It’s been a grueling season for Nic Batum.
He led the Clippers in regular-season minutes and was the primary defender on opposing perimeter threats. Then in the playoffs, Batum was unleashed as a small-ball big and forced to battle in the paint. He was never listed on the injury report, but he was clearly banged up at the end of the postseason.
Instead of getting a well-deserved rest, Batum jetted off to play with France in the Olympics, where he has once again led his team in minutes during the tournament at 29.2 per game. He’s still having to do the dirty work as he’s second among the Frenchmen in rebounds (6.0 per game) behind Rudy Gobert.
And on Thursday, Batum was given the unenviable task of guarding Luka Dončić in the semifinal matchup against Slovenia, a matchup Batum hoped he was free of for at least a few months.
Before the game, Batum said that he wished he could bring his Clipper teammate Kawhi Leonard in for some help. As it turned out, Batum did just fine on his own.
Dončić had been averaging 26 points, 10 rebounds, and eight assists per game while shooting 69 percent on twos and 35 percent on threes. He was essentially a one-man wrecking crew for Slovenia, which won its first four games by an average of 21 points. But Batum, as he has been all year, was up for the challenge (with the aid of Frank Ntilikina).
He picked up Dončić full court, closing off his air space as best as possible. After a strong first quarter when Dončić hit his first two stepback threes, Batum turned off the water, and the Slovenian star would only make one field goal the rest of the way. Dončić was hobbled by a nick on his wrist as he inadvertently dove into plexiglass trying to save a ball late in the game — he didn’t even attempt to shoot on the final possessions — but Batum’s effort was consistent.
The Frenchman set the tone early by blocking Dončić on the first play of the game, ultimately foreshadowing what was to come. He had four blocks, fitting after an NBA season in which he posted his highest block percentage since 2012-13. Batum had to save his efforts for defense, contributing a lone 3-pointer on the other end, but it was the appropriate balance for a team that had Nando De Colo and Evan Fournier carrying the scoring load.
Slovenia had control early, and then France stormed back to take a double-digit lead in the third quarter. Undeterred, Slovenia clawed back to tie the game multiple times in the fourth. After a De Colo missed jumper, the Slovenians had the ball down one with 21 seconds left. Dončić handed it off to Klemen Prepelic, who was the team’s second-leading scorer with 17 points off the bench. He drove to the basket with Batum on his tail to go for the win and a trip to the gold-medal, but his layup was knocked off the glass by the Clipper.
Gobert called it one of the best blocks he had ever seen, but Batum, ever the team player, said he just did what had to be done.
“I always dreamed of playing in this type of game,” Batum said. “And I had to make this play — this play — for my team. And I did it.”
Dončić ended with just 16 points. Although he added an outrageous 18 assists and 10 rebounds for only the third triple-double in men’s Olympics history, Dončić’s 5-of-18 shooting didn’t get the job done. He needed to be the best scorer on the court for Slovenia to win, and Batum worked 33 minutes to prevent Dončić from being that.
France is now assured of a medal. They will play for gold against the United States on Friday at 7:30 p.m. PT. The French knocked the Americans out of the 2019 World Cup and beat them earlier this tournament in the opening match of the group stages.
And Batum’s reward for helping his team get into the final match will likely be the Kevin Durant assignment. It never gets easier.