Panathinaikos completes comeback; Olympiacos fans unravel; and the uncomfortable reality of ‘ultra’ culture

Yesterday was a big day in European basketball. Fenerbahce, as expected, took a two-game lead over Besiktas in the Turkish BSL finals. Brose Bamberg won their third straight German title, and eighth domestic championship in nine seasons. And, Valencia pulled off a huge upset in Madrid to even the up the series in the ACB Liga Endesa finals.

However, all of those games deferred to the last big game of the day, which was the deciding Game 5 of the Greek Basket League championship between heated rivals Panathinaikos and Olympiacos in Piraeus.

If you follow European basketball (or just basketball in general) on Twitter, you probably heard about the incident in Piraeus that resulted in a wild, but dangerous ending. I will talk about that part later, and some of my own thoughts about the “ultra” culture.

However, I want to talk about the game first, for what PAO did seems to get lost in the discussion due to the events that happened in the last two minutes.


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Make no mistake, what PAO did wasn’t easy. While PAO took care of games 2 and 4 in Athens, they struggled immensely all year in Piraeus. Going into game 5, they were 0-4 for the year on Olympiacos’ home turf, which also includes their matchup in the Euroleague. The Red and White’s extremely physical style of play proved to be difficult for PAO, as their 90’s New York Knicks approach to basketball seemed to throw PAO off rhythm, especially on the offensive end. With a Greek Basket title on the line, and the Olympiacos ultras going to be in full, ridiculous and intimidating force, it seemed unlikely that PAO would be able to pull off Game 5 and come back from a 2-1 deficit in the series.

And yet, PAO not only beat Olympiacos in Peace and Friendship stadium, but absolutely dominated the game from the five minute mark of the first quarter on. Olympiacos put up an early 11-3 lead, but the wheels came off for the defending champs after the hot start. Though Olympiacos led 17-14 in the first quarter, PAO won the second quarter 10-22 and then the third quarter 10-21 to go up  37-57, which was too insurmountable for the home team to overcome, as they lost 51-66 to the Athenian visitors.

One could credit PAO head coach Xavi Pascual for adjusting his offense in the critical game. A coach who depends on his big playbook and heavily patterned offense, Pascual ceded control to his ball-dominant point guards Nick Calathes and Mike James. Calathes and James hurt the Olympiacos defense all game long, whether it was in isolation, drive and kicks for open threes (especially to KC Rivers who hit three 3-pointers), or in the pick and roll. For the game, Calathes put a line of 12 pts, 4 rebounds and 3 assists, and James, the MVP for the game, put up a line of 11 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists, good for a game high PIR of 19. If you watch the highlights below, you will see Calathes and James come up time and time again making big plays on the offensive end.

On the defensive end, PAO took away drives and the paint from OLY and forced their rival to beat the Greens from deep. The strategy worked, as OLY shot 25 percent from beyond the arc on 28 shots. Add that with 12 turnovers committed (in comparison to PAO’s 7), and it made sense that PAO won by such a large, and comfortable margin. Center Ioannis Bourousis took away scoring opportunities in the paint from OLY, as he had two blocks, a steal, and neutralized Nikola Milutinov, Khem Birch and Patric Young in the block, as they only combined for 8 points combined.

The disappointment in the finals for OLY could somewhat be contributed to stars Vassilis Spanoulis and Georgios Printezis failing to come through in the big moments. One could blame fatigue or PAO’s depth and defensive focus just getting to them in the final game of the year. However, the fact of the matter is OLY depends on their top two stars to win, and when they don’t play well, the game become very difficult for the club, especially on the offensive end. Spanoulis went 2-for-11 from the field and had 4 turnovers, good for a PIR of 5 (9 points total). Printezis was even worse, as he went 2-for-14, scored only 4 points, and had a 0 PIR. A combined 13 points from your two biggest players is not a formula for success, and OLY learned that the hard way in the title game.

This season is a bit of validation for Pascual, who was fired last summer from Barcelona despite his history of success with the club. In his first season in Athens, Pascual won a Greek title (snapping Olympiacos’ title streak) and made the Euroleague playoffs as a 4 seed (19-11 overall) despite taking over after the season started. That is a stark contrast to Barcelona, who finished 11th overall in the Euroleague (12-18 overall), lost in the first round of the ACB playoffs, and is now looking for a new head coach after firing Georgios Bartzokas after one season.

