Batum steps up for crowning momentLJUBLJANA, Slovenia -– They came in waves. Mantas Kalnietis, Renaldas Seibutis, even Linas Kleiza. Just as Tony Parker had expected. Just as everyone watching back in France had anticipated from Lithuania with the EuroBasket title on the line.
The San Antonio Spurs guard, already feeling fatigue in every muscle, had prepared his teammates for this, right from when they went into the locker room some 46 hours earlier following an exhausting overtime win over Spain in the semifinal.
He walked straight over to Nicolas Batum. The Trail Blazers forward had contributed just three points toward the conquest of the reigning champions. "I did everything I could today to win the game," Parker told him. "But I'm going to be tired. I need you to be The Man in the final."
"So," said Batum, "I was ready to go, right from the start, to help the team."
With an early block on Seibutis. Then a slash to the basket, grabbing a precise pass from Boris Diaw and driving it to the hoop. Then, with words not deeds, he berated Alexis Ajinca for a blown play. The margins, against an opponent in supreme form, did not allow for mistakes.
Kleiza, the former Toronto Raptors forward, was throwing everything he could. Five shots, five makes, 11 of his eventual game-high 20 points in the opening quarter.
"Both teams were scoring too easily," said Batum, who led France with 17 points while Boris Diaw added 15 in the 80-66 EuroBasket championship win Sunday.
In a timeout during Lithuania's early run, the French started talking about defense. They practiced what was preached. "Then we started running, making some big shots," he said.
Batum hit a three in the corner in a 7-0 run midway through the second. Then another, moments later, on the opposite side. For the last 4:02 of the first half, they shut down Lithuania, hitting 14 straight points. Up 50-34 at the break, they were in control.
Remarkably, incredibly, Parker had made just one score. The night before, the NBA All-Star had wandered up the corridor of the floor of the high-rise Ljubljana hotel that had been converted into Little France. He had been thinking about the 2011 final, when the Spanish ruthlessly crushed his hopes. It troubled him. He knocked on bedroom doors with a message to give.
"There's no way we're losing tomorrow," Parker said he told each of his comrades. "Two years ago, we were happy. This year, we want to win."
In the end, it wasn't even close. Up by as many as 22 points in the third, France coasted to victory. The golden confetti fell onto the court. The chant of "Allez les Bleus" began. Walking off into a corner of the arena while the podium was rolled out, they all embraced, every one.
Euphoria. Relief. Triumph.
Three months earlier, Parker had lunch with Pau Gasol in a Barcelona restaurant while in town to shoot a commercial. They shared personal tales, but also reminisced about how often their paths had crossed, in the NBA and on the international stage. In particular, he confessed his frustration to the Los Angeles Lakers forward over how he, and Spain, had been the chief barrier to French ambitions of a first-ever major championship during the past decade.
"Man, 13 years and I'm still chasing. It's because of you."
That's how long Parker and Boris Diaw had been pursuing this goal, a gold to match the one they won together in the Under-18 European Championships. "Step by step, that's the normal way," Diaw said. "It's tough overnight to get the gold. That's what we've been doing for 10 years. We got better and better. First we got the bronze. Then the silver." And now this.
Their Spurs coach Gregg Popovich had called at least twice in recent days, offering long-distance support. Closer to hand, their other coach was plotting and scheming. Under pressure not to squander the talent of his nation's golden generation, Vincent Collet still had Parker's complete trust. Before they had left the hotel, he had pulled his star aside. "Just trust your teammates," he said. "And if you score 10 points, we're going to win the final because your teammates are going to show up."
With 2:48 left in the game, he ruined that prediction. 12 points. Yet, still a rout. This time, when it counted for everything, Parker got by with a little help from his friends. "This was the perfect moment," he said, clutching the glass trophy awarded to the tournament MVP. "It means a lot."
What a contrast of emotions to late June, when Parker walked off the floor in Miami with disappointment and a million regrets. Three times an NBA champion, he could not get a fourth title then. He has it now.
Those past victories with the Spurs were so special, he declared. This was impossible to directly compare. "With France, to play for your country, that's a load of pressure to carry every day," he said. "You have your whole country. It's a different feeling."
One better for being shared. France's joy belonged to everyone, star and supporting cast on equal terms as Slovenia stood to applaud.