It was one of the most exciting games of the season in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague, an instant classic with a thrilling finish that will go down in history. CSKA Moscow and FC Barcelona played hard for all 40 minutes in an excellent game that came down to small details and showed what the competition can offer when the biggest teams get closer to the title.
The teams had similar numbers; the committed the same number of fouls (20) and made almost the same number of three-pointers (CSKA 11, Barcelona 12) and two-point shots (18-15). CSKA dished 14 assists and had 14 turnovers. Barcelona had 16 assists and 13 turnovers. Three players made the difference: the superstar, the familiar face and the X-factor.
Nikola Mirotic has been Barcelona's superstar all season and he proved it again by hitting the game-winning shot. Mike James had buried an impressive catch-and-shoot three-pointer from the corner to tie the game at 80-80 with 5.4 seconds left. Mirotic got the ball off a timeout and took matters into his own hands, hitting a one-legged turnaround jumper with 0.4 seconds left. Swish. Game over.
Cory Higgins was a familiar face at Megasport Arena. Indeed, it was his first visit for a EuroLeague game since he left CSKA over the summer. Higgins played four seasons for the Russian champs, from 2015 to 2019, and helped the team reach four consecutive Final Fours and win EuroLeague titles in 2016 and 2019. Most of CSKA's current players were Higgins's teammates last season, but that didn't help them to stop him. Higgins had 17 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal and 8 fouls drawn for a PIR of 20.
In such a close game, Barcelona needed to get outside of the expected game plan to make the difference and did that through center Brandon Davies. In 95 EuroLeague career games, Davies had made just 1 of 8 three-point shots - against Zenit St Petersburg earlier this season. He buried 4 out of 4 attempts from downtown in this game and nobody saw that coming. CSKA was forced to adjust its defense and that gave Barcelona a tactical advantage in the game.
Of course, Mirotic did not just hit the game-winning shot, but was a constant headache for CSKA's defense, all game long. He barely missed, converting 4 of 6 two-point shots, 3 of 5 three-pointers and 6 of 6 free throws. Mirotic also helped on the boards (8 rebounds) and had 23 points for a PIR of 32.
Most important, Barcelona avenged perhaps its worst game of the season when it lost 67-96 against CSKA in Round 11 at Palau Blaugrana. It was Barcelona's first road win over CSKA since 2012 after six consecutive losses in the Russian capital.
With this win, Barcelona punched its playoffs ticket, improved to 20-6, and will now start working on getting the homecourt advantage in its playoff series. It has a three-win gap over CSKA, which is ranked fifth with a 17-9 record. Barcelona has plenty of work to do and must consolidate its wins in Athens and Moscow at Palau Blaugrana, where it will play five of its eight remaining regular-season games.