Not many factors pointed to TD Systems Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz being the team that would put the brakes on the runaway train that was CSKA Moscow entering 2021.
First and foremost, Baskonia's new year had already started bad, with a tough 95-91 decision less than 48 hours earlier and 2,000 kilometers away to severely undermanned ALBA Berlin. There was also CSKA's 32-10 dominance of this most prolific international basketball rivalry of the century, including a 12-7 record at Baskonia's Buesa Arena. And of course, since October 22, no Turkish Airlines EuroLeague team had beaten CSKA as it rumbled through a 12-game winning streak to the top of the standings.
Defying the normal assumptions of travel and fatigue, however, Baskonia came out like gangbusters on Thursday to lead 31-16 late in the first quarter, establishing a pace and rhythm that CSKA struggled to match until a fortuitous 0-7 run just before halftime closed the gap to 46-45. In the previous 19 minutes, however, the seeds of success had been sown as Baskonia held the last two MVPs of the Month in the EuroLeague, Mike James and Nikola Milutinov, to just 4 points.
James would bust out and lead a second-half CSKA comeback, but Milutinov was kept under wraps by 2.21-meter Youssoupha Fall. And without injured stars Will Clyburn and Daniel Hackett, the visitors would relinquish their brief third-quarter lead and never recover fully, even though James had 8 seconds at the end to shoot for the win or the tie – but missed.
Remarkably, as head coach Dusko Ivanovic's post-game comments made clear, Baskonia had planned to out-run and out-gun the EuroLeague's top offensive team despite having spent a lot of energy in Berlin and having not won yet this season when allowing the opponent 80 or more points.
"When we played how we must play against CSKA – quickly and decisively, with good options on offense – we had a chance every time," Ivanovic said.
Pierria Henry, Achille Polonara and Rokas Giedratis started bouncing around the floor like pinballs from the opening tipoff, and when it counted, their energy infected Luca Vildoza, whose 10 points late in the third quarter flipped the scoreboard back to Baskonia for good.
Henry, Polonara, Giedraitis and Fall scored between 16 and 18 points each and shot a combined 21 for 29, or 72.4%, on two-pointers. Add in Vildoza and the whole quintet scored 81 points, 85% of Baskonia's total and more points than 10 entire teams have managed against CSKA this season.
It took all that – and a bit of luck, when the sixth-most-accurate free throw shooter in EuroLeague history, CSKA's Janis Strelnieks, missed the last of his 3 free throws with 9.2 seconds left – to topple the league leaders and snap their impressive streak.
Baskonia, the youngest team in the EuroLeague at just over 24 years on average, showed the energy and collective inspiration of that youth to shake off the hard defeat in Berlin and bounce back even stronger.