Finally this tournament gave us the classic we have been waiting for. The stars stepped up when it mattered. Slovenia and Latvia lobbed everything they had at each other in an offensive feast. Eventually Luka Doncic proved decisive but the story of this game, and Slovenia’s quest for a medal, belongs to Goran Dragic according to Emmet Ryan
Latvia hadn’t been relevant in the medal rounds since before the Soviet Union. Slovenia had never only one semi final and no medals to speak of in their history. This wasn’t just a shot at Spain, this was a chance to claim an all too rare shot at a reward from EuroBasket. For the Dragon, he knew it would be his last. Retiring from international at the end of this tournament, Goran Dragic knew his best shot at getting something from this competition would also be his last.
It was the offensive battle we expected early. The ball was getting spread a lot, nobody wanting to lean on their go-to guys early. Despite the free scoring, it was still awfully tentative out there. Neither side wanted to take a chance. Neither wanted to be the first to give up a big run. Like a pair of takedown artists in a MMA octagon, both feared the other’s ground and pound.
The Dragon was calm. Taking his time with his shots, not letting the size of the Latvian get to him. There would be time to get angry. Right now he was just keeping everything clicking for Slovenia. Dragic knew Latvia had runs in them, that they could deliver from the off. He also knew that he could bring it right back to them when the mood suited.
Luka Doncic took his time to get off the mark, having pushed a little too hard offensively early. When he did he had already done some nice things on D and Slovenia were up by 7. He followed up with a three to make it a double digit lead and the first run belonged to Slovenia. Out of the timeout Dragic nailed his second three of the night and Slovenia were rolling.
The Bertans brothers brought some life to Latvia’s offence at the tail end of the quarter. Ever move had to be checked. Latvia couldn’t let Slovenia get comfortable. At the end of the first, Slovenia led 34-23.
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Davis towered over a wall in front of him as he failed on a long three. Klemen Prepelic didn’t make a mistake up the other end. Dragic sat as Slovenia kept their advantage early in the second. A mini run by Kristaps Porzingis was enough to get him Goran back on the floor. The New York Knicks giant swatted away his first effort back on the floor. No matter, Goran had time. His next one hung forever on the rim before dropping.
Now however it was Latvia’s turn. Janis Timma, frustrated through the first frame, found a seam to get inside neatly. Janis Strelnieks screamed as his fadeaway jumper droped. Then it is was time for Kristaps and we had a close one on our hands. Thrice in succession he went looking, twice he succeeded from the field and the third time he punished Slovenia from the line. Two countries, with fewer than 4 million people between them, were delivering a top class display worth of the giants of this sport.
Doncic returned and immediately had an impact. First he drew a third foul of the night from Porzingis. Then he blocked Timma and went up the floor to put a jumper over Kristaps. Timeout Latvia.
Dragic went down. Hard. Holding his head after a collision he needed to sit. The pain was obvious as he looked to get himself back together on the bench. Davis took the opportunity to get Latvia going again with a pair of threes, the latter a four point play. As Dragic sat Latvia charged. Dairis up the gut and to the line. Doncic drew a T in the process. Timma again. Then Janis Blums. At the half Latvia were up 55-51 and Slovenia prayed for their Dragon to recover.
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Dragic was back to start the third. His first effort, a floater missing by quite a bit. No matter, assist to Anthony Randolph and this half was rolling. Off the fast break and right round Davis. Slovenia back in front. The run moved to 9 off a Vlatko Cancar three. Goran was back and all was well for Slovenia. Another fast break, into traffic but Doncic is behind him. The run was 11 before Ainars Bagatskis called a halt to proceedings. The Dragon was roaring.
A Kristaps dunk? No problem, back comes Goran for the and-1 play. Dragic again. He was up to 22 points and 7 assists now and we weren’t even midway through the third. Slovenia were up 10.
A fourth foul for Porzingis. Throughout the tournament he has struggled with foul trouble against the big guys but this time it was Luka Doncic, hardly a Boban Marjanovic build, giving him issues. The game had hit a lull and Latvia’s best shot at mounting a run had to sit. Doncic from deep and the lead was double digits again. A Gasper Vidmar dunk was the punctuation mark on a quarter where Dragic fired up those around him. With 10 minutes to play it was Slovenia up, 76-66.
Dragic started the fourth setting up Randolph for a three. No medals to show for a stellar career. No more shots on the table. It had to be tonight to earn his shot. Tonight the load was on him as long as he was on the floor. Still, he knew he couldn’t run all night. The Dragon rested and handed the keys to the kid.
Latvia sensed their chance. Kristaps moved in more, gambling, and Davis went long again. Still the Dragon sat. With him on the floor Slovenia were 28 points better than Latvia, as he sat this time the lead dropped to 4. Back in the game he came, six and a half minutes to play. Dragic wanted command.
In slid Doncic. Then the longest three. The kid was there for his childhood hero and Dragic took notice. Another deep ball from Doncic after an easy finish by Dragic and the big two were taking charge. Latvia had one more surge in them however and Dragic looked like he may not have enough to finish them.
Never fear. Having been getting better as the game wore on, Doncic took the mantle from his master. Goran had done his job. Now it was time for Luka to finish Latvia. The Latvians threw everything they had but Doncic kept coming back at them over and over until finally, the job was done. Goran will get his shot at a medal and his apprentice will be by his side all the way.
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