Defending Turkish Airlines Euroleague champion Real Madrid is exactly where it surely wanted to be at the start of the new year, sharing its group's lead after one game of the Top 16. To get to this point, however, Madrid took a rocky road that was ultimately made smooth by the stellar play last month of center Gustavo Ayon, who is Euroleague Basketball's choice as the MVP for December. Madrid's man in the middle from Mexico played a key role as the champions survived the regular season by winning their last three games - all of them virtually do-or-die - and then started the Top 16 with a fourth consecutive victory. During those four December games, Ayon posted the second-best individual performance of the regular season, sparked two different comebacks, collected four career highs and made an incredible 80% of his field goal attempts. He also had the highest performance index rating (PIR) average of any player on teams that won all four games in December, making Ayon a thumbs-up choice for the MVP of the Month.
The MVP of the Month honor is now in its 12th season. Although statistics and performance index ratings are taken into consideration for the award, they alone do not determine who is honored. The winner is named by Euroleague Basketball based on his and his team's performance. The award for December was based on the last three regular season games and Round 1 of the Top 16.
Madrid came into December carrying a three-game losing streak and facing the danger of elimination as visiting group leader Fenerbahce Istanbul presented the first of several virtual must-win challenges. Trailing by 9 at halftime, Madrid needed someone to step up, and Ayon answered the call. He scored the first 2 baskets of the second half and assisted to Sergio Rodriguez on a three-pointer that brought the champs back to life. Ayon was then at the heart of a 13-0 run that bridged the third and fourth quarters, scoring the go-ahead basket among his 4 points, 2 rebounds and a block. He added 3 more points and 3 rebounds and finished with 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting to help Madrid seal an 80-73 victory that ended Fenerbahce's five-game winning streak. That impressive showing was dwarfed by what Ayon did next. On the road at FC Bayern Munich in Round 9, Madrid faced the possibility of being eliminated before the night was finished. In the face of that, Ayon put up career-high numbers in scoring, steals and index rating as Madrid rallied after halftime to a resounding 67-86 win. Ayon made 8-for-10 two-point shooting and 6 of 7 free throws on his way to 22 points and added 9 rebounds, 4 assists, 6 steals and 3 blocks. His PIR of 41 was the second-best of the entire regular season among all Euroleague players. In the regular season finale, Ayon became a facilitator as Madrid seized its Top 16 qualification with a blowout, 97-65 home win against Strasbourg and he posted 6 assists, another career high, while making all of his shots, too. In the Top 16 opener, Ayon was there for his team once more, pulling a game-high 8 rebounds while scoring 3 baskets late in the third quarter to spark Madrid's comeback from 8 points behind to an 82-79 victory over Brose Baskets Bamberg.
Ayon's stellar December can be seen finally in the many ways in which he helped Madrid go from survival mode to Top 16 group co-leader. Besides his 12.8 points on 80% two-point shooting (20 of 25), he averaged 6 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 2.5 steals and 1 block for a performance index rating of 21.3 per game. After playing a major role last spring as Madrid won its first Euroleague title this century, Ayon has taken another step forward this season to become one of the team leaders, as the evidence showed in December. Fans in the Spanish capital will be able to show their appreciation when Ayon receives his MVP of the Month trophy at an upcoming home game.