Commentary

American guard comes through in clutch, lifts Russia past France

Originally Published: September 13, 2007
By Chris Sheridan | ESPN.com

MADRID, Spain -- Thanks to a deft piece of strategizing by an American coach and a nifty bit of freelancing by an American point guard -- not to mention some abysmal free-throw shooting by France's three NBA players -- Russia is moving on to the semifinals of EuroBasket for the first time in a decade.

American J.R. Holden managed to get himself isolated on the perimeter against Florent Pietrus of France, drove past him and was fouled with 23 seconds left. Holden's two free throws broke a 69-69 tie and gave Russia the lead for good Thursday night in what ended up as a 75-71 victory.

In the night's other quarterfinal, Spain held Dirk Nowitzki to 11 points and overwhelmed Germany 83-55 to advance to the semifinals.

European Reaction To Oden News

Sergio Rodriguez heard the news about Greg Oden, but didn't want to believe it. Out for the season? The entire season?

Rodriguez wanted to hear that news from the Trail Blazers themselves, which is why he planned to place phone calls to Trail Blazers general manager Kevin Pritchard and some of his Trail Blazers teammates as soon as he exited the Madrid Sports Palace, where he had played just eight minutes in Spain's 83-55 rout of Germany in the EuroBasket quarterfinals.

"I'm going to call now, then worry about that. But I don't know, I can't talk now," said Rodriguez, who had hoped to be lobbing alley-oop passes to the 7-foot Oden for the next seven months.

Now, he'll have to wait another year.

"Wow, that's bad news," Germany's Dirk Nowitzki said upon learning of Oden's setback. "I mean, I think he would be good for the league, and anytime a player gets hurt it's tough. He's going to be a good prospect for this league, and it's sad to hear."

The news of Oden's surgery traveled around the world relatively quickly, but it didn't reach the ears of Spain's Rudy Fernandez until ESPN.com let him know about it in the hallway leading to the players' locker room at Madrid's Palace Arena.

Fernandez's eyes shot wide open when he heard.

"Really? Greg Oden is a really good player. I look forward to playing with him one year from now," said Fernandez, whose rights were traded from Phoenix to Portland on draft night in late June. He plans to play one more year in Spain before going to the NBA, and now it appears Fernandez will be a rookie in Portland the same season in which Oden is a rookie in Portland.

The injury also means Fernandez and the rest of the Spanish team will have no chance of seeing Oden in Beijing next summer. Not that it was likely, but there was an outside chance, given his age and his size, that Oden could have been added to Team USA's roster for next summer's Olympics. Now, in addition to likely not being able to wear a Portland jersey until the fall of 2008, Oden won't get to wear a Team USA jersey for at least another three years.

-- Chris Sheridan in Madrid

As big as Holden's free throws were, there was plenty more drama to come -- none of it good for France.

A timeout was called after Holden put Russia ahead 71-69, and here is what coach David Blatt -- one of the few American coaches plying his trade full-time in Europe -- said he told his team:

"We were not going to leave the ball in the hands of Tony Parker to make a play, a three-point shot or a three-point play. We were going to trap the ball out of his hands and foul the next guy, and that's exactly what we did. We zoned into a high trap, got him to release it and made the foul," Blatt said.

That foul was committed against Boris Diaw just over the midcourt line, and anybody who knows Diaw's EuroBasket history (he went 0-for-11 from the stripe in a game two years ago) can guess what happened next:

Clang. Clang.

"That was the game, but I think J.R.'s play may have been even bigger than that. Because he made a man's play. That wasn't a designed play, but great players make great plays at the right time," Blatt said.

Actually, however, that wasn't the game. Diaw's misses were only the beginning.

Russia's Zakhar Pashutin grabbed the rebound and was fouled with 11 seconds left, and he in turn pulled a Diaw, missing both shots.

Parker rebounded and was fouled with 7 seconds left, and went to the line with a chance to tie the game.

The first? Good.

The second? Not so good. In fact, it was one of 11 misses in 20 attempts from the line for the French, including three by NBA player Ronny Turiaf just past the midpoint of the final quarter.

Pashutin was fouled with 4.2 seconds left and this time made both, making it a three-point game. The Russians then intentionally fouled Parker in the backcourt with 2 seconds left, preventing the possibility of a game-tying 3-pointer, and leaving Parker with only one option: Try to make the first, and then intentionally miss the second and hope for a tip-in.

