Real Madrid faced unexpected absences hours before its Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Regular Season Round 15 showdown against ALBA Berlin. Real Madrid announced that head coach Pablo Laso and point guard Thomas Heurtel had tested positive for COVID-19 and would join Guerschon Yabusele, Trey Thompkins, Alberto Abalde and Carlos Alocen on its unavailable list. That meant that Real would be coached by Chus Mateo for the second time in less than a year.
Coach Mateo already coached Real in EuroLeague action on April 4, 2021, in Round 33 on the 2020-21 Regular Season. Laso had been sanctioned with a temporary disqualification for one game and Mateo stepped in to lead Real to a 72-63 victory. This time, Real thrashed ALBA 87-64 to remain undefeated at WiZink Center after eight games.
"We didn't know what was going on. We heard we have some COVID-19 positives and found out that Thomas [Heurtel] wouldn't play, joining other injured players. We were a little bit lost until we were told about Pablo [Laso]. We knew someone else could be positive, we were told about that possibility and when we knew it was Pablo, it unchained the circumstances of me being here in this press conference room," Mateo said in the press conference room. "Pablo is fine, and what's important is that he recovers as fast as possible and is back on the bench again."
There was more good news for Los Blancos as Anthony Randolph was back on the floor in a EuroLeague game for the first time in nearly a year. Randolph had been practicing for a while and had already seen playing time in the Spanish League. This time, with Yabusele and Thompkins unavailable in Round 14, Randolph started and even though he initially struggled to find his rhythm, he took over in the third quarter and played a big role in his team's win.
He opened the third quarter with his trademark corner three-pointers and ended up scoring 11 of his 13 points in that period. He added 4 rebounds, an assist, a block and 4 fouls drawn for a PIR of 15.
"I still have a long way to go. It has been a long road to recovery," Randolph said after the game. "But thanks to my coaches, teammates and everybody for supporting me and keeping the faith in me."
Mateo, 52, coached Unicaja Malaga in the EuroLeague during the 2010-11 and the 2011-12 campaigns to a 6-16 record. He joined Real before the start of the 2014-15 season as one of the team's assistant coaches and is now 2-0 with Real in Europe's marquee basketball competition.
"I am very happy for Anthony. He really deserves it. He is an extraordinary player, talent-wise, everyone can see it, you know him. But he has worked so hard, so tough to return after such a difficult injury, that it makes me very happy that he plays the way he did," Mateo said about Randolph. "Many times, I laugh with him because I tell him, 'people love you' because I see it in the stands, I see fans looking forward to seeing Anthony playing well. He has been some time with us and is a very well-liked player in the locker room."
In all likelihood, Mateo will be at the head of Real's bench in its next EuroLeague game, against AX Armani Exchange Milan at Mediolanum Forum in Round 16 on Thursday.