FC Barcelona Regal: Beware the wounded animal

Frank Lawlor - Euroleague.netWhen can the team with the best record in the Turkish Airlines Euroleague coming into the Final Four also be considered an underdog?

When that team is FC Barcelona Regal, which is struggling with more late-season injuries than any Final Four participant in recent memory.

When can an underdog also be considered a true contender to lift the trophy on Sunday?

When that team is FC Barcelona Regal, which has the one key ingredient that matters whether or not its team is healthy: great defense.

For each of the last two seasons, no team has held opponents to fewer points than Barcelona. Xavi Pascual's troops have proven again and again on the toughest courts in Europe that they play a system that gives them a chance to win anytime, anywhere. Inded, Barcelona is the only team in London that has beaten two of the other Final Four teams this season. And not just beat them.

In the regular season, Barcelona handed CSKA Moscow its worst home loss in the Euroleague this century, 60-81. The defense did that, and even though CSKA returned the favor on the road a month later, Barcelona had already proved to itself that on the right night, with the right tactics and mindset, it was capable of doing what no other team in 13 years has been able to do. That comes down to mental toughness, and when teams are injured, they tend to take strength from within. Barcelona has a well of strength to draw on in London.

In the Top 16, Barcelona went to Piraeus and pasted defending champion Olympiacos by double digits, too. They did it that time with offense, winning 77-90. That required another side of Barcelona's personality, the creativity to find easy points even when the team's top scorer had an off night and three-point shots were scarce. When you score 90 points with just 6 shots made from the arc, it's not your lucky day. Your system knows how to score points.

Defensive and offensive systems that work with any combination of players mean a lot. So do proven winners. The names Navarro, Jasikevicius and Lorbek need no more explanation here. If you are going to war with those names on the backs of the shirts, woe to the opponent who convinces himself that you are not up to par.

The names that have dominated the Barcelona conversation lately are ones that won't play in London and a couple more that may not. You'll get no argument here that Pete Mickeal, whose season ended months ago with a career-threatening pulmonary embolism, is a huge loss for Barcelona. It is quite likely that Barcelona lost its crown before the 2011 Final Four in its own city because of Mickeal's first bout with embolism.

The other two questionable players for Barcelona come in the frontcourt. Underrated power forward CJ Wallace went down in Game 5 of the playoffs making a spectacular save. He hasn't practiced since in the hope that his banged-up elbow will let him mix it up in the semifinal against archrival Real Madrid. We hear that we will see Wallace on Friday. He's a player who sacrifices for the team, so there's no reason to think he won't give it every try possible now.

Earth mover Nate Jawai's injury was more recent, on Sunday, and more troublesome, a partially torn foot ligament, a tough break to come back from in a short time for a man his size. If you remember Acie Law playing symbolic minutes as an inspiration for Olympiacos in last season's title game, however, you might look for the same from Jawai. Here's a guy who spent his youth in an Australian outpost diving in shark-infested waters for crabs. Nobody can put an appearance in London beyond his reach.

Now there are three Barcelona names that everyone should learn. Alex Abrines is first. A long-time basketball watcher who saw him play in the European under-18 championships a couple summers ago called to ask about him saying that Abrines stood out as the most natural basketball player he had seen in years. Now, we can ask the question: how many teenagers ever made their first Euroleague start in the last game of the Top 16 and scored 21 points with a 28 performance index rating? Against Maccabi? The safe answer is zero - until Alex Abrines.

Probably the only reason Abrines saw so much time that night was another injury, to backup small forward Xavi Rabaseda, who himself had a 16-point game in the Top 16. Rabaseda debuted in 2009-10, but wasn't on the Final Four roster when Barcelona won its title. He witnessed what it took, though, and he grew up in this club. He is healthy now, an electric player when having his night, and homegrown, too, which means he knows exactly what it would mean to help stop Madrid in the Euroleague semifinals.

Perhaps the least known is power forward Marko Todorovic. Having sat out weeks with his own injury and missed the start of the playoff series, he came on the floor after Wallace went down in Game 5 and helped save the Final Four-clinching victory with 4 rebounds in the fourth quarter. He followed that up with a double-double of 12 points and rebounds in a Spanish League game last week. If Wallace can't rebound and Jawai can't help, Barcelona might need to turn to Todorovic against Madrid, the Euroleague's best rebounding team of the last few years. He's a kid with nothing to lose; in other words, dangerous.

We won't even talk about them not playing Real Madrid yet in the Euroleague, or the way Barcelona dominated their first do-or-die game this season in the Spanish King's Cup. It's Barca-Madrid. It's a street fight. Each one is its own epic.

You know what they say about wounded animals: Never take your eye off them, never pet them, never play with them. That's when they bite fastest and hardest.