It was the last shot for Panathinaikos and Real Madrid looked like they’d never let them get it. A night where Real Madrid ended up having to survive a furious flurry was also, writes Emmet Ryan, the night where Luka Doncic got his reward after being roughed up throughout the series
Two and a half games worth of frustration exploded on Kenny Gabriel’s head in Madrid. By the middle of Game 3, Luka Doncic was long past tired of the physical treatment he was getting from Panathinaikos and the wunderkind was waiting for this moment.
The beatings were expected but they really did come early and often. PAO beat up Doncic and the rest of Real in a dominant Game 1 but the Slovenian teen was ready for the impact next time out. He drew the coverage, and 8 fouls in the process, as Panathinaikos wore down the youngster.
The dirtiest shot didn’t get called, a Chris Singleton elbow onto Doncic came after the big man had made an uncontested dunk. In open court, Singleton landed a long way back from the rim conveniently going elbow first into Doncic. It looked like a flagrant but there was no call.
Still Doncic kept his head down and Madrid held it together to tie the series up and take home court back. Through Game 3, the beatings continued until Doncic saw his chance against Adreian Payne.
Doncic cut in from the left inside as he blew by Payne before putting Gabriel on a poster. Madrid made hard work of it but some magic from Sergio Llull in his comeback game was enough to lock up a tight win and a series lead.
It took Doncic barely 5 minutes to draw 3 fouls from Panathinaikos as Game 4 opened with a similar approach from the Greek powerhouse. He’d drawn 19 in the first 3 games, averaging 1 every 7 minutes on the floor.
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Part of that was the treatment, part was a continuation of what we’d seen all season. Doncic trailed only Alexey Shved on average fouls drawn per game in the whole league, picking up 1 roughly every 4 and a half minutes, and his per 40 numbers were over a foul more drawn per game than any other back-court player.
The beatdown approach had proven more than limited. It worked on the opening night, when everything did, but Madrid and Doncic adjusted and went after the Greens. By the time Game 4 came around, PAO needed another plan.
Instead they ran into a freight train. The first stint for Llull broke the game open, 6 points and 6 assists in 7 minutes, busted open a hole that Panathinaikos would never recover from. By the half Real led 51-35 with their ticket to Belgrade ready to be punched.
This series wasn’t one looking for Doncic to set the world alight on the stat sheet. His shooting was poor, he was a little loose in terms of creativity despite having good ball security. What stood out was the grinding, he got the boards and he drew the fouls. That was what he knew he had to do going into the series and he got it done.
Personal glory wasn’t the point of this series for Doncic. It was about a shot at redemption. While the wider world’s eyes are on what magic moments he might deliver in the build up to the NBA Draft, Doncic has unfinished business in a white shirt.
He dazzled in the playoffs last year only to suffer a nightmare at the final four weekend in Istanbul. Now he’s got his spot back in the title weekend. CSKA Moscow’s Nando de Colo and Sergio Rodriguez await him. He’ll have Llull beside him for the duel. The one European title that matters missing from his collection is what he wants before he leaves.
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The second half of this one still had to happen and it started with Doncic looking the smoothest he’d been all season. A step-back three and a little shrug to open things off. The kid was able to relax and finally enjoy rather than endure. Next time Doncic had the ball in his hands he needed just a slight stutter step on Mike James to land another one from deep. Another step-back, another three. This time over Matt Lojeski. With Panathinaikos forced to play a more open game, they had to give him room and he gobbled it up.
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He was just a little too hungry. The next effort was in a pile of traffic and PAO managed a mini-comeback on the back of it as James found opportunities. Pablo Laso adjusted and sat Doncic to get the kid’s head back on the task.
A Llull three to close the third should have ended what little hope there was of PAO getting back in this one. Doncic came back in and the one consistent upside to his game throughout the series remained. The kid can draw fouls. He hit 7 for the night, 26 for the series. Panathinaikos however finally got a run going as he returned, cutting the deficit by 10 points to just 8 midway through the final frame.
A three by Singleton and, out of nowhere, we had a ball game. The gap was down to 5 and now Doncic was the one to call for calm. A turnover by Nikos Pappas was gathered up by the Slovenian. Nick Calathes was giving Real late game nightmares cutting it to a single possession.
Doncic. Off the backboard three and all was well.
In a series where he’d been doing the dirty work, Doncic got his showpiece performance and capped with it a backbreaking play. 17 points, 4 rebounds, and 5 assists for the Slovenian. Real advance. Doncic gets his chance to close his European chapter on his terms.
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