It took six quarters before what we know as grind-it-out playoffs basketball came to the series between CSKA Moscow and Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul.
After both teams scored freely during the first half of Game 2, won 50-42 by CSKA, the action devolved into a war of free throws as the hosts went a full 8 minutes without a field goal and Fenerbahce drew within 52-51 late in the third quarter.
In such situations, when baskets are scarce because all shots are well contested, assist-making is like gold dust. And in this case, solid passes for rare open shots proved the difference as CSKA pulled away over the game's last 12 minutes to a 78-67 victory and a commanding 2-0 lead in the series.
Of course, CSKA had passed well for its 50 points in the first half, picking up 16 assists in those 20 minutes, including 6 by veteran forward Tornike Shengelia, who would end up tying his career high of 7.
Fenerbahce had 8 assists in the first half and had added 1 more midway through the third quarter. But as both defenses started clamping down, that is where Fenerbahce's assist-making stopped, stuck on 9 for the rest of the night.
CSKA, meanwhile, found 7 more assists in the game's last 12 minutes, 3 of them coming on three-point shots. As such, the hosts outscored Fenerbahce 26-16 in that span for an eventual nine-point victory.
While Daniel Hackett paced the game-long effort with 9 assists, just one off his career high, the key for CSKA when the scoring became difficult was that everyone was looking to pass. Five different players – Hackett, Shengelia, Will Clyburn, Iffe Lundberg and Ivan Ukhov – shared among those final 7 assists.
When it was over, CSKA's 24 assists were its fourth-highest total in 50 playoff games since 2005. But that fact didn't quite capture how important these were in a defensive battle that has seen CSKA score just 2 free throws in 8 minutes before its good passing broke the game's grip on point scoring.
With 24 passes leading to 78 points for the game, CSKA had for the first time assisted on more than 30% of its scoring in a playoff game. And that made all the difference to moving within a victory of another trip to the Final Four.