For France, this was supposed to be the successful final test before the Olympics, the big one. Instead, it took them just three days to fall out of contention. What now?
Drawn in Group H together with Canada, Latvia, and Lebanon, it looked like an easy start for them. Although Canada is on the up and capable of causing problems for the top teams, the others were not supposed to be dangerous: Lebanon is not really known for its basketball program, while Latvia was making its World Cup debut.
The warning signs might have been there from the off. At half-time, Canada vs France was still a tight affair, but with the third quarter going to the opponents 25-8, the French were knocked down. A humbling 30-point loss to Canada on opening day should have ringed some alarm bells. Only it did not, and everyone had it down as an accident.
“We started very bad at the start of the second half, and as soon as they got the lead, we disappeared completely in the last 15 minutes,” said Vincent Collet, head coach of France. Shooting guard Evan Fournier added: “They forced us to do things we did not want to do. Congrats to them – they played a good game.”
It seemed almost as if they were not affected, still cruising. Knowing two wins would send them through comfortably, there was a sense of calm. Surely Latvia, 36 times smaller in population and without their biggest – some would say only – star Kristaps Porzingis, would crumble beneath the might of France?
Le désastre (the disaster)
For Latvia, they were massive underdogs despite a comfortable 109-70 win against Lebanon in the first round. When team captain Dairis Bertans went down with three minutes left in the second quarter vs France, it became mission impossible. He had posted 20 points against Lebanon and had 8 in the 6 minutes now.
France was up by nine at that point and would go on to lead by twelve with just the fourth quarter to go. Game over, surely. Only it was not, Latvia fought back and won 88-86. They trailed all game, except for the last 37 seconds. Arturs Žagars had a team-high 22 points on 8-11 shooting, with half of those coming in the fourth quarter. Rolands Šmits added 20, going 8-10.
Žagars is a 23-year-old point guard who last played for Nevežis Kedainiai in the Lithuanian top division, barely making the playoffs. Their season was ended by Žalgiris Kaunas, home of the 28-year-old Šmits. The power forward has been a trustworthy role player in the EuroLeague for years, but not much more. They are not household names. Žagars came to the tournament as a free agent.
Now, the result vs Lebanon will not matter for France as they will not be able to finish higher than 17th anyway. The rest of the tournament will feel almost like a punishment for them. After Lebanon, their next games will likely be against Iran and Ivory Coast instead of, say, Spain and the USA.
La réaction (the reaction)
“I have never been ashamed with this jersey but this is the first time I am,” admitted Nicolas Batum, a 34-year-old NBA veteran of 15 seasons. He, as team captain, took it on the chin. No excuses.
“I am scared to go home because we let a lot of people down. A lot of people believed in us to do something special. We let a lot of people down. Everybody – from players to coaches, to staff, to the federation. We have to ask ourselves why have we been so successful for the last 10 years. Today was a big reality check for us. It is a big disappointment.”
Make no mistake, this is the worst-ever result for France – exactly ten years after their historic triumph at EuroBasket. The only time they finished lower than 17th was at the 1936 Olympics almost a hundred years ago. If this will not serve as a wake-up call before Paris 2024, nothing will.
“We have to learn from it, come back next year,” said Evan Fournier, who put up 27 points vs Latvia. “There is nothing else to do. It is very tough. Very hard. We did not think we would leave the tournament like this.”
L’avenir (the future)
The fiasco might mean the end for head coach Vincent Collet, who has led the team since 2009. They have won quite a lot – one gold, three silver, and three bronze medals from a total of 13 attempts. But the critics have always put the success down to the players. Collet’ is unable to adapt to the opponent and has no game plan, they say.
The players seem happy, though. The veterans want to be back. Batum (34), Nando de Colo (36), Rudy Gobert (31), and Evan Fournier (30) – expect them to line up in Paris if healthy. Most of the squad will not change. However, three massive question marks are looming over Thomas Heurtel, Victor Wembanyama, and Joel Embiid.
Heurtel signed an agreement before EuroBasket 2022, promising not to play for any Russian or Belarusian team until the war continues. Then he went on to sign a deal with Zenit Saint Petersburg just after the tournament. The point guard is set to stay there until 2025, meaning that if everybody keeps their word, he will not have a place on the squad. After the fiasco, Batum openly stated that he would welcome Heurtel back, going against the federation and creating some friction.
You might have heard of Wembanyama, the 1st pick of the NBA draft this summer. He is a unicorn by basketball standards – listed at 2 meters and 24 centimeters, he is one of the tallest players in the NBA, but equally comfortable with the ball in his hands. A once-in-a-generation player, he took this summer off the prepare for the NBA. At just 19 years of age, he might be an important puzzle piece come 2024, but for now, he is all potential.
On the other end of the spectrum, Joel Embiid is a ready-made superstar. The 29-year-old Philadelphia 76ers center is the reigning NBA Most Valuable Player and would strengthen any team in the world. The issue is that he can have his choice between Cameroon, France, and the USA. He will be expected to line up in Paris if healthy, but for who?
The basketball tournament at the Paris Olympics starts on July 27th, 2024. The countdown is on. Time to go big or go home for France.