By Chris Sheridan
VILNIUS, Lithuania — The hungriest player in last June’s NBA Finals was Dirk Nowitzki, who was starving to avenge the heartbreak of his loss in the championship round five years earlier.
At EuroBasket, he has an equal in the hunger category. So hungry it might be fitting to call him a gourmand.
That player is Tony Parker, whose 19 points — including five in the final 2:10 — fueled a 73-67 victory over Lithuania in front of a raucous, hostile crowd Friday night to keep France undefeated in the European Olympic qualifier.
Parker was not a member of the 2010 French team that lost to host Turkey in the quarterfinals, but he was a member of the 2007 team that lost to eventual champion Russia in the EuroBasket quarterfinals and then dropped its next two games in Madrid to miss out on a chance to play in FIBA’s second-chance Olympic qualifier. He also was a member of the 2003 French team that lost to Italy in the EuroBasket semifinals in Sweden to fall one victory shy of a spot in the 2004 Olympic games.
“You can see Tony, he almost 30 right now but he’s in great shape, and he’s the best player right now in the tournament.,” teammate Nicolas Batum said. “Every time during practice he leads everybody in a good way. When I watch this guy, I follow him. I follow this guy, and he talks to me every time, he says it’s going to be great for us.
“And, to me, that’s like Dirk during the finals. Because Dirk had a lot of tough losses in the years before, then he won it, finally,” Batum said. “So it would be great for Tony to win it for the national team, because during the last 10 years he was close every time, but he lost it. This year we have to win it.”
The victory left France alone atop Group E with a 4-0 record (victories in the first round against teams that were eliminated do not carry over to the second-round standings), and Les Blues have actually gone undefeated throughout the summer (14-0) when their friendly victories against Great Britain, Australia, China, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Belgium are included.
In the opening round, they defeated Latvia, Israel, Germany, Italy and Serbia, and they opened the second round with a four-point victory over Turkey.
The speed of Parker and backcourt-mate Nando de Colo (21 points, five steals, four rebounds) caused constant problems for the slower Lithuanians, who were outscored 17-7 in the game’s final five minutes.
Joakim Noah (9 points, 13 rebounds) contained Jonas Valanciunas (12 points, three rebounds), and Batum had four steals to go with his nine points.
Lithuania coach Kestutis Kemzura publicly second-guessed himself afterward — “It was my decision. Maybe I made a mistake” — for benching Darius Songaila for the entire second half after Songaila shot 4-for-6 in the first half for nine points and three rebounds in 12 minutes.
France’s victory, along with Spain’s win over Serbia, set up a Sunday night showdown for first place in the group between France and Spain (3-1), the two European neighbors with the most NBA players of all the teams in this tournament. The winner will play in the quarterfinals against the fourth-place team from the weaker Group F, which at this point appears will be Slovenia (1-2). Georgia and Finland of Group F will carry 0-3 records into their games Saturday.
“We can play better if we just stay focused,” de Colo said.