So many details, so much preparation, so much planning. Rebounding, sharing the ball, making steals, playing with hustle, getting deflections, blocking shots…they are all important in the game of basketball. Sometimes, though, the outcome of close contests comes down to one very simple factor: making big plays in crunch time.
With two minutes remaining in Friday’s meeting with Olympiacos Piraeus, home side Zalgiris Kaunas looked down and out. The Greek team had netted a trio of three-pointers in the space of 80 seconds to take a 72-79 lead, which seemed certain to give a valuable victory both in immediate terms of the league standings and the longer-term head to head between the teams, following Zalgiris’s 1-point win in Piraeus at the start of the season. But Zalgiris didn’t give up, believing that a miraculous comeback win to solidify its position in the all-important top eight could somehow still be achieved.
The first ray of hope came with 1:50 remaining, when Shaquielle McKissic missed an open layup, Marius Grigonis grabbed the rebound, quickly went in transition and tossed up a high pass for Joffrey Lauvergne to throw down an alley-oop. It was Zalgiris’s first field goal in nearly five minutes, but the next came just 41 seconds later after Olympiacos committed a shot-clock violation and, following a time out, good ball movement created the chance for Arturas Milaknis to sink a three-pointer.
Then, after Vassilis Spanoulis missed a three-point attempt, Augustine Rubit released Lauvergne on another fastbreak and the French big man made no mistake, driving to the rim and dunking hard, tying the game at 79-79 with 21 seconds remaining.
Zalgiris had turned the game around, but it wasn’t over yet. Knowing his team had a foul to give, Thomas Walkup defended aggressively against Kostas Sloukas, going for a steal. He got it, grabbing the ball around midcourt with 6 seconds remaining. Walkup sped towards the basket, shrugged off Spanoulis’s attempts to steal the ball back and sent up an off-balance shot, taking plenty of contact from Livio Jean-Charles as he watched the ball bounce off the backboard and through the hoop for an 81-79 lead.
There was still 0.8 seconds on the clock, giving Olympiacos enough time to attempt a desperate Hail Mary style alley-oop in the hope of forcing overtime. But when Sloukas tossed up a long pass to Jean-Charles at the rim, Grigonis was in the right place and timed his jump well enough to disturb the shot, swatting the ball away in the very final act of a remarkable comeback win.
The game-winning score, of course, came from Walkup, who later smiled: "It’s the biggest play of my career, so I’m super-happy about the way it turned out."
But that steal and basket was just one of five key plays inside those final two minutes, all of which had to go in Zalgiris’s favor for the scoreline to end how it did on the back of a 9-0 charge. Of course, it only needed a few inches here or there for one of those plays to have finished differently, and equally the visitors could have taken one of their opportunities to seal the deal. But that didn’t happen: Zalgiris made all the plays, Olympiacos didn’t make any, and that decided the outcome.
"We had a 7-point difference in the last two minutes and then we did whatever we could to lose the game," admitted defeated coach Georgios Bartzokas.
His opposite number Martin Schiller, in contrast, could not have been prouder of his players, saying: "At the very end of the game you have to get lucky too. But you earn your luck by staying focused and working."
And in the end, that focus and work didn’t come down to Zalgiris simply making one big play, but five of them.