Tensions flare as Spain eliminates France in Olympic quarterfinals
Nicolas Batum punched Juan-Carlos Navarro in the closing moments of Spain's win
Spain's 66-59 victory extends the team's recent string of dominance over France
France raced to eight-point first-half lead, but suffered from scoreless 6:46 stretch
LONDON -- The greatest generation of French basketball had fallen short yet again as Nicolas Batum ran across the court to foul Juan-Carlos Navarro, the captain of Spain, with 23 seconds remaining Wednesday. Batum's right hand formed a fist. Instead of reaching in to foul, he threw a punch that missed the ball but found Navarro's groin, promptly knocking him to the floor.
Hard French fouls by Ronny Turiaf and Batum at the end of Spain's 66-59 quarterfinal victory left Rudy Fernandez and Navarro in doubt for the Olympic semifinal against Russia on Friday.
"Rudy and Juan-Carlos are bad right now in the locker room,'' Spanish coach Sergio Scariolo said an hour after the game. "They are still on the therapy bed and they will go through treatment probably the rest of the day and tomorrow. I think and I hope that somehow they will be able to play, but the point is how [well]."
No team in these Olympics (apart from the U.S.) had more NBA players than France, which featured six. Yet over the years the French generation of Tony Parker and Boris Diaw has been unable to overcome the Spanish, led by Navarro and Pau and Marc Gasol.
"When you beat the opponent so many times in a row, you can understand that they can be especially disappointed," Scariolo said of the French.
Said French coach Vincent Collet: "I think this game for some of us was the game of our careers. Especially guys like Boris, Tony, because they are not sure if they will come back to play in the quarterfinal of the Olympics, and this game was a way to get the medal. Which is why we had this spirit and I think we did a good game.
"For the rest, I am not allowed to say," Collet said of the hard French fouls that came at the end of the loss. "Defensively speaking, we played fantastic to deny the inside game of Spain, but also the outside. They were not very often open. I think we did a terrific job."
France (4-2) raced out to an eight-point first-half lead by fronting the post and maintaining pressure on the ball. The defense of Florent Pietrus and a variety of fellow big men held Pau Gasol to seven shot attempts and 10 points (to go along with 11 rebounds and three assists), while Marc Gasol was limited to eight attempts and 14 points. The French were energized by the belief that Spain had purposefully lost its final preliminary game against Brazil on Monday for two reasons: to avoid the U.S. until a potential gold-medal final and to draw this quarterfinal against France, which was overwhelmed by Spain 98-85 in the EuroBasket final last September.
"Last year in the finals they beat us," Batum said. "They beat us; we won the semifinals, we were happy to be there, we don't really play that game.'' They were happy because reaching that European final earned the French their invitation to these Olympics. "Today they didn't beat us,'' Batum went on. "We gave the game [away].
"We are mad because we got them. We got them and in the end, the last two or three minutes, we didn't score. We make some bad shots and we are a bit tired."
Batum, who went 3-for-12, finished a runner to give France a 57-54 lead with 6:51 to go. Over the next 6:46, he and his teammates went scoreless against the Spanish zones. Spain scored the next 12 points to generate an extended water-torture run.
Scariolo said he had been secretly hiding the matchup zone that would force Parker, who went 6-of-20 with 15 points and an assist, to play against physical defender Sergio Llull.
"They were bringing our big men outside and posting with their wings against our wings," Scariolo said. "You have to handle this situation to be able to do the right thing at the right time in the right way and picking the right moment. When it comes to the game that can bring you the medal, that is the time to do something new."
Though Marc Gasol missed two late shots around the basket, Fernandez and Pau Gasol each blocked a shot on the other end (by Parker and Turiaf, respectively) during a crucial possession to maintain Spain's 60-57 lead in the final minute. That's when Marc rolled through the lane to receive a volleyball pass from his brother, subsequently putting in a layup to stretch Spain's advantage to five points with 45 seconds remaining. His emotional celebration further antagonized the French.
After Diaw missed an open three-pointer off the front rim, the 249-pound Turiaf did more than foul to stop the clock. He knocked down Fernandez, who underwent back surgery in March. Fernandez was helped to the sideline -- and laid on his back as trainers repeatedly bent and stretched his legs -- when the ball was inbounded to Navarro, eliciting the punch from Batum. Players from both teams ran toward Batum as the referees separated them. It was the kind of incident that has been eradicated in the NBA, but Batum was not thrown out of the game. Instead, unsportsmanlike fouls were assessed to France for both plays.
Batum said he was so angered by yet another loss to Spain that he wasn't thinking.
"Of course I'm angry, because we wanted to bring back something to our country and we deserve it,'' he said. "We deserve it much more than them.''
An American reporter asked Batum -- who apologized later on Twitter for his "stupid act" -- if his outburst lived up to the standards of the Olympic spirit.
"You think if you lost in a game on purpose, that's the Olympic spirit?" Batum responded.
At the postgame press conference, a writer from Spain asked Collet about the hard fouls.
"We are not going to receive any lesson from Spanish journalists, OK?" Collet answered emotionally. "I would like to ask the Spanish journalist what did he think about the [physical] action in the final last year of Europe against Tony Parker."
The moderator of the press conference, a pleasant woman from Britain, ended the exchange by smiling and asking if there were any further questions.
Spain (4-2) will move on to a semifinal rematch with Russia (5-1), which upset the Spanish earlier during group play. Parker and his teammates are left to wonder whether France might have prevailed if center Joakim Noah had been able to recover from an ankle injury he suffered during the NBA playoffs in May. (They also believe that shot-blocker Serge Ibaka should have played for France instead of Spain, dating to his controversial emigration to Europe from Congo years ago.)
"We deserve it, but they move on," Batum said. "They're the better team, and now they go on to keep playing. And we got to be ready for next year. Because next year we will be European champions."
In other words, this is not over.