Outstanding defense propels Zalgiris’ big night
The key phase of Zalgiris Kaunas outstanding 85-73 victory over CSKA Moscow at the Zalgirio Arena on Friday night came early in the fourth quarter, when Nando De Colo breezed to the glass to score the first points of the period with a layup, making the score 64-62. At that moment, the passionate home fans who created such an intense atmosphere all night long must have been worried that CSKA was poised to mount a big fourth quarter push and turn around a game they had been losing nearly all the way.
Instead, the exact opposite happened and Zalgiris simply took off, mounting a spectacular 16-0 run over the course of 4 minutes and 16 seconds which put the seal on a psychologically vital victory. The run was started by a familiar source as Aaron White added to his long list of highlight reel plays by rising high for a put-back slam. After a lay-up and one from Brandon Davies, plus free throws from White, another regular line on the stats sheet resurfaced as Kevin Pangos netted a three-pointer. Then Arturas Milaknis did the same, before a free throw from Paulius Jankunas and a close-range finish from Antanas Kavaliauskas completed the sensational run.
Perhaps even more impressive than that flurry of baskets scored, however, was the fact that Zalgiris was simultaneously successful in keeping CSKA – one of the most potent offensive teams in the history of the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague – off the scoreboard for so long. And it wasn’t the first time that could be said, because Zalgiris played excellent defense all night long – as evidenced by the fact that the Russian giant, which ranks as the competition’s most accurate three-point shooting team, didn’t score its first triple until just three minutes remained in the first half.
At the end, CSKA had been limited to just 73 points, its lowest points tally since Round 16 and third-worst of the season. And home team coach Sarunas Jasikevicius had no doubt that his team’s defensive efforts had been vital, concluding: “To hold CSKA to 73 is amazing, this is the key.”
Unicaja shows character in Spanoulis' special night
It was its home finale in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague season and Unicaja Malaga made sure its fans would once again feel proud of their team. Unicaja was eliminated from the playoffs race but that didn't stop the Spanish powerhouse to put together an outstanding second quarter, dominating every aspect of the game, attacking Olympiacos when it entered the foul penalty to get a 14-point margin, 47-33, at halftime.
Before that, late in the first quarter, Olympiacos Piraeus superstar Vassilis Spanoulis had broken the all-time assists record, dishing his 1,256th to Vangelis Mantzaris for a wide open three-point shot. Unicaja still led 51-39 early in the third quarter but had a six-minute blackout, missing 10 consecutive shots and picking up three turnovers. Meanwhile, a 0-17 run seemed to put Olympiacos in the right track to win the game, 51-56. When Bobby Brown sent a wild behind-the-back assist for a corner triple by Brian Roberts, the game seemed to be over, as Olympiacos led 67-74 with three minutes remaining.
What followed, however, is that Unicaja brought out its best defensive version, forcing Olympiacos to three turnovers which allowed Adam Waczynski and Nemanja Nedovic to tie the game, 74-74. Spanoulis had a chance to win it at the end of regulation but for once, he didn't live up to his deadly game-killing reputation and the game went to overtime.
Once again, Unicaja showed great resilience in the extra period. Down 79-82 in the next-to-last minute, Waczynski struck from downtown and erased Ioannis Papapetrou's triple with another bomb from beyond the arc for an 85-85 tie. A good defensive stop helped James Augustine hit the game-winning shot. Unicaja never stopped believing and brought out its best defense at the right time. Unicaja is 4-7 in games decided by four points or less this season, but won the last two, against FC Barcelona Lassa and Olympiacos. It could be a turning point in their season, as the club tries to get momentum to succeed in the Spanish League.
A Luka Doncic moment
Real Madrid needed all it got last night in Belgrade against a Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade side. The hosts played with so much energy like someone forgot to tell them they have been eliminated from playoff contention couple weeks ago. It was a must-win game for Madrid, which controlled things and led for 33 minutes, but a 15-0 run changed the momentum and it turned into an even more thrilling affair that went to a dramatic ending. A tied game with 6 seconds to go in the fourth quarter. A Real Madrid ball, and a timeout.
“On that last play, we created space for Luka Doncic or Trey Thompkins”, Coach Pablo Laso explained after the victory to the curious Serbian reporters. “Rudy Fernandez [inbounding the ball] was going to decide whether to give the ball to Doncic outside, or to Thompkins outside. We left Doncic a lot of space, and at the moment coaches were finished, it’s a players’ game”
Players’ game it is, and Doncic’s moment it was. Another in a series of Doncic moments this season. The 19-year old teen prodigy took the inbound pass, and quickly measured his defender Ognjen Dobric. With clock winding down, Doncic shook Dobric off with a dribble, and nailed nothing but net on a long three-pointer with 0.9 seconds left on the clock. Game over.
The shot was just an icing on a cake in his performance as Doncic collected 24 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 steals. He also had 7 turnovers, most of them in the second half, but found the way to recoup in a memorable fashion. Zvezda’s coach Dusan Alimpijevic had nothings but words of praise for Madrid’s young guard.
“Dobric played great defense at the end, but Luka Doncic is a great player because he makes those kind of shots. We chased him around the entire game, tried to make him tired, but he still had strength to make the most important shot in the game. You think you partially stopped him, you look at the statistics, and see he scored 24 points, had 9 rebounds and drew 10 fouls. Congratulations to him.”
Given the fact this shot might prove decisive in who wins playoff home-court advantage next week in the final round of the regular season, it is a game-winner that we might talk about for years to come.
Strong start, Calathes push Panathinaikos
Panathinaikos Superfoods Athens has already qualified to the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Playoffs but is looking to get a big privilege in its best-of-five series: the home-court advantage. Winning both games may not be enough to reach the goal, but the fight to reach the next round in the best physical and mental condition is working well for the Green Giant.
Win against Valencia Basket, the fourth consecutive for head coach Xavi Pascual's team, was impressive. Panathinaikos led from start to finish and played some of its best basketball this season, especially in the opening eight minutes. Valencia was limited to just one three-point shots in the opening four and a half minutes, and its first two-point basket - by promising center Triggvy Hlinasson - came in the next-to-last minute of the first quarter. Meanwhile, Panathinaikos had already scored 9-of-10 two-point shots, as James Gist and Thanassis Antetokounmpo combined for five dunks in eight minutes.
Outstanding defense led to fast break opportunities and spectacular plays, with Nick Calathes in the center of it all. Calathes dished seven assists in the first quarter - and then Valencia got within 41-36 early in the second half, he had seven points in an 11-0 run that broke the game open, once and for all.
Calathes finished the game with 17 points and 10 assists. It was his 15th career points-assists double-double, tying Milos Teodosic atop the all-time standings in this category. Panathinaikos also got a solid contribution from Adreian Payne, who saw extended playing time - 17 minutes - and had season highs in points (12), blocks (2) and performance index rating (11). Valencia was limited to a season-low 56 points and had just 13 assists despite averaging 17.4 per game this season. Panathinaikos seems to be in the right track to be fully competitive in the playoffs, with well-defined roles in which Calathes plays the key one.