As Barcelona shuffles again for another head coach (and apparently being rejected by Sarunas Jasikevicius, who is apparently staying with Zalgiris), Pascual is once again on the top perch with the best coaches in Europe. Quite a turn of events in less than a year.


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I am still new to European basketball, as I have been following European ball on a regular basis for about 2.5 years now. When watching domestic leagues, it is refreshing to see how styles are different from country to country. The ACB is a more wide open style, with a bigger focus on offense and games being called more tightly. The Greek Basket league on the other hand is 80’s Big East Basketball: physical, no-holds barred, and not a lot called (and not just Olympiacos; I watched some AEK, PAOK, and Aris games and they all played the same way). I can appreciate both styles, as diversity in the game is always fun to see from a fan’s perspective.

However, the big difference between Europe and American NBA fans is the “ultra” culture. Though it’s pretty well-known in soccer circles, it does carry over to basketball, especially in Greece. In the last two minutes, with the game obviously going to end in PAO’s favor, the Olympiacos ultras showed their “dissatisfaction” with the result around the two minute mark, as evidenced below.

For a fan that’s used to NBA fanbases, who switch their team allegiance depending on what club LeBron James is on, this was quite the sight. I mean, fireworks, flares, explosions and for a good 20-30 seconds, the players didn’t seem fazed, as if this was just normal for them. Even on Twitter, as I remarked my shock, I was brought back to earth by people quite familiar with the Greek basketball scene:

Yep. I still have a lot to learn about Greek, and perhaps even European, basketball in general.

Overall, even though I imagine this kind of stuff is going to be expected on my end in the Greek League, it shows how different and ugly “ultra” culture can get. Sometimes, as Americans, “ultra” culture can be seen as “wow, these fans are so much better than American ones” or “it’s like a college environment!” And yes, when the focus is on the games, the “ultras” can give off that impression to us “outsiders”. It’s easy to see the positive when you only look at the surface.

However, between this incident, and my viewing of a recent documentary “Forever Pure” which looks at the La Familia “ultra” fan base of Beitar Jerusalem, I definitely have a modified view of “ultra” culture. It’s not just a bunch of fans coming together to be loud and cheer. There’s deep politics to these groups, as “ultra” groups can be vessels for extreme politicians who know they can mobilize people and an agenda better at a sporting event than a rally. And unfortunately, these “ultra” politics sometimes can be racist and hateful. There can be violence. There can be demonstrations of slurs that would make most people in America cringe. I mean, take a look at some of the photos below:

Can you imagine if a scene like that broke out in America? Can you imagine what Adam Silver would do? Hell, could you imagine what senators would come out of the woodwork and claim that as an act of terror? Stephen A. Smith, Skip Bayless and Jason Whitlock (or even Donald Trump, that ever-opportunistic bastard)  would be spewing conservative nonsense for weeks. This made “Malice in the Palace” look like a middle school lunchtime scuffle.

I’m not referring to all Olympiacos fans as responsible for this incident. I know many Olympiacos fans and they are practical basketball people who don’t get wrapped up in the politics or antics of “ultra” culture (like the people who run Courtside Diaries who are good knowledgeable basketball people and excellent writers not to mention Olympiacos fans). And yet, honestly, my view of Olympiacos and perhaps Greek basketball clubs as a whole has changed because of this. I am not a fan of this shit in any sport, and it’s a big reason why I don’t embrace soccer as much as other people. This is not fandom. What happened was outright dangerous for everyone involved.

I love European basketball, and I do love the Greek game, and will continue to love both going forward. It’s physical, heated on the court and amongst fan bases, and when things are in control, the fan environments can be the best in Europe, maybe the best in the world. But it’s important to understand the depths of “ultra” culture, and it’s not always positive, and it shouldn’t always be duplicated. Even in America we see MLS fans try to “duplicate” this behavior in their own fan sections and stadiums without knowledge of what these “ultras” are really about, which isn’t always about the game, but rather politics.

I am not totally discouraging “ultra” culture. I know it can enhance the game experience. And I know it’s not just a basketball thing, as it is more pronounced in soccer. However, I got a new perspective on European basketball this weekend. There’s a dark side, a reality that isn’t really all that comfortable to witness. I have to admit, I felt uncomfortable watching the last two minutes of that game. I felt something horrendous was going to happen. I felt as if I was watching something from a movie, not a live game.

