The improbable journey of Luka Dončić and the Slovenian men’s basketball team ran into a big road block Thursday morning.
France’s Nic Batum blocked the drive of Slovenia’s Klemen Prepelic at the buzzer as the French defeated Slovenia 90-89 to earn a trip to the gold-medal game against the U.S. on Saturday.
Dončić had just the third triple-double in Olympic history with 16 points, 18 assists and 10 rebounds in what was nothing less than a riveting semifinal game.
Dončić put up historic numbers. And while the loss stung, it remained a heroic moment for Slovenia, a team that had never made the Olympics before this season.
“I’m really proud of every guy,” Dončić told reporters in Japan. “We sacrificed our summer, basically, being two months here. A lot of people came straight from their clubs. I think we did a great job today. Everybody fought on the floor. Everybody gave 100 percent.
“We’re not going to give up yet. One more final to go. That’s what we came here for.”
Dončić and Slovenia will play Australia, which lost to the U.S. earlier, for the bronze medal. It will mean one Maverick will win bronze as second-year swingman Josh Green plays for the Boomers.
There had only been two previous triple-doubles in Olympic men’s basketball history, the last by LeBron James in 2012 when he had 11 points, 14 rebounds and 12 assists against Australia in a semifinal game. Russia’s Alexander Belov also had one in 1976.
The Slovenians, led by the Mavericks’ superstar point guard, had trailed by 10 points in the third quarter, but had it tied at 78 midway through the fourth. A four-point possession for France came when the Slovenian’s incurred a technical foul (not by Dončić) and France also got a 3-pointer from Nando De Colo for an 82-78 lead.
De Colo led France with 25 points and Evan Fournier had 23.
When Dončić, who had a difficult time shooting the ball (5-of-18 from the field), missed a 3-pointer, the French had a chance to pad the lead but could not take advantage.
The teams were tied at 85 before the French rattled off five consecutive points, capped by Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot’s 3-pointer with 56.1 seconds left to put France up 90-85.
After a free throw by Slovenia, France’s Fournier turned over the ball on an offensive foul. Prepelic hit a 3-pointer on an assist by Dončić with 33.2 seconds left to make it 90-89.
The Slovenians stiffened defensively and got a shot at victory. But after Prepelic got a lane to the basket, Batum came from behind and swatted the would-be winning layup cleanly.
Dončić and his teammates, who had won their first four games of the Olympics, were understandably distraught with the finish.
Dončić was 17-0 in international competition before Thursday.
When the game was over Batum, who played against the Mavericks in the first round of the NBA playoffs with the Los Angeles Clippers, came over to a despondent Dončić and consoled him.
Said Dončić afterward: “Nicolas is a class act. He told me he hates playing against me, but in a good way. That was nice of him, he’s just a class act.”
The Slovenians had a splendid start, going up by as much as eight points in the first quarter, but this game was destined to be back-and-forth most of the way.
Dončić already was well on his way toward a triple-double with 12 points, seven rebounds and eight assists by halftime. The Slovenians were up 44-42 as the game slowed to a grinding pace.
Mike Tobey and a couple other teammates supported Dončić well when he took a brief rest in the second quarter. Surviving his time on the bench was critical to the Slovenian’s success throughout the Olympics.
The first moments of the third quarter were telling. France came out with a pair of 3-pointers, the second by Evan Fournier, to go ahead 48-46. The Slovenians answered, but the French began locking down defensively on Dončić.
Nic Batum was the primary defender, although several French players took turns on the Mavericks’ 6-7 superstar.
France eased ahead 54-49 before a Tobey 3-pointer tightened things again.
But France, which opened the Olympics with a win over the powerful U.S. team, was relentless. They stretched the lead to 69-59 as the Slovenians went chilly from the field.
They did not fold, however.
They chipped away and were only down by six points going into the fourth quarter. They closed the gap to 71-70 early in the fourth quarter to set up a photo finish.