25 July, 2021
07 August
77 Luka Doncic (SLO)
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Three takeaways from France v Slovenia: Defense on Doncic, TLC factor, end of a streak

TOKYO (Japan) - It was one of the greatest games of the Olympics, with so much offensive and defensive talent, and one block was all that was between them. France's adjustments sent them back to the Final after 21 years of waiting, while Aleksander Sekulic's players have to regroup and try to get the bronze medal against Australia.

Both teams were unbeaten before this one, yet they did it in completely different ways. Slovenia did it by playing their uptempo basketball no matter who was on the other side; France by adjusting to the looks that their opponents were giving them. And for the Les Bleus, those adjustments won them the game in the Semi-Finals.

"Spain tried to run with them. We saw the numbers, they were playing with 95 possessions per game, so our goal was to slow them down as much as possible," France head coach Vincent Collet said after the game.

As crazy as it sounds, with the 90-89 final score, France's defense was the reason they won the game.

Defense on Doncic

If somebody tells you to close your eyes and imagine a typical Luka Doncic possession, your mind's brush would probably paint a picture of a number 77 jersey with the ball in his left hand, sizing up his defender, before becoming a blur and going left for his trademark stepback jumper.

Even the drives to the middle of the lane are usually leaning to the left. Eurostep? Prefers going left. Post up? Prefers the left block. So what did France do to try and minimize his efficiency? They sent him right, right?

Wrong. They sent him left.

A brave move, and since France won the game, they can always point the finger to the boxscore and say the plan worked. But it was looking shaky when Doncic made back-to-back stepback jumpers from his left-hand dribble to start the game.

"We opened one side for him, and probably not the one that the NBA teams are choosing against him. That means we sent him more to the left, accepting his stepback shot from the three" coach Collet confessed after the win.

Here's the logic behind it: "I observed it the previous games here, but also in the (FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament) in Lithuania. When he was driving to his right, he was driving very deep, and after that, he could find the kick to the shooters. Our second goal was to limit the other players, like Cancar, and we did quite a good job on their shooters. They still made some big shots in the second half," Collet laughed out here, more as a sign of enormous respect for Slovenia's shot-making than anything else.

Batum steering Doncic to left

"Our game plan was to limit (Doncic's) drive and kick," Collett continued. "To eliminate the passing lanes, accepting some other things. It was difficult, he's a great player. The guys who played defense on him, Nicolas Batum, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Frank Ntilikina, along with the bigs when we switched, did a good job: he was only 5-of-18. But he made 18 assists - that's why he's fantastic."

With Doncic, similar to Durant for the USA, it's about limiting the damage. France did that perfectly, despite Doncic's triple-double of 16 points, 18 assists and 10 rebounds - the third one in Olympic history, after Alexander Belov in 1976 (24 PTS, 14 REB, 10 AST v Canada), and LeBron James in 2012 (11 PTS, 14 REB, 12 AST v Australia).

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And then, on the final possession of the game, they gave him a completely different look. Rudy Gobert hedged and stayed attached, not allowing him to go left, but sending him toward the middle where Nicolas Batum was providing help from one pass away.

Doncic made the pass. Klemen Prepelic beat Batum with the first step, but the recovery of Batum was otherworldly to get the game-saving block and send France to the Final.

"I had to make a play like that," the French captain was relieved after the game, still trying to catch his breath after the late-game heroics.

"I have been in the Olympics twice and I have been hurt twice. I have dreamed of playing in the Final my whole life," Batum continued. "I discovered the Olympics in 1996. I watched the Dream Team and it was after that I followed the NBA. I always dreamed of playing in this type of game. I knew that I didn't have a good game on offense, but I had to make this play for my team to take them to the Final and I did it."

Strong individual defense by Batum, Luwawu-Cabarrot, Ntilikina, plus a calculated risk to let Doncic get to his spots. It's hard to say it was the correct approach because we were one layup away from writing about how it lost the game for France and allowed Doncic 19 assists. But it was something different. And since winners are the ones who rewrite history books, this one will be marked as the Collet win.

The TLC factor

Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot was talking a couple of days ago about how happy he was in his role off the bench for his team. It was a long term project in a way, head coach Collet and TLC talked about it over the course of his NBA season, and by the time Tokyo 2020 arrived, the sharp-shooter was locked and loaded.

France did not play their big-ball lineup with Vincent Poirier at the power forward position alongside another big at center. They adopted the small-ball style of Slovenia, and even tried to post up Guerschon Yabusele against Luka Doncic to punish the mismatches that were happening.

Since that didn't work, mostly because of Doncic's underestimated physical power, they found the next best thing. Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot was ready to shoot over Doncic whenever he got the ball, that's why he had 10 points at the half and finished with 15 for the game.

The fact that he doesn't start doesn't matter to him. As probably all of the sixth men in basketball history said, 'it's not about who starts, it's about who finishes the game,' and Luwawu's good minutes got him an opportunity to knock down a huge triple to make it 90-85 with 56.1 seconds remaining.

TLC is only 26. When you consider 3andD players are getting better through their 30s, France have plenty to be excited about the prospect of having an immediate impact guy coming off the bench for the next decade of international competitions.

The end of the streak

Slovenia suffered their first defeat with Luka Doncic in the lineup. They won the previous 17 games, clinched a spot at the Olympics and claimed the FIBA EuroBasket 2017 trophy over the course of those four years. But with this defeat, another run has ended.

Sekulic's team scored 89 points, making this their first game with less than 90 points in a major event since the Round of 16 in 2017. They had 79 points in a 24-point win over Ukraine back then, and started a run that saw them put up:

- 103 against Latvia
- 92 against Spain
- 93 against Serbia
- 118 against Angola
- 112 against Poland
- 98 against Venezuela
- 96 against Lithuania
- 118 against Argentina
- 116 against Japan
- 95 against Spain
- 94 against Germany

Incredible run, by an incredible offensive team. Their job is not done yet.

"I can say I am really proud of this team. Everyone gave 100 percent," Doncic said. "We worked hard for two months to be here. I think we might have surprised a lot of people but I am proud of each of the guys. We have one more Final to go and we will not give up yet."

A medal is within their reach. They won't care about scoring 90+ again, these are the times when you're happy with any kind of win, even if it's 51-50. Doncic is just 22. He'll lead them to plenty of records in the future anyway. But now, it's time for a historic finish to their campaign.