FC Barcelona stepped on Palau Blaugrana to face AX Armani Exchange Milan less than 72 hours after losing against Olympiacos Piraeus on that very same floor. Barcelona played poor defense on Tuesday night, allowing Olympiacos to scored 96 points on solid shooting percentages (61% 2FG, 43.5% 3FG). Nick Calathes struggled in that game, finishing it with 9 points and just 2 assists, tying its worst mark in his last 128 EuroLeague games.
Calathes bounced back like the great player he is, and showcased his passing abilities against Milan. He finished the game with 14 assists, breaking Barcelona's club record. He already owned the previous record, shared with Thomas Heurtel, with 12 assists apiece.
Calathes kept Barcelona alive during the game by getting 6 of those 14 assists in inbound plays, putting the ball directly in the hands of its corner shooters, or finding Nikola Mirotic around the basket, like he did in the opening basket of the game. Calathes faked a pass outside, moved the defense, and fed Mirotic for an open dunk.
Head coach Sarunas Jasikevicius said the possibility of scoring off inbounds plays was something his staff had already seen while preparing the game.
"About inbound plays, we saw on tape than Milan sometimes played zone defense in those plays. They did it a lot in the Italian League, but not so much in the EuroLeague, just a couple of times, but we prepared it," Jasikevicius said. "We always have it ready, just in case. And to tell you the truth, we struggled in some games because of this. In tonight's game, Nick [Calathes] found these situations for Niko [Mirotic] or our corner shooters."
It was Barcelona's change of mentality and character, however, which helped them win the game in the final 5 minutes.
Milan led 64-69 midway through the fourth quarter but that's when Barcelona managed to play more physical, getting one defensive stop after another. Barcelona held the guests scoreless for 4 long minutes. Meanwhile, Davies, Calathes, Mirotic and an outstanding Higgins, who downed consecutive three-pointers in a critical moment, fueled a mammth 21-0 run that allowed the hosts to get a comfortable win.
"At one point, we had probably zero energy physically, and we could not sustain the effort. They kept pounding the ball inside and that was their advantage," Milan head coach Ettore Messina said after the game. "We had some turnovers in the final minutes and they played more physical. We have tried to solve that problem with outside shooting, but lacked some frontcourt game."
Coach Jasikevicius gave his team a lot of credit for not giving up. "I think it was the win that we exactly needed. We haven't exactly been able to pull this thing out when the other team is playing such a great basketball, when we need to dig deeper and find some character in ourselves. Like I told the guys in the locker room, this is the win that you get when you dig in when you are playing like a team, when you are coming together in the difficult moments. And this is exactly how we have to play in the key moments of the season if we want to win some of those big games.
"In this EuroLeague, there are not going to be a lot of games that you are going to win by 20. This is the way to win in the EuroLeague and this might be our first one."
Barcelona heavily outrebounded Milan, 39-22. The guests only pulled down 12 defensive rebounds, just as many as Barcelona's offensive boards. The hosts buried 8-of-14 three-point shots (57.1%). When the dust settled, Barcelona had won 87-71, a final score that doesn't really tell the story of the game, as Milan kept its chances open for 35 minutes.
Barcelona will try to keep going at Palau Blaugrana, as it hosts Khimki Moscow Region and Maccabi Playtika Tel Aviv in the upcoming double week.