We shouldn’t feel that way when watching sport, especially basketball.

We should just enjoy the beautiful game. And we shouldn’t expect chaos because the road team won on a hated rivals home court. It shouldn’t be “well…it wasn’t that bad all things considered.”

But it’s going to be that way from now on. I am going to expect shit to go down now in certain matchups from here on out. And that’s sad considering how much I love European basketball.

It’s amazing how one event can scar or desensitize you so easily.

Unicaja and Joan Plaza Bounce Back; Pouring one out for Valencia

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Much like the NCAA National Championship, it was a grind-it-out, defensive oriented affair in Valencia in the deciding game of the Eurocup Finals. Despite Valencia’s tough home-court environment, Unicaja proved to be road warriors again, winning 63-58 in the deciding game on the road for the second time this postseason (they won game 3 in the quarterfinals against Bayern Munich). Unicaja was led by Eurocup Finals MVP guard Alberto Diaz, who scored 12 shots on 4 of 6 shooting, had two assists, and provided some great defense at the guard position throughout the series.

It was not a pretty contest by any means in the deciding game, as Diaz was only one of two players to reach double figures scoring for Unicaja (Jamar Smith being the other). However, the defense of Unicaja was the underrated star of the series, as Unicaja held Valencia to only 4 points in the deciding 4th quarter (though part of it was Valencia not making open shots; props to Mark Titus and his “if they don’t make shots, they don’t win” theory). The Malaga-based club also quieted two of Valencia’s best offensive players, Rafa Martinez and Fernando San Emeterio, throughout the series, and especially in Game 3, as Martinez scored 3 points on 1-of-7 shooting, and San Emeterio scored 7 on of 1-of-9 shooting (this also resulted in Martinez having an epic meltdown at the end where he got a technical for jawing with Nemanja Nedovic and made the game go on five minutes longer than it should have; I thought he was going to fight every Unicaja player on the floor). The big concern going into the series was if Unicaja would be able to handle the offensive precision and depth of Valencia, but in the most crucial moments, Unicaja’s perimeter defense, led by Diaz, Smith, Nedovic, Jeff Brooks, and Adam Waczynski, came up big and willed the underdogs to victory. As you can see in the highlights below, Brooks’ huge block on Martinez in the closing seconds was a moment that Malaga fans will remember for a long time.

The win helps Unicaja return to the Euroleague after a one-year hiatus. Unicaja was one of the more entertaining clubs in the regular season last Euroleague, thanks to Mindaugas Kuzminskas, who is now playing for the New York Knicks. However, they nose-dived a bit in Top 16 play, didn’t make the playoffs, and didn’t perform well enough in the ACB to generate an at-large berth, thus pushing them to the Eurocup for the first time ever this season.

Thankfully for the Malaga-based club, they didn’t have to spend too much time away from Europe’s top, and most lucrative competition.

The win also was a bit of redemption for head coach Joan Plaza, a fiery and intense coach who has also coached for Real Madrid and Zalgiris prior to arriving in Malaga. This is the second Eurocup title for Plaza, as he won one in 2006-2007 (then the ULEB Cup) with Real Madrid (in addition to an ACB title). However, he wasn’t able to build on that success for long in the Spanish capital. Lackluster finishes in the ACB and Euroleague in consecutive seasons after his dual-title campaign resulted in him being replaced by Ettore Messina, who achieved Euroleague Final Four success in Plaza’s wake, thus dwarfing Plaza’s Madrid legacy in the record books a bit.

However, Plaza bounced back this year with Unicaja, and it is a bit satisfying to see on Plaza’s behalf. He gets forgotten in Spanish coaching circles among fans as of late, as he doesn’t have the credentials of a Messina, former Barcelona and current Panathinaikos coach Xavi Pascual or Pablo Laso, the current Madrid coach. And there was some speculation on how long he would stay in Malaga after being demoted to the Eurocup this season. Despite all that, not to mention not having home court advantage or Dejan Musli, who was lost to injury prior to the Finals, Plaza was able to add another championship to his underrated legacy. You could see in the interview below how much the victory meant to him, and how much he knew it meant to the community of Malaga as well.

