What an incredible finish and what a way to end EuroBasket 2007! J.R. Holden won it for Russia with 2.3 seconds to go, in which was just his team's second lead in the entire game. His game-winning shot touched the rim, went up and fell down. Spain had the final possession and Pau Gasol's potential game-winning shot went in and out. The way that Holden silenced thousands of fans and how he quietly left the court when Spain called timeout, like trying to make as less noise as possible, is undeniably the biggest image of the EuroBasket, the one that will stay forever in everyone's minds. Holden, a man who was about to quit basketball when he finished his college career, started his professional career in Latvia, then moved to Oostende and soon climbed to AEK Athens to win the Greek League title in 2002, his team's first in 35 years. That's when he joined CSKA, first as a foreign player before he got a Russian passport to play with its national team. In other words, Holden had to go through a lot before this moment. Now he is a Euroleague champion with CSKA in 2006 and a European champion with the Russian national team. Who would have figured that out when he was finishing college at Bucknell? His jumper may well change his life, and now he will represent Russia at the 2008 Olympics.
And now for some milestones. Well, here is what I came up with, considering I have worked non-stop since the start of the competition but also that I do stuff like that for the Final Four media all the time. Russia won its first EuroBasket title. The Soviet Union had won 14 Eurobasket gold medals in the past, but this is Russia's first as an independent country. The last - and first, before tonight - time that Russia made it to the final was in 1993. That year, a dunk-and-foul by Chris Welp, helped by a young Mikhail Mikhailov who made an unthinkable foul in the final seconds with Russia leading by 2 and Welp about to dunk, Germany was the last team to win the EuroBasket in its own country. Spain missed the chance to do so, but also lost its sixth Eurobasket final. Lithuania joined its fifth consecutives Olympic Games, as it won the bronze medal in 1992, 1996 and 2000, finishing fourth in 2004. Russia made it for the second time as an independent country, as it was eighth in Sydney 2000. Carlos Jimenez won his fifth medal with Spain, a new record for the Spanish basketball team. Felipe Reyes, Pau Gasol, Juan Carlos Navarro and Jorge Garbajosa all have four each. That should do for starters. Considering I had it written as if Spain would win the game. Life is full of surprises.
The fact that the Spanish national team is a family is not new, but I had the chance to experience it in their unique pre-game ceremony. The entire Russian team entered the court one after another without any emotions. Meanwhile, the Spanish team waited for team captain Carlos Jimenez, then hugged each other in circle and started to sing together. What did they sing? "YMCA" by the Village People, with lyrics changed to say "BENNA!!" instead of "young man". Benna, of course, is Berni Rodriguez of Unicaja, who leads all celebrations. Then someone in the circle shouted "ARRIBA!!! (could be translated as let's go!!!!)" three times, while everyone shouted back to fill the place with energy before hitting the court. The Spanish players choose their own pre-game music to get the crowd involved. VIPs this week included the Prince of Spain, the Spanish president Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and hundreds more. In other words, the EuroBasket final is the biggest event in Spain this summer, socially speaking, as the Golden Boys have captivated the entire nation not only with their impressive game, but with their superb attitude with media and fans. Their family-like relationship should help them now that they have all experienced the bitter side of basketball in one of the most thrilling end-of-game situations ever seen in European basketball.
Russian coach David Blatt, the silent leader in this team and a genius now in the biggest country in the world, opted to use Petr Samoylenko at the point and Holden at off-guard. He changed his mind in the opening 2 minutes, as Samoylenko headed to the bench. Spain excelled in defense, just like it did in the final minutes against Greece, as the crowd went crazy when Jose Manuel Calderon scored twice from downtown. Kirilenko stepped up with four dunks in the opening half, including an incredible one grabbing a bad shot and putting it in before the clock expired. Aleksey Savrasenko showed what a great professional he is, in what it could his last tournament with Russia. Marc Gasol, a 52% free throw shooter, made 5 of 6 free throws, while Carlos Cabezas banked in an off-balanced, almost ridiculous shot at the first-quarter buzzer to make it 22-11. Sergei Monya buried a critical three-pointer while Kirilenko and Savrasenko kept pacing Russia. Spain had started to miss too many easy shots, even around the basket and Russia made the most of it. Anton Ponkrashov, who had not played in the medal rounds, had 4 late points that got Russia within 34-31 at halftime. Russia had already made everyone in the stands begin to wonder.
After the break Pau Gasol kept dominating the boards. Russia entered the foul bonus with 6:51 to go in the third quarter, so Spain knew what it had to do: play aggressive, attack the basket and try to get to the foul line as often as possible to collect easy points. Nikita Morgunov, who had been crucial for Russia, needed 26 minutes to find his first points, but Viktor Khryapa and Kirilenko still kept Russia in the game, 42-39. Garbajosa asked the crowd to shout, Kirilenko picked up his fourth foul while Spain kept missing free throw shots, especially Pau Gasol. He tried hard to push Spain to its first EuroBasket championship, but top gun Juan Carlos Navarro went surprisingly scoreless while Rudy Fernandez was limited to just 5 points. Yes, Holden hit the game-winner but he was responsible for the low scoring of Spain, too. Zakhar Pashutin had been scoreless before hitting a triple, his only points tonight, while a floating layup by Holden gave Russia a 49-51 edge, its first of the entire night. Then, however, the game seemed to be over for Russia when Pau Gasol scored and drew a foul for a 59-54 edge with 1:40 to go. He missed the additional free throw, Kirilenko made two at the other end while Nikita Morgunov banked in a short jumper, 59-58, with 43.1 ticks remaining. Holden - who else? - stole a ball and was given the game's most important possession. He waited patiently, faked the penetration, stepped back and released a five-meter shot that bounced up high, but finally went in and silenced the crowd. Pau Gasol had time for an off-balanced jumper, but his shot went in and out. The happiness in the Russian bench was indescribable. Ponkrashov took off his jersey, Nikolai Padius almost lifted Savrasenko, Kirilenko was jumping up and down as if he was crazy.
