FC Barcelona and Real Madrid played their 306th showdown at Palau Blaugrana in Round 5 of the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague. El Clásico is one of the biggest sports rivalries in the world, in football and basketball. In fact, Barcelona faces Real in La Liga on Saturday, the day after their basketball squads faced each other. When it comes to basketball, both teams have four showdowns guaranteed, but they can meet up to 11 times during the season. Both teams have kept a core of players from last season, adding only a few pieces, so there is little room for surprises.
Still, Barcelona managed to surprise Madrid with an unexpected factor: forward Sergi Martinez. It was just his third EuroLeague game ever. In the previous two, Martinez averaged 0.5 points and 1.5 rebounds, combining for 16 minutes against Valencia Basket and Panathinaikos OPAP Athens. Against Real, though, he had a career-defining performance, finishing the game with 7 points and a game-high 9 rebounds for a PIR of 10. No other Barcelona player saw more playing time, 30 minutes and 7 seconds, and Martinez offered valuable intangibles such as strong defense, high energy and tremendous willingness.
He played a decisive role, too, as all of his points came in critical moments. He hit a three-point shot right after Real got within single digits, then scored a jumper and a layup in the final minutes to make sure Real did not have any chance to complete its comeback.
Martinez (2.02 meters, 21 years old) has been flying under the radar since being one of the best players in the 2017 Euroleague Basketball Adidas Next Generation Tournament in Istanbul, where he averaged 22.0 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.3 steals. He has played in Barcelona's second team in each of the previous three seasons, extending his shooting range beyond the three-point line, gaining versatility and waiting for the right moment to help his first squad. And of course, as he proved today, that time is now.
"Since I joined Barcelona, I haven't seen Sergi tired," Barcelona head coach Saras Jasikevicius said in press conference. "He always gives his best on practice and, truth to be told, he has a lot of willingness. If I remember correctly, we have been without Niko [Mirotic] for five games and Sergi has been the most consistent player in our roster. This is great news for all of us. We are very happy for him."
Martinez had 8 boards in the first half, helping his team outrebound Real by 19-10. That dominance under the rims, added to Barcelona's wide advantage in two-point shooting accuracy (15-of-22, or 68.2%, vs. 7-of-21, or 33.3%) allowed the hosts to get a 21-point lead at halftime, 48-27. The PIR difference at halftime, 59-14, said it all.
Martinez looked for advice and found it in a sidelined Mirotic.
"I was talking to Nikola before the game and he told me that it is a game against Madrid, but at the end of the day, it is just another game. The key is playing without thinking that Madrid is in front of you, avoid that pressure," Martinez said afterwards. "He told me to do what I can do, to keep doing what I was doing because they say I am doing very well.
"A clásico is always special, and I have been a Barcelona fan for a lifetime. Playing my first clásico and winning it the way we did, what can I say? I am very happy. Little by little, you see that hard work pays off but the road is long. There is a long way to go, so I will keep working and giving my best. Whatever Saras says, I will do it."
Mirotic is set to return this weekend and Jasikevicius has a problem any coach would dream of having.
"This is what a young player has to do, to give his coach trouble," Jasikevicius said. "Niko will return now, and I have to think how can I give Sergi playing time, because he is really helping us with his energy and good defense, doing what he can do without complications."