Good for you Joan. We need more of your profanity-laced timeouts in the Euroleague.


 

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Not living in Spain or having much access to ACB games (other than random YouTube uploads), I did not have much familiarity with this Valencia team leading up to this Eurocup playoffs. However, once I started watching the Eurocup, Valencia was one of the teams I fell in love with quickly.

American Luke Sikma and Romain Sato were a couple of my favorite players when they were in college, and it was nice to not only see them again, but still being just as effective as professionals in Europe. I remembered Sikma being an efficiency machine in the WCC when he played at the University of Portland, and I have fond memories of Sato torching A-10 foes from beyond the arc when he played at Xavier. Neither has changed much in terms of game. Sikma remains a versatile and efficient post player, and Sato is the hot-hand off the bench that could swing momentum for this Valencia club at any given moment.

But while I had some prior fondness for Sikma and Sato, I grew to appreciate all of head coach Pedro Martinez’s Valencia squad with each and every playoff game. I loved Rafa Martinez’s heat-check 3’s and abrasive personality that made Sasha Vujacic look like a choir boy in comparison. I sunk in the in-depth post moves and beard of Bojan Dubljevic, who was probably Valencia’s best player this series (he had 16 points, 6 rebounds and a game high 19 PIR in Game 3). San Emeterio and Joan Sastre were crafty wings, who gave up many athletic disadvantages throughout the playoffs (especially in the last two rounds against Unicaja and Hapoel Jerusalem), but were able to be effective on the offensive and defensive in positive ways for this Valencia club.

And the fans? Well, when things were going well, as they were in Game 1 of the Finals, you could appreciate how turned up they got, often times boosting their team on the floor.

Valencia was like that good college team that didn’t have five-star recruits, or one tremendous star player, but relied on great chemistry and depth to win games. Martinez played a 10-plus rotation where multiple guys received double-digit minutes, even in the postseason, something that seems crazy to think about it in retrospect (whether its college or NBA, most teams are playing an 8-man lineup). And Martinez, while intense, always seemed focused in the moment, looking more like a seasoned college coach than the professional one you would see in the NBA (though to be honest, I would say Euroleague coaches are closer in spirit to college ones than NBA).

If I had to compare Valencia to any college basketball team, it would be a Gonzaga, of sorts: good, but not great players; a head coach who isn’t necessarily as widely-heralded as others in Europe (he had a lot of success with Gran Canaria as well); and a small, but rabid fanbase that makes Fuente de San Luis one of the more underrated (and perhaps toughest) venues in Spain, maybe Europe.

I am happy for Unicaja and Plaza. I am happy that more basketball fans will get to see Alberto Diaz in the Euroleague next year. The Malaga fans are some of the better ones you will see in European basketball circles.

But I wanted to see Valencia a bit more. I wanted to see the “Pedro-ball” and Rafa Martinez going at it with CSKA’s Milos Teodosic in a “who has the better half-assed beard and is more combative” contest. I wanted to see a potential Zalgiris Kevin Pangos and Sikma cross-match, akin to their Gonzaga-Portland days in the WCC.

However, with the cap of country teams in the Euroleague at four (meaning there can’t be more than four teams from one country), it is probably all but certain that Valencia will be back in the Eurocup in 2017-2018 (along with Malaga, Real Madrid, Baskonia and Barcelona will most likely be in the Euroleague; Barcelona was not good this year, but they have an A license).

Pour one out for Valencia. Let’s hope they show more Eurocup games (other than just the playoffs) next year on Euroleague TV.

Breaking Down the Last Minute of the FC Barcelona-Real Madrid Liga Endesa Game 1 Final

FC Barcelona celebrated a wild win over rival Real Madrid in Game 1 of the ACB Liga Endesa finals.

The NBA is not the only basketball league having their championship finals right now: in Spain, the Liga Endesa Final series is going on between longtime Spanish rivals (in multiple sports) FC Barcelona and Real Madrid.  The best of five series began today in Barcelona, and wow, what a finish, as the top-seeded Barcelona ousted Los Blancos in a nailbiter 100-99, which ended on a game winning shot.

