By Fernando Martín @fmartinBasket
The San Antonio Spurs have defeated the Miami Heat in five games to reign again fifteen years after their first NBA championship. Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich have now five rings and are among the best ever. It’s the fourth for Tony Parker and Manu Ginóbili but the first for most of their teammates –for everyone except Matt Bonner.
For Brazilian center Tiago Splitter this success means he’s won championships at both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. And that he’s become the fourth player to ever unify the NBA and ACB titles, joining Pau Gasol, Fabricio Oberto and Francisco Elson.
By Fernando Martín @fmartinBasket
Still shocked by the last episode of Game of Thrones? You’re not the only one. The disturbing scenes filmed for ‘The Mountain and the Viper’ will remain in fans’ minds for a long time. The same statement is valid for book readers (I include myself in that category), who were already anticipating the episode main events from several weeks ago.
In my case, I was also curious to see how Icelandic strongman turned into actor Hafthor Julius Bjornsson, the real (super)man behind Sir Gregor Clegane, aka ‘The Mountain that rides’, would perform. Why? Because ‘The Mountain’, I mean Hafthor, was a basketball player not so long ago.
From Navarro’s 20 points in a single period to Jayson Granger’s leadership and the wonderful Valencia-Cajasol series. The ACB quarterfinals didn’t disappoint a bit. The four teams with the home court advantage prevailed, but it wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Here’s the best from the first round.
Navarro’s scoring outburst
At 34 years old, Juan Carlos Navarro has had such a quiet season in the ACB that one could think his amazing career’s finally in the downside. He hadn’t scored so few points (9.6 per game in 22 minutes) since 2000 (7.3). Injuries have slowed him down for the last three years, but, somehow, ‘Juanqui’ always finds a way to make an impact in big games.
Barcelona needed the best from him to defeat a good Laboral Kutxa in the first game of their series. Xavi Pascual’s squad trailed by 7 just before halftime (36-43) as their defense failed to stop Laboral Kutxa’s most talented players. They allowed 68 points after three quarters, while their average for a whole game this season is 70.0. But then Juan Carlos Navarro came to the rescue.
For Real Madrid the ACB playoffs start tonight with the first game of their quarterfinals series against CAI Zaragoza. After a record-breaking regular season (32 wins, only 2 defeats) Laso’s men need seven more victories to retain the league title. That would very much make up for the Euroleague final lost a fortnight ago. A great ending too for Nikola Mirotic’s love story with Real if he decides to leave for the NBA after the summer. But, will he?
This was supposed to be the season in which Nikola Mirotic finally proved he is the most dominant forward in European basketball. And what a better way to do it than winning the Euroleague title. If he was able to accomplish both goals, then the NBA would be the logical outcome.
Indeed, Mirotic has managed to take his game to a higher level, improving stats and overall impression, but failed to bring home the European crown. Real Madrid lost their second consecutive Euroleague final against Maccabi Electra due to the same flaws they showed a year ago versus Olympiacos. And as in 2013, Mirotic himself underperformed in the championship game.
“They all told me not to stress out for not playing. But I did”, Salah Mejri told Spanish Hoops a few days ago. Last season’s ACB Rising Star had a slow start at Real Madrid. With Nikola Mirotic and Ioannis Bourousis as the indisputable starters at the power forward and center spots, Felipe Reyes as the preferred replacement off the bench and Marcus Slaughter praised by his coach as a top-notch defensive specialist, there was not much game time left for the Tunisian big man.
Salah, 27 years old, is averaging 11 minutes per match in the ACB and the Euroleague, but he only sees extended action in lopsided games. He played just 1 minute and 8 seconds in the Supercup final and 1 second in the Copa del Rey final (both games against Barcelona). For a guy as hungry and ambitious as he is, it shouldn’t have been easy.
“I’ve never played in the Euroleague. I’ve never played games so big before. So yes, it was difficult to adapt. Last year I was a starter but it doesn’t work like that here. We have Ioannis [Bourousis], with tons of experience in the Euroleague, and Marcus [Slaughter], who’s played several seasons too. I’m just the new guy in the best team in Europe, and I’m very happy to be in this position”.
These are troubled times for one of Europe’s most competitive, stable and visionary clubs.
Baskonia, now called Laboral Kutxa, is ninth in the ACB and last in his Euroleague Top 16 group after an injury plagued season. A couple of weeks ago, and for the first time since 2001, Baskonia wasn’t able to advance to the Copa del Rey semi-final game due to a heartbreaking defeat by one point against Valencia.
The proud team from Vitoria-Gasteiz is no longer the third basketball power in the ACB behind Real Madrid and Barcelona. And that hurts.
In this century, Baskonia has had success at every level. ACB champion in 2002, 2008 and 2010, Copa del Rey champion in 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2009 and Euroleague runner-up in 2001 and 2005. Sent half a dozen players to the NBA (Calderón, Scola, Splitter, Prigioni, Teletovic…) and surprisingly kept being a contender team after that. Found economic prosperity and managed to upgrade its iconic arena (Fernando Buesa Arena) into an even more magnificent 15,504-seat facility.
And Baskonia did all this in Vitoria, a city of about 200,000 people. A true basketball haven in the heart of the Basque Country.
But since last season, things have changed. A lot.
A shot made all the difference. Don’t forget that.
As most expected, record breaker Real Madrid won the Spanish Cup 2014 (77-76). It is the third title in a row (ACB, Supercopa and Copa del Rey) for mighty Pablo Laso squad, now 37-1 in the season. But it wasn’t easy.
Brad Oleson had put Barcelona ahead with 8 seconds remaining (75-76) after a 2+1 play. Then, Sergio Llull, who was having an off night, scored the winning shot from the corner.
We can discuss who was better and who choked, analyze and overanalyze a thrilling game, but when everything depends upon a single jump shot, all judgements can be unfair. Sergio Llull’s last field goal (nearly a buzzer beater) changed the whole story. Like Ray Allen’s one in Game 6 of the NBA finals. That’s the beauty of sport.
After an excelent first quarter by georgian duo Gio Shermadini and Viktor Sanikidze (22-15), it seemed CAI Zaragoza could be the team that make Real Madrid sweat.
A mirage. It was not. Not even close.
Pablo Laso inmediately shuffled the team and they finally found their rythmn. In the blink of an eye, Real was up by 15 points, 20, 25… And the game was over before half time (54-37). Nothing new for the whites.
Real Madrid has reached or surpassed the 50 point mark by half time in 11 games this season.