By Chris Sheridan
KAUNAS, Lithuania — Historically, when the French have played the Greeks, the script has so often played out the same way: It would be a close game in the fourth quarter, and the French would then fall apart like they were mimicking the recent Greek economy.
So when Thursday’s quarterfinal was a two-point game with 2:01 left, the French should have been predisposed to expect the worst. Who would make the crucial mistake? Who would commit a stupid foul? Who would let the Greeks’ strategy of slowing the game to a snail’s pace (they held France to 40 points through three quarters) become the determining factor.
For once, the answer was none of the above — although for a few moments it certainly looked like Tony Parker might be this year’s culprit.
Instead, it was Nicolas Batum who rose to he occasion and made the biggest plays in the final 120 seconds. First, it was a side jumper off a pretty feed from Nando de Colo. Next, he blocked a shot by Nick Calathes to preserve that four-point lead. And finally, he knocked down a jumper from the corner with 1:12 left to make it 60-54.
“We had to fight for 40 minutes, and we never gave up, and we continued to play defense,” French coach Vincent Collet said. “In the fourth quarter, we wanted it in the same way that before the Greek teams had wanted it against us in the past.
“Mentally speaking, we were very strong. We could have been scared after the first three quarters, but we didn’t slip. Tonight, it was equally a basketball victory and a mental victory.”
Greece and France met nine times in international competitions between 1996 and 2006, and Greece was 9-0 in those games before the French ended the streak two years ago at EuroBasket in Poland.
In this game, the talent advantage was squarely on the French side. The mental advantage? That was what was in doubt.
Parker was at his best in the first six minutes of the fourth quarter with eight points and an assist on a 3-pointer by Batum as France built a 56-50 lead. But Parker then had two misses and a turnover, and Greece went to the line six times over that stretch but only made four of the free throws.
Batum took over from there offensively, and Joakim Noah stripped the ball from Nicolas Zisis with 19 seconds left to end whatever miniscule chance Greece had of making it competitive in the final seconds.
Parker (18 points), deColo (16 points) and Batum (15) accounted for 49 of France’s points in the 64-56 victory that moved Les Blues one victory away from qualifying for the 2010 Olympics.
In the semifinals, they will play the winner of Thursday’s nightcap between Serbia and Russia.
“Now that we are in the semifinals, we want more,” France’s Florent Pietrus said. “But it will be a difficult game.”
France defeated Serbia 97-96 in the second round, but they have not played Russia in this tournament.
Collet tipped his hand a little when asked which opponent he would prefer: “Sometimes it is better to play against a (new) team, but I think we can beat both.”
Greece, which is without top players Vassilis Spanoulis, Dimitrios Diamantidis and Sofaklis Shortsianitis, will play the loser of the Serbia-Russia quarterfinal on Friday afternoon for a chance to join Lithuania and a few others in next summer’s pre-Olympic qualifying tournament.