Pablo Laso will finally hold his head high, even if he prefers to bury it in his chest. Emmet Ryan on how Real Madrid’s 85-90 win in the Palau Blaugrana was about more than beating Barcelona
Sergio Llull and Jaycee Carroll, two men who had felt every blow with him, locked up the treble for Real Madrid tonight in Barcelona. At the end it was a Carroll jumper and a pair of free throws from Llull, that etched Pablo Laso’s name in history. He’d come a long way from that night in Milano 13 months ago.
It had been a Euroleague final for the ages. Maccabi Tel Aviv were led to an historic upset by David Blatt and the winning press conference was the now Cleveland Cavaliers coach holding court with a broad smile on his face. A few moments earlier the tone couldn’t have been more different as for the second year running, Laso came in to explain what happened.
A year earlier in London his Real side had fallen to a remarkable blitz from Olympiacos, a comeback that in hindsight looks far less damning than it would have felt for Los Blancos on the night. This was the Reds at their best but it was Real who came back a season later looking stronger and ready to rout Europe. Their road to Milano went via Olympiacos and though they went the full 5 games in that quarter final series, Real looked like champions. They had the strength in depth, the offence that seemed unstoppable, and ample star power. The semi-final with Barca was such a rout that the game on Sunday looked, while not a formality, theirs to lose. Over 40 minutes Maccabi had stayed with them, they hung with Real until Tyrese Rice took control in overtime and Real were TKOed.
Laso came into the press room around 30 minutes after the final horn sounded and he radiated the type of low feeling only a defeat like that can do. While basketball journalists may not have the cold hearted repurtations of our colleagues in politics, you would have needed a heart of stone not to feel for the man during his address to the press. He answered questions, always polite, but he knew he had missed a big shot with a great team. Before the season was done Laso himself would suffer an injury on the sideline and Barca would beat them in the ACB Finals 3-1.
The game, for a while, looked to be up. Talk of Laso and Real parting ways ran around but eventually it became clear he would have another shot, a chance to make things right but he’d have to do so without Nikola Mirotic who had taken the big jump to the NBA to play with the Chicago Bulls.
This past year Real still looked like a serious side, a favourite for the Final Four no doubt, but they looked more vulnerable. They could kill teams but they were getting dragged into dogfights more often. The Copa del Rey final win didn’t look all that out of character. For Laso the jury would be out until he put the real demons to rest.
Against Anadolu Efes in the playoffs, Real progressed but maintained that air of vulnerability. This was not a monster any more. It needed to be something different. Come the Final Four we saw what Real could do when they knew their opponents could hurt them. That opening 10 minutes against Fenerbahce may have been the most important quarter in Real’s season. Los Blancos saw an opponent with no fear going toe to toe with them, it was time to find the beat within. What followed was an assault and the type of change in tempo Real needed for the final with Olympiacos.
All the pieces did their job. Carroll got hot when needed and Andres Nocioni was consistent throughout. It wasn’t a great weekend on paper for Real’s bigs but Laso still singled out Marcus Slaughter for praise afterwards. They had ended the two decade wait to lift the big one. Laso looked like a relieved man in the press conference afterwards. Naturally, my lone question to the Real coach was about finally climbing the mountain.
Laso is not the most energetic of coaches on the sideline. He can get worked up but for large chunks of the game his standard pose is with his arms crossed and his eyes to the floor. He does look up to watch the action but he knows when to internalise.
This past week completed the journey for Laso. Last Friday, Rudy Fernandez played a blinder to neutralise the outburst of Barcelona’s Mario Hezonja. On Sunday morning, his side unleashed another ridiculous blitz to effectively end Game 2 inside of 7 minutes then tonight, after a huge comeback by Barcelona in the third quarter, Real held their nerve to win it all. If you count the Spanish Super Cup it’s a grand slam not a treble but that’s a minor detail in this story. Tonight, after so many near misses, Pablo Laso is champion of all he sees.