Luckily for us, the ACB posted the last minute of the game in its entirety on its YouTube Channel. Instead of just posting the video, I decided to break it up into chunks so we can go more in-depth in terms of what led to such an exciting finish in the first game of the ACB’s championship series. So, let’s break it down by each possession from when it was 98-97 Barcelona and about a minute remaining.

(Note: not all commentary will be of the serious variety…so beware).

98-97 Barcelona; Real Madrid ball; 57.7 seconds left

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Real Madrid gets a quick shot to give them maximum amount of possessions down the stretch, not something to take for granted given Barcelona’s tendency to drain the clock under head coach Xavi Pascual (in the Euroleague, Barcelona had the slowest pace of any club in the Euroleague). However, this goes about as badly as it possibly could for Los Blancos.

Real Madrid center Gustavo Ayon gets caught in no man’s land after setting the pick, as Ante Tomic plays it well enough to prevent the roll, and Rudy Fernandez is in the spot where Ayon would pop to (though he has really little outside game, so him popping wouldn’t be much good). “El Chacho” Sergio Rodriguez could drive and try to take Tomic to the rack to make the layup behind him or draw the foul, but instead he kicks it to Fernandez, who despite an open look, totally airballs it.

For many Portland Trail Blazers fans, there is little surprise here, as Rudy had his share of disappointment during his time in the NBA with the Blazers. However, Blazers fans do wish Rodriguez would have had this beard in Portland. He would have never left the city after being crowned the “Hipster King Supreme” by 2012.

98-97 Barcelona; Barcelona ball; 43.7 seconds left

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I like this pick and roll action by Barcelona. Juan Carlos Navarro and Tomic run a high ball screen and roll action with Navarro hitting Tomic on the roll. You could argue Tomic could take this to the rack and at the very least draw a foul, but with it still being two-possession territory time-wise, Tomic wisely picks up his dribble and hits Pau Ribas who is rolling up at the top of the perimeter after setting a staggered screen earlier for Navarro after he passed it. Ribas’ shot look is contested though by a good closeout by Real Madrid defender Sergio Llull, and Ribas takes a dribble and passes it out on the perimeter to wing Stratos Perperoglou.

This is where it gets pretty, and its unfortunate that Barcelona is unable to finish on this end.  Perperoglou gives it to Tomic in the post who has gotten good position on Ayon in the left block. Perperoglou then cuts toward the middle as if he’s going to set a cross screen for Ribas, but at the left elbow, he cuts in front of Fernandez (who is in bad defensive position by overplaying Perperoglou on his cut) and receives the ball from Tomic on a beautiful “give and go” exchange.

Unfortunately, Perperoglou doesn’t finish the easy layup, though he looks like he was expecting to be fouled, and Fernandez makes some effort to do so, though it’s difficult to tell if Fernandez deked at the last moment and caused Perperoglou to over-compensate on the finish, or if Fernandez did foul and the refs missed it.

98-97 Barcelona; Real Madrid ball; 22.2 seconds left

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The Portland “Hipster God” Rodriguez turns down the Ayon screen and instead dribble penetrates, which forces Tomic to come out and help. This is key because that is one major issue with Tomic: he really struggles when the initial defense breaks down and he has to help, as he has a tendency to get out of position after a lot of switching due to penetration and ball movement. Rodriguez forces Tomic out of the paint, hits Fernandez in the corner, who immediately swings it to Llull on the left wing beyond the arc.

It’s a bit hard to tell here, but Llull really seems to fake out Navarro, as Navarro over-sits on Llull’s right, as if he is going to pass out back to Rodriguez. Instead, Llull drives with his left to the left block, causing Tomic to creep out of the paint to help stop the drive. This causes Tomic to take his eyes off of Ayon, who is rolling to the hoop, and Llull hits Ayon cutting to the right block. Because Tomic had to help for a second on Llull, Tomic can’t recover, though he does an admirable job to use his height to prevent the layup. But the combo of him being a little bit late, and a great athletic move leads to an impressive Ayon finish.

But the best part? Fernandez, who can’t seem to do anything right in this stretch of the game, clocks Ayon in the head while flying into crash the boards. I do not know why Pablo Lasso kept him in at this point. Blazer fans would be throwing almonds on the floor at this point in disgust with Fernandez. (Yes Portland hates him that much).

