RIO DE JANEIRO — Things were getting anxious for France against Serbia in Group A pool play on Wednesday. What was once a 16-point lead was gone by the end of the third quarter and Serbia led by as many as seven early in the fourth.
But as the game went back and forth, Tony Parker remained on the bench for most of the final period. A Miroslav Raduljica three-point play put Serbia up six with 4:46 left and still, France coach Vincent Collet didn’t go to Parker, who had played just 18:15 up until that point.
Finally, with 3:25 left, Parker checked in. France closed the gap and Parker hit the game-winner, a contested, step-back jumper from the left wing with 31 seconds left.
Parker finished with just six points and two assists in less than 22 minutes. But he was a plus-13 in that limited time.
France’s win puts them in position to finish third — behind the United States and Australia — in Group A. That would put them on the same side of the medal-round bracket with the U.S., who they would face in the semifinals (though they’ll have a tough matchup in the quarters before that). Serbia, meanwhile, would be on the opposite side of the bracket if they finish fourth in Group A (which they most certainly will).
That scenario had reporters asking postgame questions about the possibility of the teams not trying to win Wednesday’s contest. But Parker’s playing time wasn’t about any kind of subtle tank-job, but rather him trying to ease his way back into playing shape after taking four weeks off.
France earned its trip to Rio by winning a qualifying tournament in the Philippines, beating Canada in the final game on July 10. At that point, Parker went back to San Antonio for the birth of his child. And he didn’t join his team again until the day after the rest of the squad arrived in Brazil, missing three warm-up games in Argentina.
So Parker asked Collet to keep his minutes limited in pool play.
“I talked with coach,” Parker said. “The first three games, four games, try to stay at 20, 22 [minutes], and try to go forward and be my best for the quarterfinals.”
And he wasn’t going to check himself in with the game in the balance in the fourth quarter.
“I just waiting for my moment,” Parker said. “I trust coach. I have confidence in him. He’s controlling my minutes and I’m fine. I’m ready to go.”
For Collet, it’s about more than Parker’s minutes. It’s also about building his bench up. Back-up point guard Thomas Heurtel had some good moments in the fourth, hitting a 3-pointer and finding Joffrey Lauvergne for a dunk in a stretch that cut Serbia’s lead from six to one.
Collet believes that he’ll need Heurtel again in this tournament. He also believes that more guys contributing equals better team “spirit.”
“You can’t win with seven players, eight players,” Collet said.
France has its stars, but doesn’t want to lean too heavily on them. Parker’s minutes will increase, but not by a lot.