With Sergio Llull out with a hamstring injury and fellow former EuroLeague MVP Luka Doncic watching on from the stands as a warmly welcomed returning guest, it was almost as though the gods of basketball were mockingly throwing down a stern challenge to Real Madrid's players as they faced Panathinaikos OPAP Athens in Wednesday night's playoffs opener: "These two can't help you now," was the message from on high. "So which one of you is ready to take over tonight?"
Without meaning any disrespect, very few people would have expected the answer to be Jeffery Taylor.
The swingman is a hard-working and selfless team player who always gives 100 percent to the cause and is renowned as an excellent defender, as well as providing the occasional spectacular dunk.
But Taylor is certainly not known as a prolific scorer, having averaged just 5 points per game during his four-season, 120-game EuroLeague career with Los Blancos. During the regular season, he only reached double digits in scoring on three occasions - most recently in Round 18, and his last five games before the playoffs yielded points totals of 2, 5, 0, 2 and 2 – a paltry average of 2.2 points per night.
So it was a considerable surprise when the game started with Taylor opening the scoring from long range. And then scoring from long range again. And then adding a powerful slam. And then - after Walter Tavares ruined the one-man show by netting a two-pointer - Taylor added his third triple of the opening quarter to give his team a 14-8 lead, with 11 of those points coming from the hands of the same – and very unexpected – player.
Taylor's early boost gave Madrid a lead it would hold onto for most of the game. He came back into the action at the start of the second half with another big dunk followed by an assist to Tavares which seemed to send the home side on their way to a comfortable win. And although Taylor didn't score again, he did return to the action in the final stages and - with Panathinaikos now leading by 6 - made another vital contribution by grabbing an offensive rebound which allowed Rudy Fernandez to sink a three-pointer that sparked Madrid’s ultimately successful comeback bid.
Taylor might not have been the choice of many people to finish as Madrid's leading scorer, but this is what great teams do: when the chips are down and the usual stars are unable to deliver, they find someone else to step up and answer the challenge from the gods of basketball. On Wednesday night, that man was Taylor, who did more than anyone else to give his team a 1-0 series lead.