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Olympic Qualifying Tournament Day 5: Dario Saric surprises in overtime masterpiece, wins MVP

Also: Joseph leads Canada to eek past the Kiwis, Huertel shows up in fourth vs. Turkey, Serbia punches Olympic bid

Too agile for a big!
Too agile for a big!
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

Games I watched

Cory Joseph leads scoring charge for Canada, who eeks past New Zealand

(a.k.a. COMMONWEALTH THROWDOWN)

There wasn't much defense to speak of between New Zealand and Canada. Neither team started a rim protector, and Canada only has Joel Anthony on the bench. So both teams had absolutely no problem getting to the rim, or drawing two defenders and getting penetration. But New Zealand looked like the superior team early on. The long range shots were falling, and experienced players like Mika Vukona were making heady plays. The Kiwis benefitted from 5 first quarter Canada turnovers as well. But the Canadians, possessing the superior talent, kept within two at the first quarter break.

An early spurt of a Corey Webster three and drive to the basket gave the Kiwis a 7 point lead. But New Zealand went to the bench, turned the ball over four times, and started cooling down from outside. Meanwhile, the Canadians started running the break, having success with Thompson and Joseph getting to the basket. Before you knew it, Canada had mounted a 16-3 run and possessed the clear advantage. But New Zealand fired right back, with Corey Webster getting a five point spurt in transition. New Zealand had the last possession, and Tai Webster nailed a mid-range jumper to end the half. This tied up the score going into halftime. New Zealand led the shooting with 7 of 15 shots made from three.

At the half, the news was revealed that Issac Fotu, New Zealand's only reliable big, would be out with injury for the rest of the game. This left New Zealand to run small, with Vukona at center. Loe still served time at center as well. It wasn't easy earl in the third. New Zealand had four scoreless minutes, struggling to get any kind of separation on offense. Meanwhile, Canada pounded away. Superior rebounding and a few Corey Joseph breakdowns gave Canada a 7 point lead late in the third. And that wasn't all. Tai Webster had to sit out with a jammed finger. But New Zealand wasn't done, and a Corey Webster three from the top kept the Kiwis within four going into the fourth.

And New Zealand started off the fourth strong. Tom Abercrombie had a couple of miraculously strong drives to the rim, and Rob Loe actually hit a three. Canada's superior size kept things even, as Thompson had some production in the pick and roll with Joseph. Then, with 3 minutes left, Rob Loe fouled out of the game. Even with the score tied, this left New Zealand without a true big. And Corey Webster just couldn't produce in a one on one situation. In the three most critical possessions, Corey Webster played a no pass offense. Meanwhile, Canada's rebounding won them the game, as a offensive rebound and And 1 by Melvin Ejam put them up by 5 with less than a minute to go. Corey Joseph led all Canadian scorers with 23 points.

Slammin' Notes

  • Some fans in the crowd had some really loud, classical drums going on. Drums that sounded like marching drums from the Revolutionary War, or maybe just your local high school band. It made the atmosphere pretty rhythmic and exciting, would love if NBA games were so cool.
  • FIBA announcer Liam Canney pointed out that New Zealand coach Paul Henare only has 40 professionals with passports to choose from on the team every year. Compared to Canada's 5 players with NBA experience, that's crazy.
  • Canada was only 14/25 from the free throw line on the night.
  • Corey Webster and Tai Webster did most of their damage in the first half, while Tom Abercrombie really stepped up in the second half.
  • Canada will play France for an Olympic bid tomorrow.

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Bombastic fourth quarter effort from Huertel helps France cruise past Turkey

It's hard to believe that such talented teams are meeting in the Semi-Finals of the Olympic Qualifying Tournament. But that's how competitive Europe can be. Turkey came charging out the gate, using their superior inside game to get easy baskets. Meanwhile, Omer Asik was doing a wonderful job of shutting down the paint on defense. Everything culminated in a 13-3 Turkish lead.

But France immediately responded with a 16-0 run. The spark was Nicholas Batum. Batum is coming back from injury, but is able to enter this game as needed. Batum drew a three shot foul, which got France's momentum going. Soon even Kim Tillie was stepping out for three. Eventually Turkey would regain their offensive momentum inside. But France was able to outscore Turkey by nailing threes. Turkey would run a zone defense when Asik was out of the game, and it really hurt them on the perimeter. Parker had a couple of typically nice, quick plays as well. France's first half lead peaked at 35-26. But the game slowed down, and Turkey was able to get to the half just down 7.