99-98 Real Madrid; Barcelona ball; 14.2 seconds left

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This isn’t a bad play drawn up by Pascual: get the ball in the hands of your best player (Navarro) and try to cause the defense to switch to get a favorable matchup. Navarro and Justin Doellman set the high screen and roll and Ayon and Llull switch, cross-matching Ayon with Navarro. Navarro resorts to what he does well in this situation: take it to the rack and either score or draw the foul (Navarro has a reputation of lunging into the body to draw fouls).

Remarkably though, Ayon plays incredible defense on this play. He stays off of Navarro so the Spanish guard cannot draw contact for the foul. With the exception of a minor hand check at the top of they key (not to mention a hand check from Navarro in return), Ayon puts on a clinic in terms of how to properly defend the drive, especially in a critical situation. Ayon stays with him with his shoulders square, and he also doesn’t fall for Navarro’s initial head fake when Navarro first picks up the ball. By not falling for the head fake, when Navarro does go up for the finish, Ayon is easily able to block the shot and block it quickly.

Unfortunately, Real Madrid cannot get the loose ball in a scramble, as neither Ayon, Fernandez (God…again!) nor Andres Nocioni (Remember that name? Yes, he’s in Europe now, not on a NBA roster wasting cap-space of your favorite team) can grab it before it rolls out of bounds. A hell of a defensive play by Ayon, but Real Madrid’s inability to grab the loose ball and ice the game gives Barcelona one last shot…

99-98 Real Madrid; Barcelona ball; 3.0 seconds left

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Pascual has Navarro taking the ball out in this situation with Tomic just outside the left mid-post, Perperoglou at the top of the key, Doellman right beneath the free throw line, and Ribas standing on the right wing beyond the arc, there to just scratch his balls or something (but in all seriousness, he just needed to be out of this play to clear space in the middle). Take a look at the action that follows after Navarro throws it in:

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Doellman begins the action by setting the screen for Perperoglou, who will come off of Doellman’s screen and cut to the hoop. Tomic will flare out to the arc. Ribas will do nothing because that is what he’s supposed to do here: nothing. (Pau Ribas is not winning you this game in 98 percent of situations, so why try?)

Navarro predictably passes it to Tomic, and steps out to get the ball. Llull defends him to prevent the dribble hand-off, and in response, this happens:

 

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Is this is a push or not? Watch the clip above and you can be the judge yourself. However, I am not sure why Llull is playing Navarro like this. I get it, you don’t want him to get the dribble handoff and get a clean look for a three off the handoff (which works like a de-facto ball screen). However, there are two reasons why Llull should have let him get the handoff instead of play to prevent it:

1.) Real Madrid is only up by 1. Whether its a two or three doesn’t matter at this point. I get Llull’s strategy if there was a two point lead on the line, but in this scenario, a layup hurts just as much as a three-pointer. Thus, make him take the longer shot.

2.) Navarro this year was a 33.6 percent 3-point shooter this year in ACB play. He’s has not been a dead-eye by any means, and if he makes the three, then luck was on their side. Poor scouting on the Real Madrid staff to not emphasize this point more to Llull in the timeout.

So, whether Navarro pushes Llull off or not is inconsequential. Llull had poor positioning, which led to this:

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Llull is out of position because of the “push off” and Ayon isn’t able to switch so easily off the give and go because of Llull’s lack of positioning. And thus, Navarro gets a clear lane to the hoop. Nocioni has to help and plays to take away the shot by jumping to block it, but as you can see, that leaves Perperoglou wide open, and Navarro recognizes this and instead of playing “hero” ball and going to the rim, he pitches it Perperoglou in the key. And thus…

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Perperoglou layup, though Ayon and the Real Madrid defense do their damnedest to prevent it. Despite all the pressure though, he gets it off, the buzzer sounds, the ball goes through the basket and Barcelona is up 1-0 in the Liga Endesa finals after a 100-99 victory.

Overall, it was a wild last minute, and I look forward to not only watching more extensive tape of this game (I don’t have ACB streaming access so it’s harder to find full games than the Euroleague; hence a reason why I primarily focus on the Euroleague and not other domestic leagues), but also the following games in this series. Real Madrid and Barcelona is a great basketball rivalry, and if Game 1’s finish was any indicator, this championship series should be another exciting chapter in the Spanish basketball rivalry’s heated and extensive history.