TD Systems Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz faced a critical game in its fight to reach the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Playoffs as it hosted AX Armani Exchange Milan, a team that was poised to punch its own ticket to the postseason if it could win on Friday.
Milan star playmaker Sergio Rodriguez made just his third start of the season in his first visit to Buesa Arena since winning the EuroLeague title on that court with CSKA Moscow in 2019, and it seemed to be a good omen for the guests. 'El Chacho' had a couple of quick three-pointers as Milan took a 10-16 lead after one quarter and kept leading until Rokas Giedraitis grabbed an offensive rebound and turned it into a three-point play for a 33-32 Baskonia lead at the half. The hosts had made only 1 of their 15 three-point tries (6.7%) until that point.
Things were much different at the end of the game, by which time Baskonia had dominated in all major statistical categories: rebounds (40-27), assists (18-13), steals (9-6), blocks (5-3), performance index rating (113-56) and, most important, scoring, registering a comfortable 86-69 victory.
Once its outside shots started to fall, Baskonia started to find answers on offense. The hosts buried 8-of-14 three-point shots (57.2%) in the second half but also improved their overall intensity and attitude at both ends of the floor. Having lost center Tonye Jekiri to a long-term injury earlier in the week, Baskonia readjusted its lineup to put Achille Polonara and Tadas Sedekerskis closer to the basket.
Sedekerskis, a 23-year old forward who had been back and forth from Baskonia's first squad in the previous six seasons, going on loan to teams in Spain and his native Lithuania, has found his role as one of its defensive leaders. Against Milan, he had a career-high PIR of 18 with an all-around performance: 9 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals and 3 blocks. He also sealed the win with a wild fastbreak slam midway through the fourth quarter.
"I believe that, with Tadas playing at the 'five' position, we played very good defense," Baskonia head coach Dusko Ivanovic said after the game. "We had to look for our fast game. In the first 20 minutes, we didn't do it, but we did in the last 20 minutes and this made the difference."
Polonara also posted some career-high numbers. He set new personal-best marks in defensive (10) and total rebounds (13). He also had 17 points, 4 assists, a steal and a block for a PIR of 28, matching his career-high. He averaged 3.3 points on 22.5% three-point shooting, 2.8 rebounds and a PIR of 4.2 in 28 EuroLeague games last season. In the current campaign, he has boosted his numbers to 11.3 points on 43.6% three-point shooting, 6.4 rebounds and a PIR of 15.6.
"Everybody is fighting. Everybody wants to play in the playoffs, so we need to fight for three more games," Polonara said. Asked about his playing time, a season-high 38 minutes 43 seconds, Polonara joked, "I can play another game! We are ready for another game."
Baskonia's win denied Milan an early ticket to the playoffs, leaving FC Barcelona as the only mathematical qualifier to the next round so far. There is a two-win difference between Milan, fourth at 19-12, and Valencia Basket, 10th with a 17-14 record, with just three games to go in the regular season for most teams. Baskonia is tied with Valencia at 17-14 and Zenit St Petersburg (17-13) matches them on victories, and that trio might end up battling for only one playoff berth. Needless to say, each victory will be good as gold the rest of the way. Under those circumstances, Ivanovic believes that expecting other results to go your way is not the right approach.
"We never looked to others and never got help from anyone. We have to think that if we win all the games, we can be in the playoffs, and we are going to go game by game," Ivanovic said. "The next game is important for us. We have to think about that and believe that we depend on our own scores. And then we will see."
Next week could be decisive. Baskonia visits Panathinaikos OPAP Athens in Round 32 next Tuesday, as Ivanovic returns to Athens to face his former team, then comes back home to take on Anadolu Efes Istanbul (20-11) on Thursday. Its regular season ends the following week with a visit to Valencia that could decide the fate of both teams – and perhaps others.