After getting snowed out of the Spanish capital last week, Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade returned on Monday for its rescheduled Round 19 game with mighty Real Madrid and proceeded to play what is arguably its best game all season.
Without leading scorer Jordan Loyd or starting point guard Langston Hall, Zvezda put on a defensive masterpiece in taming the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague's best home-court offense for a 77-79 road win. That was almost 10 points below Real's league-leading 86.7 points at the WiZink Center coming into Monday night.
Perhaps the least surprised person at WiZink on Monday was the losing coach, Pablo Laso, who remembered before the game Zvezda's last appearance there, an 83-87 victory back in December 2017 against that season's eventual champions. That time, Zvezda set its own club record in the EuroLeague with 17 three-pointers made.
"We always have a lot of respect for Zvezda because we know that it's a competitive team," Laso said pre-game. "We always have in our mind that they beat us here some years ago because we probably weren't ready to play 100% in that game. They're a team that if you don't give 100%, they are going to be there."
The three-pointers fell in Real's favor this time, as did the free throws. But otherwise, Zvezda's defense was everywhere and ended up holding the hosts to 13-for-33 two-point shooting, or 39.4%. That was Real's worst two-point rate at home in almost 10 years, since a 37.2% performance in the playoffs against Valencia Basket on April 7, 2011. What's more, those 13 two-pointers tied Real's lowest total at home since 2008.
It was a good reminder of who's on the Zvezda bench again. When last he left, after four seasons, newly returned head coach Dejan Radonjic had Zvezda playing the EuroLeague's best defense in the 2016-17 season, one year after he had led the club to the playoffs berth in just its third EuroLeague season this century. Three players with the team now who were also with Radonjic back then were key to Monday's upset in Madrid.
Eternal team captain Branko Lazic did the dirty work of tamping down Real's shooting aces while scoring his own season-high 7 points. Center Ognjen Kuzmic, who spent two seasons in between then and now with Real, played his former teammate Walter Tavares to a virtual standoff, each getting 9 rebounds and 2 blocks for PIRs of 13 and 15, respectively. And forward Ognjen Dobric spent almost 7 minutes more on the floor than any Zvezda player as the team's glue guy on defense and second-best scorer, with 13 points.
Their example of defensive intensity has clearly rubbed off on newcomers like Duop Reath, who had 2 of Zvezda's 6 blocks, tying a club record, and on Aleksa Radanov, who made his first start on Monday in just his fourth EuroLeague game ever, all of them since Radonjic became coach again on December 25. Radanov played most of his 11 minutes before the middle of the third quarter, but came in as a defensive replacement late and clearly bothered Jaycee Carroll's point-blank baseline attempt to force overtime in the waning seconds, which missed.
Yes, Zvezda has been without Loyd and his second-ranked 18.7 points per game for a while now. Plus, the visitors got just 8 points from red-hot Johnny O'Bryant, who had been averaging 14.0 in his previous eight games.
But when your defense doesn't let any Real Madrid players score more than 11 points on their own floor, well... when's the last time you heard of that?
This Zvezda team looked very familiarly troublesome on Monday, a throwback to the same ones that had the reputations of giant-killers under Radonjic. Other EuroLeague teams should take note.