Down 2-0 in its best-of-five Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Playoffs series and trailing Anadolu Efes Istanbul by 13 points with 5 minutes to go in Game 3, Real Madrid seemed all but set to have its season end on Tuesday night. Surviving to see another playoff game this season required only the biggest late-game comeback for a regulation-time victory in EuroLeague Playoffs history.
Coach Pablo Laso's men delivered just that. They ended the game on a 19-2 run in the final 4:50, including scoring the final 16 points of the game for a playoff rally like none before to edge Efes 80-76 and force Game 4 on Thursday night. It was the first time in playoffs history that any team has rallied from a double-digit deficit in the final 5 minutes of a game to win in regulation time.
"I am not surprised," Real hero and former EuroLeague MVP Sergio Llull said after the game "I believe in this team. I think, when you are in this position, you have to fight until the end."
And fight they did, even though Efes dominated Los Blancos in the first two games of the series by a combined margin of 50 points and also thrashed Real 83-108 in their regular season Round 32 game in this same arena less than a month ago.
Three things were key in the comeback. One, which set up Real's historic, if not miraculous rally was the team being able to cut down on turnovers. After committing 10 in the first half, Real turned the ball over only 3 times in the third and fourth quarter combined. Second, was Real's 1-2-2 matchup zone, which Coach Laso mixed with man defense the entire night and it kept getting Efes out of its rhythm.
Finally, while cutting down on the turnovers gave Real a chance and zone defense kept Efes scoreless late in the game, a late barrage of three-pointers got the job done. Real made just 4 of its first 20 three-point attempts, but then caught fire in the fourth quarter. Trey Thompkins and Sergio Llull got things started early in the fourth quarter before Llull and Alberto Abalde hit back-to-back threes with 4 minutes to go when Efes was up 61-74.
Another one from each Llull and Thompkins got Real within a single point before Rudy Fernandez, shooting 0-for-4 up to that point, nailed an off-balanced corner triple to put Real up 78-76 with 51 seconds to go.
All the while, Usman Garuba was doing a monster job inside in the absence of an injured Walter Tavares. Not only did he fight for a pair of second-chance baskets, including a game-sealing layup with 22 seconds left, but he held control of the paint on the defensive end, helping keep the visitors from the offensive glass despite them failing to convert on their final 7 possessions.
It did not look like that would be the case with 5 minutes left in the fourth quarter, but it all played a part in Real pulling it out and setting up a must-see Game 4 on Thursday night.