EUROPEANS IN THE NBA
The European contingent in the NBA play-offs has been reduced from 31 to 14 players after the conclusion of the first round of the post-season across the Atlantic, on Sunday night.
None the less, a big part of those remaining European internationals retains strong options not only to advance past the conference semi-finals, which commence on Monday, but also to make a deep play-off run or even challenge for the title.
Both sets of semi-finals in either conference will attract interest as far as European audiences are concerned, but the first play-off battle between three reigning EuroBasket champions is the series that steals the limelight at this stage.
|Nicolas Batum helped the Portland Trailblazers advance in the NBA play-offs|
The trio that led France to the gold medal at EuroBasket 2013 last September, in MVP Tony Parker and national team captain Boris Diaw on one side and Nicolas Batum on the other, will clash in the western semi-final between the San Antonio Spurs and the Portland Trailblazers.
In order to set up this match-up, the Spurs of Parker, Diaw and Italian international Marco Belinelli overcame in seven games the hurdle of the Dallas Mavericks of Dirk Nowitzki and Jose Calderon in the first round, with considerable more difficulty than most had expected.
With the exception of Game 7, which the Spurs dominated with an iron fist and won 119-96 behind a game-high 32 points from Parker, every single clash between the two Texan teams developed into a nail-biting drama.
Portland on the other hand won their series against the Houston Rockets of Ömer Asik and Donatas Motiejunas in six games, although it took the amazing buzzer-beating three-pointer of Damian Lillard to prevent a Game 7 clash back in Houston.
The man who in-bounded to Lillard for that series-winning shot was none other than Batum, who averaged 15.8 points and 5.8 rebounds in these six games, as he spent no less than 43 minutes per night on the court.
The two other European players of the Blazers, Joel Freeland and Victor Claver, had a much more limited presence in the play-offs so far as the British big man averaged three minutes per game and the Spanish forward did not feature at all.
In the other semi-final series in the West, the Oklahoma City Thunder of Spanish international Serge Ibaka and Swiss international Thabo Sefolosha will take on the Los Angeles Clippers of Hidayet Türkoglu.
The Turkish legend has maintained his place on the Clippers rotation with the start of the post-season and averaged 3.2 points in 8.1 minutes per game as the Los Angeles team knocked out the Golden State Warriors in the first round.
Ibaka and Sefolosha on the other hand played big minutes and contributed to their usual rock-solid defensive standards to help Oklahoma edge out the Memphis Grizzlies of Marc Gasol, Kostas Koufos and Beno Udrih in seven games.
In the East meanwhile, FIBA Europe Player of the Year for 2012 Andrei Kirilenko and Bosnia and Herzegovina captain Mirza Teletovic must still be shaking Paul Pierce's long palm.
The veteran guard came up with a big block on Kyle Lowry at the final buzzer in Game 7 to ensure the Brooklyn Nets would clinch an 104-103 win over the Toronto Raptors and advance to the conference semi-finals.
Neither of the two European players wrote his name on the boxscore in Game 7 but Teletovic averaged 7.4 points and 3.6 rebounds in the series while Kirilenko contributed 1.2 points, 2 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game.
For Toronto, Jonas Valanciunas concluded a very promising first-ever play-off campaign with a near double-double of 10.9 points and 9.7 rebounds per encounter, while Nando De Colo only featured briefly in one game in the series.
The Nets will now clash with reigning NBA champions Miami Heat, the only team at this stage without a European player on their roster.
The other semi-final in the East however features the European player who has perhaps made the biggest impact in the conference in this post-season.
Marcin Gortat averaged 10.8 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2 blocks and 1.8 assists per game in the first round of the play-offs to help the Washington Wizards win their series against the Chicago Bulls in unforeseen comfortable fashion, 4-1.
The Polish big man spent 36 minutes on the floor in the series against the Bulls, but fellow European center Kevin Seraphin barely made an appearance in the first round.
Another French center however, Ian Mahinmi made a significant contribution to the first-round win of Washington's next opponent, the Indiana Pacers.
Mahinmi played 17.8 minutes per game and averaged 1.6 points, 3.4 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per night as the Pacers laboured to a 4-3 win over the Atlanta Hawks of Pero Antic, who had 3.1 points and 3.9 rebounds per play-off game in his rookie season in the NBA.
Both the Indiana vs. Washington and Thunder vs. Clippers series get under way on Monday night, while Game 1 in the Spurs vs. Blazers and Miami vs. Brooklyn semi-finals tips off on Tuesday.