Ladies and gentlemen, like I said before, only basketball gets to this level of excitement. It is impossible to explain in words what happened in Madrid tonight. As simple as that. Nothing beats this sport.
Lithuania downed Greece in the bronze medal game, as everyone could see a couple of things, loud and clear. First, Ramunas Siskauskas is a European basketball superstar, a team-oriented, do-it-all forward who does whatever it takes to make his team win, and who steps up in crunch time like few others. Second, Sarunas Jasikevicius missed that championship feeling more than anything else. In one of our Euroleague.net blogs, David Vanterpool said that what takes you to win important games is not money, fame or nothing but the feeling you get, that beats anything else. Which reminds me that Vanterpool, a natural-born winner, is still a free agent. Speaking about the game, the Lavrinovic twins grabbed as many rebounds as Team Greece in the opening quarter, while a technical foul on Lazaros Papadopoulos and an unsportsmanlike foul by Dimos Dikoudis sparked a 1-13 run that put Lithuania ahead for good. Greece, as usual, never gave up but Lithuania had its best dfeensive minutes in the competition while Saras stepped up big. He delivered an incredible no-look pass to Jonas Maciulis for a corner triple before looking at the bench to give everyone some credit, too. It was Siskauskas, however, who broke the game open with back-to-back triples and a huge six-meter shot. All Lithuanian fans were holding their breath in case of yet another Greek major comeback in the final 2 minutes. It didn't happen. Saras beat the buzzer with a triple and started to celebrate on court, releasing all the tension. He even cried at some point and lifted his fist to the many Lithuanian fans."We felt bad after the loss yesterday but we came out to play hard, because it was an opportunity to make it to the Olynmpics and continue to win medals in big competitions," Siska said after the game. "Saras is our key player, it is very hard for us to play without him. I don't need to rank him at all, he is just one of the best players in Europe."
The seventh-place game was a very intense battle and it showed in the final 2 minutes. Matjaz Smodis and Florent Pietrus had already been talking to each other for a while and with 1:21 to go, Pietrus had a really hard foul on Smodis when the outcome was clear. Matjaz just got up with the same intention, of separating Pietrus's head from his body, but calmed down a bit as he approached him. Ronny Turiaf rushed to Smodis, shouting. Cedric Ferchaud was then ejected, Smodis was called for his fifth foul and Rasho Nesterovic came off the bench to shoot 4 free throws. Everybody calmed down and both teams made it to the mixed zone together. I opted to talk to Goran Dragic, one of the sensations in this tournament. One way or the other, he will make his Euroleague debut next season. "It is a great opportunity for me, and I think I will play for Union Olimpija next season," he said. "This is great for me, because Ljubljana is my home and everyone knows me. I already played with Sasa Doncic, Ronnie Taylor and Miha Zupan in Geoplin Slovan two years ago. Our goal was to make it to the Olympic games, but what happened against Greece was unbelievable. We are happy with this win, but finish seventh is a bit lower if you see how we played throughout the tournament. We deserved better, but that's life." I just hope that fame won't change Goran, who is a great kid and a top candidate to win the Euroleague Rising Star award this season.
The fifth-place was entertaining, as Dirk Nowitzki put a show on and off the curt. Nowitzki went back to the bathroom right after his team's presentation and came back right in time for the national anthems. He always hits a jumper before joining his teammates seconds before the game, too. Teammate Patrick Femerling always goes to the bathroom 3 minutes before the game, a superstition he repeated for 34 games with Caja San Fernando in Spain last season. Once in the game, Nowitzki had 3 unbelievable minutes late in the second half, burying a pair of triples and an incredible fallaway jumper. Even with that, Marko Popovic was on fire among eight Croatia players who scored in the first quarter and carried an an eight-point lead in to halftime. Nowitzki stayed unstoppable throughout the second half. He always comes back to play with Germany, even friendly games in summers in which he could take some time off, like in 2004, when his team did not make it to the Olympic Games. Now that's remarkable, because nobody can do better to promote German basketball. I went to the mixed zone to ask him the ultimate question: have you ever considered coming back to Europe to play in the Euroleague? "I have a lot of years left in the NBA, I am committed to Dallas for four more years, but we'll see what the future brings. I never want to say never." Nowitzki is a terrific player, but he is equally good when it comes to meet the press.
That's all from me in Madrid. I am flying back tomorrow and I can't wait to see my wife and get back to Barcelona for an exciting Euroleague season with many surprises coming up. Some of these surprises are very, very pleasant, and you won't have to wait too long to get to know then. I lived in Madrid for three years and it was great to be back for such an exciting event, so I have to thank the Euroleague for bringing me here. We all will be back to be to organize the 2008 Final Four in May, but that's a long shot at this point, a longer shot than that 10-meter bomb by our man Malatras. Thanks for reading and see you next time!
Javier Gancedo, Euroleague.net