Although Parker made the first, his second attempt slammed hard off the backboard and failed to hit the rim -- a violation. Russia then successfully inbounded to Sergei Monia, who wrapped it up by making a pair from the line with eight-tenths of a second left.

Viktor Khryapa led Russia with 16 points, seven rebounds and six assists and shot 4-for-4 from 3-point range, Holden scored 15, Nikita Morgunov 14 and Pashutin 11. Andrei Kirilenko fouled out with 3 ½ minutes left after shooting just 2-for-11, but he still compiled quite a stat line: six points, six rebounds, seven steals and four blocks.

Diaw scored 17 and Parker 15 for France, which was not able to take advantage of its superior athleticism and speed.

Part of the reason for that was Holden, an American who has played in Europe for 10 years and who was given a Russian passport through the intervention of Russian president Vladimir Putin, a big fan of Holden's professional club, CSKA Moscow.

"J.R. struggled offensively for the first three quarters, but I left him in the game for one reason: He was doing such a good job guarding Tony Parker, obviously the best guard in the tournament and maybe the best in the world after what I saw this June," Blatt said. "He did what we asked him, I think his offense suffered as a result of the fatigue he was feeling, the energy he expended to stay in front of Tony, harass Tony and keep him from having a big game. But when the time was right, he found the fortitude and wherewithal to make some big plays on offense. And we're lucky to have J.R. He's a winner, a European champion, a guy who's won wherever he's been. He's just the best kid, you couldn't ask for a better guy. The guys love him. He doesn't say a whole lot, but every time he says something it means something. And every time he does something, there's a result."

Russia will play in the semifinals against the winner of Friday's Lithuania-Croatia semifinal.

Spain 83, Germany 55

If your intrepid columnist had picked Spain by 28 instead of 9, he would have gone 2-for-2 on the evening. But El Knuckleheado thought a little too highly of the Germans, who let this one get away from them in the latter part of the second quarter and had nothing in the tank in the second half.

Every player on the Spanish team scored, and no player took more than nine shots. Jose Calderon was 6-for-9, Rudy Fernandez was 5-for-7, Marc Gasol was 4-for-5, besting his brother Pau's 3-for-5, and Spain scored 27 fast-break points while shooting 57 percent from the field.

I had to stake out the mixed zone (the lone area, under FIBA rules, where the media can interview players) for reaction to the news of Greg Oden's season-ending microfracture surgery, so I was unable to shake up the postgame press conference with a question I was dying to ask Spanish coach Pepu Hernandez: What on earth were you doing re-inserting Pau Gasol into the game with just under 5 minutes left and your team ahead by 34? And another thing, Pepu: Wasn't it somewhat bad form to be using a zone press that late in the game, too?

I was there in the press conference room at the Athens Olympics in 2004 when Hernandez's predecessor, Mario Pesquera, called out Larry Brown for the etiquette breach of calling a timeout with something like 20 seconds left in a game that had already been decided (Pesquera hit Brown between the eyes with this line: "Dean Smith never would have done that"), and I'm surprised Germany coach Dirk Bauermann didn't pull a Pesquera of his own.

The quote sheet from Thursday night's interview room included a line from Bauermann wishing Spain "a lot of luck for the rest of the tournament."

Just a thought (and please excuse me for thinking Bauermann might be vindictive, because I have no idea if he's capable of such a thing), but perhaps Bauermann neglected to insert the word "malo" right before "luck."

Spain now moves on to the quarterfinals to face the winner of Friday's Greece-Slovenia game, while Germany (and France) still have a chance to qualify for next summer's new pre-Olympic qualifying tournament by finishing in the top six here.

And regarding that pre-Olympic qualifying tourney early next July, an impeccably-placed FIBA source told me there was quite a bit of griping from the European federations about the timing of that tournament, many believing it is coming too soon after the NBA and European League seasons end. I was also told by the same source that FIBA is toying with the idea of splitting it into two tournaments, with two teams qualifying for Beijing out of one tournament and one team from the other.

I'll close with my predictions for Friday's games: Lithuania over Croatia by 10, and Greece over Slovenia by 1. Hasta maņana.

Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.