Slovenia pulled off the shock on the tournament on Thursday night when they tore Spain apart in the semi finals. In the first of our three part preview of Sunday’s EuroBasket 2017 final, Emmet Ryan looks at the coming out party for Luka Doncic in Istanbul
In empty barns,
When domes alight,
No defence shall escape his sight,
Let those who rely on defence’s might,
Behold his power, Luke Doncic’s fight
So much of the ground has been covered before. Banishing his ghosts in the Sinan Erdem Dome, showing over the past season what wonderful progress he has made, faking at will to make grown men look foolish, and all that talk about possibly being the top pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.
It doesn’t matter if Doncic goes number 1, 2, 15, 30, or whatever. Once he lands in the association, he’ll have his shot to prove his worth. Right now it’s about bringing Slovenia the unthinkable. At the start of this competition, the consensus was Slovenia had a shot at topping its group but would likely need to make do with second or third and hope the breaks went their way in the knockout phase.
Instead Slovenia romped to a 5-0 record, only truly being tested by Finland in front of a rabid Helsinki crowd. Ukraine were swept aside and then they won the game of the tournament against Latvia. Doncic starred in both, flirting with a triple double in the former.
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The goal was meant to be getting Goran Dragic, and with him any Slovenian, a shot at a first ever medal. Spain were meant to be too much for Slovenia. They had a shot but the view was that it wasn’t all that great and that Spain might turn it on and rout them. The first half played out largely to script, Slovenia did all the running and only had a 4 point lead to show for their efforts.
Then Doncic, who had been picking up the highlight stats with ease early, went to work as a grinder. The passes were crisp, the shots became rarer, and the defence was a step up from anything we had seen up to now from the wunderkind. Doncic was the one taking charge for Slovenia throughout this game, just like he had in the closing stages against Latvia, and the kid was toying with Spain. In the end it was a rout, just not the one we expected. Slovenia by 20, a first ever medal at a major tournament for a nation of 2 million people, and an unexpected shot at the title.
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There are 9 months until Doncic hears his name and dons a cap. He has business to take care of here in Europe first. With Real Madrid, there’s regaining the ACB title and winning Euroleague. Los Blancos won the latter crown in 2015 when Doncic was on their youth side, but you have to go all the way back to 1980 for the first time Real left Spain for the closing stages to lift Europe’s highest club honour. Doncic wants that shot in Belgrade next May, he wants to make history in every way he can in Europe before making the leap to the NBA.
On Sunday, he gets a shot at the greatest prize in European basketball. Winning EuroBasket would cement his legacy in Slovenia while still a teenager. As a child, the likes of Goran Dragic were the ones he had to look up to. Now he stands alongside the Miami Heat guard, a man with All NBA third team honours on his list of accomplishments, and he is the one Dragic looks to. Goran is the leader, the force of calm, but Doncic is the difference maker. He’s the one that can carry this largely anonymous but talented Slovenian roster to the ultimate glory.
On Friday, after the game, he spoke of his pride for what he did for Slovenia. He joked about how his Real Madrid team mates would react. Most of all he was just happy. Luka Doncic, the young man with the most attention of any European prospect in history, was glad to be getting the shot to make some more.
Win or lose on Sunday night, there will be a party waiting for this Slovenia side back in Ljubljana after the tournament. They have brought unprecedented success to the basketball mad nation. This roster believes. Those around Doncic have seen what he can do and it is raising the game for each and every one of them, even Dragic.
Between now and Sunday night there will be plenty of late arrivals from Slovenia to Istanbul by whatever way people can travel. They want to see their men take their shot at glory. Doncic wants to give them a reason for coming.
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