -- one-time Dallas Mavericks guard Antoine Rigaudeau and Supersonics draft pick Mickael Gelabale, who has delayed his entry in the league to play for Real Madrid this coming season.
Rigaudeau was a true captain on the court and on the bench. In his prime, he was one of the best players in Europe. Then he tried to play in the NBA in 2003 at 31 years of age -- with little success. But he showed how vital he is to the French team with his shooting and leadership.
Gelabale might be right not to go to the NBA right away. First of all, he is still a bit raw and will definitely benefit from playing in Spain.
Secondly, the Sonics already have enough depth at the guards and small forward positions, which might place him at the end of the bench.
However, in this game he showed what he can bring to any NBA team two or three years down the line; he is a versatile swingman who can do it all at both ends of the court and can also shoot well.
A lot of credit has to go to France's coach, Claude Bergeaud, who said afterward that he decided to take a lot of risks in this game. He went for a zone defense several times -- and it worked. He gave NBA bust Frederic Weiss a chance to help out in brief spurts.
But probably the boldest move by the French coach was to go for a small -- even tiny -- lineup at the end of the game. France had no player over 6-foot-7 in the last two minutes of the game. Diaw, Parker, the Pietrus brothers, Rigaudeau and Gelabale took turns playing on the perimeter and in the paint at both ends of the court -- and certainly held their own against the bigger, broader, stronger and tougher players from Serbia Montenegro.
As for Serbia Montenegro, they didn't play up to their potential and as the head coach, Zeljko Obradovic, later said in his postgame press conference, too many big egos prevented team chemistry and got in the way of the greater good of the team.
And Obradovic didn't hold back, giving a 15-minute rant in which he said who he thought was at fault. But Obradovic is partly to blame; he didn't coach the team to the best of his ability on the night.
He made no substitutions in the first 11½ minutes of the fourth quarter and didn't use Radmanovic -- who went 4-for-5 from downtown -- until there was 1.4 seconds left in the game and Serbia Montenegro needed a 3-pointer to tie the game.
Radmanovic should have played in the fourth quarter, especially because France had switched to a zone defense and Serbia Montenegro wasn't hitting from behind the arc.
Some say Obradovic didn't use certain players to prove a point that no one is bigger than the team -- and his NBA players were among those punished. He left Radmanovic on the bench during the entire fourth quarter and didn't play Milicic all night.
But then again, Obradovic himself isn't to blame for Jaric's poor performance after a strong first quarter. Jaric shot 3-for-8 from the free-throw line, taking a (bad) page out of the French book. He missed some of those foul shots late in the game -- some intentionally and some not. The same is true of both Rebraca and Krstic.
But by punishing his players, Obradovic might have punished the fans, too. It could have been a different game altogether had Radmanovic played in crunch time, when France's lead never got bigger than three or four points. And maybe it would be Serbia Montenegro preparing to take on Lithuania in the quarterfinals right about now.
Instead, Serbia Montenegro left the prestigious Park Hotel at 1 a.m. on Wednesday, but not before Jaric got into a fight with one of his teammates.
Not surprisingly, Obradovic has resigned from his head coaching position.
In the night's other elimination games:
At the Millenium Hall in Vrsac, Germany surprised many by beating Turkey 66-57 and it was all down to Dirk Nowitzki -- again.
The Dallas Mavericks forward finished with 33 points, 10 rebounds, three blocks and an assist and shot well, going 8-for-15 from the field, including 3-for-5 from downtown, and also was 14-of-15 from the charity stripe.
The All-Star did get some help from his teammates in the fourth quarter, when Germany outscored Turkey 28-11, but it all boiled down to "a Superman-like performance" by Nowitzki, as his head coach Dirk Bauermann said afterward.
However, there was nothing impressive in the way Orlando swingman Hedo Turkoglu and Utah Jazz center Mehmet Okur played.
The Turkish duo finished a combined 3-for-17 from the field, which included a dismal 0-for-7 from 3-point range, and Turkoglu missed four costly free-throws late in the game.
Turkey might have been better off without its two NBA players. Okur came off the bench for the second straight game, but the "experiment" did not work, yet again. But in reality, nothing has worked in this tournament with the fourth-year pro.
The question about Nowitzki though still remains: How long can he carry that team on his shoulders single-handedly? He might have received some so-called help last night, but it still all comes down to him.
If they could clone Nowitzki and play him at all five positions, Germany would do so. He would even play point guard, and probably lead the tournament in assists, just like he currently does in scoring (27.8 points per game) and rebounding (12.3 rebounds per game).
I don't think there is a definite positive that comes out of this tournament for Nowitzki.
If he leads Germany to the medals round and helps them qualify for next year's World Championships, it will cost him some much-needed rest before the start of training camp.
If Germany loses, it will leave the 7-footer frustrated by his side's shortcomings and might compromise his future with the national side.
Croatia overcame a rather quiet night by their backcourt tandem of Utah Jazz guard Gordan Giricek and New Jersey Nets point guard Zoran Planinic to book a place in the quarterfinals with a 74-66 win over Italy at the Moraca Sports Center in Podgorica.
Instead, it was Orlando Magic center Mario Kasun's turn to lead the way for the Croats, pouring in 20 points and pulling down seven rebounds.
Giricek and Planinic did more bad than good, as they finished respectively with seven and six points and combined for nine turnovers.
But with Kasun taking care of the offense, and Italy unable to make a shot in the fourth quarter, Croatia held on to set up a quarterfinal game with Spain.
At the Pionir Hall in Belgrade, Greece overcame a furious second-half charge by the gritty Israeli side to book a place in the quarterfinals, where they will face Andrei Kirilenko's Russia.
Former Memphis Grizzlies player Antonio Fotsis had six points, three rebounds and two assists for Greece in the 67-61 win.
For more information on the tournament, game reports, stats, results, standings and video highlights, go to www.eurobasket2005.com.
Simon Wilkinson writes for The Press Association in Europe.