By Chris Sheridan
KAUNAS, Lithuania — The most memorable dunk in French basketball history will remain a dunk that they are not proud of.
But at least now, there is a dunk — courtesy of Nicolas Batum — that the French can replay over and over again without feeling ashamed.
France qualified for the 2012 Olympics by defeating Russia 79-71 Friday night in the semifinals of EuroBasket, staying strong down the stretch, thanks mostly to Batum, to end an 11-year limbo that began after Les Blues won the silver medal at the Sydney Olympics and then suffered through year after year of disappointing finishes in major international tournaments.
The dunk by Batum came as France was clinging to a 63-57 lead midway through the fourth quarter. He took a pass on the left wing, near the corner, saw an opening to the basket and let forth a burst of speed and athleticism that propelled him high above the rim. The dunk thundered through the basket as Batum was being fouled by Sergei Monia, and all of a sudden the lead was up to nine and the French players were jumping for joy off their bench.
“We’re not the same team without him, there’s no question about that. He plays his heart out, I love his game, he’s been hitting huge shots for us, and he’s a very underrated NBA player as well,” Joakim Noah said. “The kid has crazy bounce, and for him to be in position to get those dunks for us, that’s what it’s all about.
Batum added yet another dunk, this one a game-sealer off a pass from Noah, with 1:47 left to make it 75-66 and end all doubt, and the French players ran over to their cheering section, jumped the barrier and danced with their fans after the final buzzer sounded.
“It’s like a dream come true, a dream I’ve been chasing for 11 years,” said Tony Parker, whose 22 points, four steals, three assists and three rebounds kept him a leading candidate to be named MVP of this tournament. “I had tears in my eyes when the buzzer came, and it’s hard to describe.
“I believed it was our year, and after 11 years chasing I can finally say we’re playing in the Olympics,” Parker said.
Batum had 19 points, seven rebounds, four assists and two blocks, Noah added 8 points and seven rebounds, and Batum and Tony Parker knocked down three 3-point shots apiece in a game in which France pulled ahead for good with a 12-2 run to end the third quarter for a 55-47 lead entering the fourth.
From there, it was a question of whether they would have the resolve to avoid a collapse.
Now, they will head to London with a team of at least four NBA players, maybe more if Mickael Pietrus joins and Ronny Turiaf can keep himself from another of the injuries that have dogged him throughout his career.
Perhaps LeBron James or Kevin Durant or Dwyane Wade will attempt to dunk over Turiaf or Noah, but chances are that no one will ever quite be able to match the dunk by Carter that will probably go down as the greatest in Olympic history.
“First of all, that wasn’t the final. And it’s not a moment we’re proud of, but it was a crazy dunk,” Noah said. “This team has gone through a lot. I think of Tony, Florent Pietrus, Boris Diaw sacrificing all their summers to play with the French team, and there’s been a lot of bitter moments. But to be in this position now, I know that they are very happy, they all have tears in their eyes, and it definitely makes me happy that I was able to join.”
Next for the French is the championship game of this tournament on Sunday against Spain. Most folks are saying nothing will be at stake, but for the French it’ll be a chance to prove that they should not just be considered the second-best team in Europe, rather a legitimate contender to medal in London next summer.
One thing is certain: They’ll have a player in Batum with more hops than anyone wearing an Espana jersey. And if he really wants to knock that Carter dunk down a notch in annals of French basketball history, he can take aim at Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol or Serge Ibaka and see if he can do the same. From the look of his signature dunk Friday night, he might just be capable.