At halftime, Turkey was 0 of 8 from three and France was 4 of 13 from three, perhaps highlighting the severe lack of shooters on both teams. But France was clearly getting their production from the perimeter (De Colo led all French scorers with 10) while Turkey was getting their production from inside (Asik led all Turkish scorers with 11).

To kick off the third, France took control of the game with their good reads of Turkey's defense. Parker made a couple of drive and dishes to Lauvergne, who finished with his reliable baby hook. Lauvergne also finished in transition, while Diaw had a weak side three. France's lead peaked at 47-33. France was just packing the paint on defense, and Turkey had no shooting to speak of. But 35 year old veteran Ender Arslan draw defenders on a drive, and was able to dish it to Asik inside. Turkey would continue to have a bit of success for the rest of the quarter, with Asik scoring on another pick and roll and Sinan Guler using his speed to get free for a couple of mid-range shots. But France's shooting was too hot, as a couple of big quick-fire threes from De Colo and Diot left France up by 10 heading into the fourth.

Thomas Huertel is pretty much the only thing worth talking about from this fourth quarter. Huertel exploded for an elbow jumper, a three around a screen, a steal and dunk, a up and under play, and then an up and under play on the other side. Perhaps Huertel's most impressive score was a half spin and then reverse to the rim. Huertel has a penchant for showing up in big moments, and I remember some big moments from Huertel in the 2014 World Championship and his club career. But today was something truly special, as Huertel had 17 points after averaging just 5.5 for the tournament.

Then again, Omer Asik had 19 points today after averaging 5.5 for the tournament. But that's mostly just because of France's lack of bigs. Turkey decided to go small halfway through the quarter, and were able to push it to 8. But France was able to eat up about a minute of time on the next possession, thanks to a Diaw offensive rebound. From that point on, Turkey was pretty much toast.

Slammin' Notes

  • Lauvergne had blood coming off his face early in the game, and had to come out to get it patched up. When Lauvergne returned, he had white gauze wrapped around his head. It looked like a headband, which was hilarious.
  • Ali Mohammed had a Jordan brand headband, but the Turkish uniforms were sponsored by Adidas.
  • Tony Parker Sr. was in the crowd. Yes, Tony Parker's Dad. I'd never seen him before, and the game was Manila, so that was a cool moment.
  • Ender Arslan had 5 assists, which is a really solid way to end his career. If this is his last game.
  • Also shoutout to Antoine Diot, who had 10 points for France and has always been a really sneakily good shooter/handler for them.
  • France will play Canada for an Olympic bid tomorrow.

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Saric surprises in overtime, wins MVP as Croatia edges past Italy

This is easily the highest quality game of the FIBA Olympic Qualifying tournament. Both teams boast multiple legitimate NBA talents, and have high quality coaching. But Croatia proved to be the better team early, and kept a narrow lead. Simon got a pair of early threes, and Bogdanovic had 9 first half points. Generally, Croatia had success packing the paint. Italy couldn't get any first quarter production out of Bargnani, Belinelli, or Gallinari. But Italy did attack the paint well, and ran big with Melli and Gentile at both front court positions.

Croatia's first half lead reached a climax of 27-17. But Italy's scorers finally showed up. The Italians ran lots of sophisticated offensive sets to get players in good positions. Sets with 3 or 4 screens that you don't see from high level teams in international ball. But that got Bellinelli open for a couple of shots, as well as Bargnani. Eventually, a wing three from Hackett got the Italians to within 1. Bogdanovic made a mini-run of his own to answer and end the half, hitting a deep three and then getting to the hole on a fast break.

At the half, Croatia was rebounding and getting to the line a bit better than Italy was. Croatia also had Planinic step up for 9 first half points, despite never having been a factor up to this point. Generally the Italians were pressuring, so Planinic had the ball in an open spot often.

Gallinari immediately busted out with pizazz, scoring twice at the basket. Luigi Datome also spaced out the defense for a three, giving Italy a brief 42-39 lead. But Bojan Bogdanovic, who had 17 in the first half, didn't contribute anything in the third for Croatia. It was all Kristav Simon, who pulled up for three three pointers in the same spot. Roko Ukic also had a pair of nice baskets, one of which came off of a steal. But a late Da Tome stretch the floor three kept Italy close, and Croatia was only up by 2 heading into the fourth.

