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Game 5 and more!
The Playoffs are over, long live the Playoffs! It's just an impression, but I'm very tempted to say that these 17 games were, overall, the best experience I witnessed in more than 30 years of being a fan of European club basketball. Yes, there was only one Game 5, but it was as much
as possible. By
I mean tense, physical, close, emotional and very susceptible to change for small details. Real Madrid vs. Power Electronics was just such a battle royal. If it was American football, you'd call that a defensive struggle, and defenses were a big key in the low-scoring affair. They were almost as big as the importance of the outcome, which contributed to get those rings a little smaller and those shooters a little more off-target than usual. But when intensity is so high, you must be able to go beyond the score and the percentages. It's a testament to Real Madrid's determination that they were able to win shooting 35% and making only 4 of their first 15 shots. And it speaks volumes about Valencia's resiliency that they were still in the game with a minute to go despite scoring just 16 points in the second half (after notching a 25-point second quarter).
Speaking of tough stretches, Real Madrid started the game allowing an 11-2 run to their opponents. Propelled by Oman Cook's passes and Dusko Savanovic's 9 big points, Valencia was more aggressive and Madrid, which had more turnovers (5) than field goals (3) in the first quarter, had a great deal of problems converting close shots. Also, Madrid's structure (two small guards in Pablo Prigioni and Sergio Llull, two tall bigs in Ante Tomic and Felipe Reyes) needed some defensive fine tuning. After a brief comeback, following a timeout, Madrid had a second slump, leading to a second Valencia run (23-13 the partial score) and another timeout by head coach Lele Molin. Inside the huddle (thanks to Euroleague TV), I couldn't help but noticing Lele's cold blood and his bottom-line instructions ("When you are open, you just shoot it!") that reassured the team, restoring some confidence. (Yes, all those years with the Obradovics, D'Antonis and Messinas of this world paid some big dividends for Molin on Thursday). Right out of that timeout, Felipe Reyes scored off an offensive rebound despite being fouled and made the ensuing free throw, then Tomic got another offensive rebound and kicked it back to Prigioni for a three-pointer. That little 6-0 run was a microcosm of the game to me; Valencia trying to demolish Real Madrid's confidence and the home team refusing to give in, despite the unbelievable intensity Valencia was putting into the game.
Also, Madrid played a more effective offense now, changing a little bit the way they were feeding the low post, using players coming off screens to deliver the ball down low with the effect of thus having more overall movement. Winning the second quarter with the astronomical score of 29-25 (it was 37-33 in the other three quarters combined) did wonders for Madrid's self-esteem. I think they realized they had dodged a big bullet and also contained somehow their opponent's best shot. At the same time, Valencia could have legitimately looked at the scoreboard and said: "All this for a two-point lead?"
The man of the moment was Clay Tucker, hands down. First, he was able to rein in Omar Cook, and the name of this game, as we said, was defense. Cook was 0 for 4 in the game, and one could label his offensive game a complete failure, but that would be a little superficial. Before Tucker slided to guard him, Cook had already delivered 3 assists, commanding a lot of attention from the defense, putting a lot of pressure on Prigioni and orchestrating his offense to perfection. Tucker's size was decisive in breaking Cook's rhythm, a big key in the game. Also, Tucker made a controversial block with Valencia up 32-25 that ignited another Madrid run, inspired by a couple of his own threes. When he made the first of them, the score was 32-29 and Madrid, incredibly enough, was within a possession of tying despite having as many field goals (7) as turnovers at that point. (The fact that Madrid only totalled 10 turnover's at game's end was another sign of the very good adjustments they were able to make on the fly.) Nikola Mirotic then had 5 points off the bench and Tucker (again!) another big three to make it a somewhat miraculous scoreboard, 40-42 for Valencia, at the half. One big stat at that moment was Madrid's 8-2 edge in second-chance points at the break, which was more significant than it appears. You don't have to be a genius to figure out, watching the final stat sheet, that 17 offensive rebounds (8 for the duo of Reyes and Tomic) were paramount.
Another sign of destiny was Carolos Suarez making a three-pointer to open the second half and giving the lead to the home team for the first time. At the same time, Valencia center Robertas Javtokas caught an early fourth personal foul. Valencia did not accept defeat, nor lose a beat, however. Svetislav Pesic's team kept its composure and regrouped around the unbelievable all-around game of Savanovic, who deserves a place on the non-existent All-Playoffs Team (How about Dimitris Diamantidis, Jeremy Pargo, Malik Hairston, Savanovic and Tomic, with Marko Jaric as the sixth man?) Savanovic scored 17 of his team's first 48 points while patrolling his painted area
Bill Russell. But the 8-2 run Real Madrid used to open the second half, thanks mainly to a couple of big shots by Sergio Llull, marked the whole game, again sending out the message that this was the night for Real Madrid. Suarez, after making the first basket in the quarter, made the last, a putback with 10 seconds to go that gave Real Madrid a seven-point cushion. Now, you don't usually call 7 points a cushion. But when in 7:52 the two teams put together just 8 points, equally divided, 7 points resemble 77 as a margin, especially in an elimination game.
The final stanza was as
as they come, a brutal, defensive segment played with heart and will much more than with anything else. Rafa Martinez made 2 big three-pointers (part of a great game on his part) and Javtokas scored a free throw: but that was the whole outcome of Valencia's offense in the quarter. Up only 4 with 2 minutes to go, Real Madrid used its bread-and-butter play, getting the ball down low to Mirotic. Just-turned 20, Mirotic read the play like a savvy veteran, saw Javtokas cheating a little bit in his direction, and punished him by throwing a laser pass to Tomic, positioned along the baseline for the easy score. The Croatian big guy was evidently energized by the play, and went on to the following series: blocked shot on Nando De Colo, offensive rebound, drawn foul, 2 made free throws, great defense stealing the ball. It was the last straw, the one closing out a game that Valencia honored by keeping close as long as possible.
What a great season Valencia played, coming back from what everybody thought was sure elimination in the regular season. Valencia lacked too much offense (6 assists in the game) to finish a job wonderfully executed in the first half, but again, they can look themselves and everybody in the eyes, with their heads up. They came within one quarter of making it to the Final Four in Barcelona, where Pesic proved he knows how to win eight years ago. When his Barcelona team in 2003 beat Benetton Treviso in the title game, Lele Molin was sitting alongside Ettore Messina on the other bench. That same duo led Real Madrid to a Top 16 first place that proved very beneficial, in terms of homecourt advantage, in this Game 5. Messina is not with the team anymore (though obviously a part of this success), but I'm sure he's more than happy for his long-time assistant. Molin is the quintessential classy guy, a vintage good man/good professional who deserves this satisfaction, which is also a prize for all the assistant coaches who are so impactful on the destinies of teams.
Now, on the to the Final Four! Can't wait to see the drama unfolding, the sights and sounds of Palau St. Jordi: Devoootiooon !!!!!
FLAVIO TRANQUILLO - ITALY
Friday, April 08, 2011
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Game 5 and more!
Best-of, in more ways than one
Battle of wills
A matter of destiny
Basketball gods exist
Can't miss, can't wait
A thing or two of beauty
Up to expectations!
Nothing etched in stone
The big D dominates
Teen talent, tough decisions
In Moscow, what-if questions linger
Name of the game: parity
Time will tell
One step at a time
Quality in great quantity