In a season already spiced with big playoff upsets, Caja Laboral Baskonia may be adding the biggest to the list yet, as the Basque Country boys held on through an insane final minute of play to eke out a 70-69 win over FC Barcelona.
And now things in Spain have become suddenly unthinkable as the team touted by some (ahem) as among the recent European basketball club greats must take a 2-0 deficit – and certainly waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay less swagger – on the road.
For Baskonia, the win marked the recent dominance this team has enjoyed over Barcelona, truly making them unusual in Europe. Until last night, Barcelona hadn’t lost to the same team twice in one season since the 2009 ACB playoffs – when they were bounced 2-1 by a team called Tau Cerámica. Oh, and the then-Tau managed to swipe two games from the Blaugrana in the 2009 Euroleague semifinals as well.
And last night’s game was a real classic for the ACB annals to be sure. Terence Morris did a swell Kevin Garnett impression, acting as though Tiago Splitter had elaborated upon his skills in Gasol-esque fashion, crushed the Brazilian underneath repeatedly for an early 6-0 Barça lead.
Xavi Pascual again went to a guard tandem of Gianluca Basile and Jaka Lakovic early (and o boy was the supposed key to a wildly successful 2009-10 Barcelona season – namely, the Ricky Rubio-Juan Carlos Navarro backcourt – disappointing. But more on this momentarily) and these two pick-and-rolled and sharpshot their way to give Barça a 19-17 lead going into the second quarter.
The second was one hard-fought battle (if you love rebounding action, you *must* check out the game broadcast at the ACB 360 website for this 10 minutes alone) on the glass and Barcelona’s big men emerged as crucial to Barça’s success. Morris continued his aggressive play while combining him on the floor with Pete Mickeal for extensive minutes may have represented the wisest maneuver Pascual has employed this series thus far.
At the break, it was 38-33 to Barcelona and Splitter had been held scoreless by the Barça beasts.
Just when fans thought they had this game figured out, though, everything changed in a show of flexibility and excellent strategic adaptation in the third quarter. Bombs away, it was, as Mickeal, Navarro, Mirza Teletović, and Fernando San Emeterio all hit on early threes to get the third 10 minutes off to a rousing start. The Blaugrana were able to open up their biggest lead of the game at 53-45 a bit before the period ended.
And then, the wheels came off. Over in the ‘States, Sir Charles Barkley exceedingly often come playoff time stresses the need for teams to have a “closer,” i.e. that guy who will take the team onto his back when all that’s required is to hold a single-digit lead for the win — especially in the playoffs, especially at home. You know: A clutch guy, a dagger thrower, the reason why Kobe’s better than Lebron.
Olympiacos had this lack grievously exposed in the EΣAKE championship series; the Orlando Magic have fallen apart for a couple of years without one; this was the Boston Celtics’ sole edge in game two this year, but got them a key win; and whoa, was Barcelona suffering last evening.
In utter contrast to the game’s first 30 minutes, Baskonia took control of the fourth. Splitter opened the final stanza with his first bucket, looking like the game had just tipped off – or better yet, as though he were continuing game one and coolly destroying Barcelona’s frustrated defenders inside.
Baskonia first ate away the lead, then was atop by five points late in game, mostly behind the masterful play of Marcelinho Huertas.
(Total tangent here, but with Splitter, Huertas and Anderson Varejao, don’t you have to like Brazil as a dark horse in the FIBA Worlds this summer? End tangent.)
Then at 70-63 with under six seconds remaining, things got wacky. Where was Reggie Miller? Where was Robert Horry? Where was Sarunas Jasikevicius, for the gods’ sake? BiE certainly can’t say Barça wasn’t given a platinum opportunity amid the craziness.
First Mickeal gets an easy putback for two. 70-65. Marcelinho is called for an offensive foul before the pass inbounds. Two free throws, 70-67. San Emeterio is called for a flagrant foul while desperately trying to hold onto the breaking free Basile. Basile hits both freebies; Barcelona has scored four points in exactly 0.0 seconds.
70-69 and Barça sets up the inbound pass.
More specifically, Rubio sets up the inbound pass.
But Rubio isn’t That Guy: certainly not yet in his career and definitely not in game two of the 2010 ACB Championship series.
With 1.6 somehow still on the clock, Rubio telegraphs the pass to Basile, Pau Ribas easily picks it off, and Barcelona is one step closer to the abyss of playoff elimination.
(Quick round of second-guessing of Pascual here: Seriously, who else was the inbounds pass going to go to, with Mickeal, Morris and Erazem Lorbek the other options? Worth contemplating, too, is the absence of the fouled-out Navarro for the final play – after two months of scorching courts all over Europe, Navarro has evaporated during this series.)
When the whistle sounded, Barça’s players stood stunned, the attendees near silence. The feeling of This Wasn’t Supposed to Happen was palpable. After all, Barcelona was bringing the all-star team, the deeper bench, the advantage in every single one-on-one matchup outside of Splitter, *the Euroleague title* for Naismith’s sake.
In the post-game, Pascual insisted that “this team is not dead,” adding that “if someone wants to win, he has to work hard.” (“…este equipo no está muerto y si alguien quiere ganarlos tendrá que trabajar mucho.”)
Especially in the clutch.
Game three of the ACB championship series tips off on Tuesday at 8.30pm CET.