AX Armani Exchange Milan's season so far has not been full of continuity. In addition to having been forced to postpone three games, Milan had been unable to count on a full backcourt in any game until this week.
Dealing with absences has been a daily routine for Milan, especially after guards Kevin Punter and Malcolm Delaney suffered injuries in late September and mid-October, respectively, limiting head coach Ettore Messina's backcourt rotation and chemistry-building process.
For this week's double-round, however, Milan got good news: Punter and Delaney would be able to play together for the first time this season. Against Crvena Zvezda on Wednesday, Punter provided 10 points in 21 minutes as a starter and Delaney added 8 more, but Milan nonetheless suffered a 79-87 home defeat.
Just 48 hours later, however, neither guard was willing to let another win escape from Milan's hands.
In a game that went down to the wire, both Punter and Delaney proved decisive as Milan's two-game losing streak ended with a 98-92 decision against visiting Zalgiris Kaunas. Punter led all scorers with 22 points for a career-high performance index rating of 29, while Delaney scored 8 of his 13 points in the game's last 3 minutes.
"Winning is always important," Messina said afterward, "but it's more important to get back players like Kevin [Punter] and Malcolm [Delaney]. They both showed how important they are for this team."
Punter's 5 points early in the second quarter sparked a 14-2 run to flip what had been a 21-25 Zalgiris advantage after the first. Right after halftime, he came up big again with a triple, free throws and a three-point play off a steal that put the visitors against the ropes, 60-42.
"I'm starting to get back in rhythm after a month and a half," said Punter, who was injured between his MVP turn in the We're Back Preseason Tour in Kaunas and opening day of the EuroLeague. "I'm just trying to get my legs back, keep working, keep taking wins, and taking it day by day."
Despite Milan's big lead, Zalgiris never waved the white flag, managing to forge a 77-77 tie with 6 minutes to go.
"We missed a couple of good shots, we missed a couple of defensive possessions, so we let them come back and at that point we got nervous, because we came after a loss and after a loss you never relax," Messina said.
That was when Delaney took over. After Zalgiris made it 83-82 with 3 minutes to go, he followed Sergio Rodriguez's triple with his own to keep Milan in charge, 89-82. Then, Delaney owned the game's final minute with a contested layup, a difficult pull-up jumper and a free throw to seal the win.
The return of Punter and Delaney promises more good things to come for Milan.
"It's an important win no matter how we got it because players are coming back, finding their roles again," Messina concluded. "I think we will be on the right track soon."