Early on Nicola Melli scored on an offensive board, tieing the game. On an ensuing Croatian possession, the ball was goaltended by an Italian defender. Aco Petrovic, the Croatian Coach, was livid. That got Croatia a technical foul, and allowed Melli to hit a free throe and give Italy the lead.

That Italian lead was short lived. Croatia finally got some production out of star Dario Saric. Saric was useful at getting to the rim in mismatches. Meanwhile, Alessandro Gentile wasted two possessions in isolations on the wing. Then Bogdanovic stole Belinelli's pass, and Saric went back to the pick and roll. Croatia was up by 7 about halfway through. Italy looked to Belinelli. Belinelli delivered, getting to the line and hitting a three.

With Italy down three, Daniel Hackett made a slicing drive to the basket. Italy down 1. On the next Italian possession, Gallinari made a run to the post and dished to Melli at the rim. Italy up 1.

Yet, on the ensuing possession Gallinari would foul out, with Simon driving to the basket. Simon made both, putting Croatia up one. From there on, it was the definition of a seesaw affair. Bellinelli made 2 at the line, putting Italy up 1. Bogdanovic made a ISO shot on the baseline, putting Croatia up 1.

At this point, there was only about 60 seconds left. Italy and Croatia traded misses, leaving Italy down one with the ball, about 30 seconds to go. Bellinelli drove the ball, and Melli tried to tip Bellinelli's miss. But Simon got the rebound. Then Simon missed a free throw in the intense arena environment. Bellinelli tried another wild layup to equalize it, but it missed. Luckily, Melli was there to tip it in, tying the game. Bogdanovic missed his baseline attempt, and the game was sent to overtime!

In overtime, it was Saric's time to shine. Saric scored in a post up of Hackett and a post up of Bellinelli, along with a trip to the line. Worse still for Italy, Kristav Simon was left open for another triple. Croatia went up by as much as 5, threatening to pull away. But Aradori somehow hit a pull up three, and Hackett and Bellinelli got to the line.

Still, Italy failed when it mattered. Aradori missed a couple of wide open three attempts after his made one. And Hackett barely bobbled out a layup that would have pushed the game to two. With Croatia up 4 with less than 24 seconds to go, Simon was fouled. Simon missed both free throws, in a repeat of his first half blunder. Melli got the rebound, but threw the ball away in seconds. This dashed any hopes of an Italian comeback, and sealed Croatia's place in the Olympics.

Slammin' Notes

  • A clock issue with 6:33 to go stopped the game for a solid 20 minutes. There had been clock malfunctions before but....wow. They literally had to bring an old school light up scoreboard onto the floor. The announcers had to kill time, and it was incredible. Aco Petrovic, the ever-fiery coach of Croatia, looked frustrated as ever. At the end of the quarter, the old school buzzer was especially shrill. But the main scoreboard was eventually fixed, and the old scoreboard was removed before the start of the second half.
  • Dario Saric literally collapsed to the floor, momentarily stopping Croatia's post game celebration. Kinda silly.
  • Croatia had to battle through Greece and Italy, at home, to get to the Olympics. This after losing to the Czech Republic in the Eurobasket Round of 16 last year. These guys are young, but they're a sure medal threat.
  • Dario Saric was named the MVP of Turin's OQT. Saric dropped his prize Tissot watch on the hardwood floor by accident.
  • One thing I liked about the Italian fans is that they would leave the air dead silent, then burst through that silence with a deafening cheer. Very atmospheric.

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Game I didn't watch

Serbia 108, Puerto Rico 77

In Puerto Rico's last game, the FIBA announcer called Puerto Rico's plight "like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the mountain". Puerto Rico always seems to get so close to Olympic qualification, but fall just short. Well, Serbia didn't even leave that door open tonight. 26 points from Bogdanovic, 23 from Jokic. Most importantly, this means Boban Marjanovic will most likely be on Serbia's Olympic squad. Serbia has to be considered a strong medal contender at this point, especially considering their Silver finish at the 2014 World Championships with largely the same players.

What did you think of today's games? Any Olympic thoughts? Drop a comment and let us know!