“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.
It was one of those games that made the Copa del Rey ACB so special. Valencia Basket and Laboral Kutxa fought until the very last second. Big shots, big mistakes, officiating controversy, great defensive actions, an injured player and a winning free throw with just 0.4 seconds in the clock (74-73). Thanks for the show.
Down by 10 at halftime (35-45), Valencia seemed to be choking after a superb first half of the season (16-2 record in the ACB). To make things worse, Ukrainian center Serhiy Lishchuk had to leave the court with a groin injury later in the game, leaving shorthanded Valencia’s frontcourt rotation even shorter.
No matter the circumstances, they went to Malaga aiming for the title, or at least for a shot at the title. Such an early loss could have been devastating for their morale.
But this team has a never-say-die attitude.
Real Madrid and CAI Zaragoza started the 2014 edition of the Copa del Rey in good fashion. The former crushed CB Gran Canaria by 23 points (83-60) while the latter beat the home team Unicaja (74-79) thanks to a great second half by Damjan Rudez, Viktor Sanikidze and Giorgi Shermadini.
Two players definitely made an impact in this day 1: a skilled guy from Montenegro and a colossus born and raised in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Nikola Mirotic needed just ten minutes to prove the ACB is too small for him. The Real Madrid power forward scored 11 points in the first quarter, helping his team outscore Gran Canaria 19-9, 41-20 in the first half. We shouldn’t be surprised since he’s been doing that, day in and day out, all season long.
It reaches a point where you may think he is wasting his time playing in the ACB.
Niko keeps saying he hasn’t decided yet what he wants to do next season, but all signs point to him leaving Madrid for the NBA next summer. Last month Real somehow managed to extend Sergio Rodriguez contract till 2018. If Mirotic is the best player in Europe right now, Sergio might be number two. Keeping the two of them long term? Unrealistic. Real’s budget is not that big.
Chicago, you better be ready.
Seven months from now, Spanish basketball will face its biggest challenge. A challenge that started yesterday with a World Cup draw that was catastrophic for the host team.
Spain has been nearly unstoppable at FIBA events for the last decade. World champions in 2006, European champions in 2009 and 2011, silver medalists at two Olympic Games… Their résumé is a dream come true for a national team that hit rock bottom twenty years ago.
The 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona planted the seed that germinated in what we know now as the Golden Age of spanish sport… Only not in basketball.
Spain had won the bronze medal at the 1991 EuroBasket in Rome, but a year later, in the greatest event the country had ever seen, the national team experienced its biggest humiliation.
July 31st, 1992. Angola beat Spain by 20 points (63-83) before an ashamed crowd that ended booing his own team and rooting for the other. And there he was: Jean-Jacques Conceicao. Number 15 in the back of the jersey, his name in the front. All sinew and muscle. 22 points, 8 rebounds, 7 steals. A summer nightmare. We called it the ‘Angolazo’.
Zoran Dragic is having a heck of a year. Last summer, the Slovenian was on his way out of Unicaja after a disappointing first season in the ACB (5.2 points, 15 minutes per game). Despite he had another one guaranteed in his contract, his return seemed doubtful. After signing Ryan Toolson and Carlos Suárez, Unicaja even tried (with little success) to loan him to the very same team his brother Goran had played for in 2006 (UCAM Murcia).
Then the EuroBasket came.
The 24-year-old guard had an eye-opening performance in his home country teaming up with Goran. The Dragic bros were the two best players of an exciting Slovenian squad that finished the European championship in fifth position.
“The EuroBasket gave me a boost of confidence”, Zoran said to SpanishHoops. “But also the work I did on summer to become a more complete player. It helped me a lot”.