With six minutes remaining in Panathinaikos OPAP Athens’ showdown with FC Barcelona on Friday night, the game was perfectly poised. The home team led by 4 points, 74-70, and a close finish to an intensely fought contest looked inevitable. But then came the key moment of the entire game, swinging the momentum towards Barcelona: Cory Higgins took a shot from deep and missed it, but Alex Abrines grabbed an offensive rebound, sent it back to Malcolm Delaney on the perimeter and he drained a three-point strike to narrow the gap to 1 point.
There was, of course, still a long way to go and plenty of opportunity for Panathinaikos to close out a game it had led for three quarters. But Barcelona did not look back from the moment of Delaney’s triple, winning the rest of the game 7-19 to record a victory that was in reality far less comfortable than the final 81-92 scoreline suggests.
After the action, both coaches agreed that Delaney’s triple was a decisive moment. Panathinaikos coach Rick Pitino said so directly, lamenting: "We were up 4 with 6.25 to go and I’ll bet that a lack of blocking out has cost us three games this season. Just a simple fundamental of physically hitting someone and blocking out, which led to a crucial three-point shot."
Although he did not specifically cite Delaney’s three-pointer, visiting coach Svetislav Pesic also believed his team’s ability to grab second chances possessions made the difference in the end. "15 offensive rebounds gave us confidence for three-point shots. We have the quality of player to make three-point shots and I’m proud of the players because they showed character."
The stats bear out the comments of both coaches. Panathinaikos was leading by 10 points, 67-57, towards the end of the third quarter. But Barcelona finished the period strongly with a 2-10 run featuring a three-pointer by Delaney after an offensive rebound from Kyle Kuric. Then, early in the fourth quarter, Barcelona took its first lead of the evening when, with the game tied at 69-69, Brandon Davies missed a shot but grabbed the offensive rebound, drew a foul and scored from the foul line. Later on, following Delaney’s conversion from Abrines’s offensive rebound, with the game again tied at 76-76, Davies missed but took the offensive board and scored – this time sending his team ahead for good.
During that seven-minutes passage of play down the stretch, Barcelona scored 9 points from offensive rebounds and Panathinaikos only scored 2 (when Jimmer Fredette’s shot missed but Georgios Papagiannis followed up to grab the loose ball and score). Ultimately, that 7-point swing made a massive difference for Barcelona, which – as noted by Pesic – gathered confidence from its ability to gain second chances to score and, crucially, also tired out a Panathinaikos team which had to spend additional time chasing the ball on defense.
In total, Barcelona finished with 15 offensive rebounds and Panathinaikos had just 8, and Pitino had no doubt about the importance of that statistic, saying: "They’re a better team than us if we allow them to be more physical as we did down the stretch, and that’s why we lost the game."
For Barcelona, conversely, the message was simple: even when you are playing poorly, hang in there, keep fighting and believe the rewards will eventually come. In other words, play with both physical and mental strength. Or, as Pesic said: "Sometimes it’s not important to win the game, but how you win the game."