Sergio Llull hit a long jumper in the final second to send Madrid home with the Copa del Rey for the second time in three years, in a heart-stopping 77-76 victory over their bitterest rivals. Madrid looked to have sealed a narrow win in an attritional, heavyweight battle, leading 75-68 with 1:13 on the clock. Barcelona reeled off an incredible 8-0 run to steal the lead, until Sergio Rodriguez grabbed the inbounds pass with a shade over 8 ticks to go, twisted through heavy pressure and found Llull in the corner for the game winner. With 0.01 remaining, Oleson’s lob to the rim was accurate but to no avail.
Barcelona just about controlled the first half, but let Madrid survive at the free throw line and the Blaugrana led by only 42-38. In stark contrast to these teams’ first two games, points were earned, not taken. Both of these teams pose multiple problems running pick and roll offense, but Madrid looked to have taken the first tactical blood, Mirotic helping quickly and forcefully on Tomic’s rolls to the rim, picking up a block in the first minute and disrupting another attempt. Tomic gained the upper hand when Rudy came across and could only foul him without stopping the dunk, and Fernandez picked up his second foul in the quarter on a similar play, sending him to the bench earlier than Laso would have liked.
As the first half progressed, neither team allowed the other to go on a run, or gain enough momentum to dominate the other. The referees became fussy in calling fouls away from the ball.
The second quarter is when Sergio Rodriguez usually enters the game and turns up the thermostat on the Madrid offense, but Barça instead began to impress. Dorsey shut down all penetration, playing near perfect pick and roll defense and shutting off the paint to Rodriguez and Llull. On the other hand, Nachbar was no match for Mirotic at the defensive end, which was one of the main reasons the Whites shot 15/16 from the line in the first half to stay in the game when their offense was stifled.
In the second half, Rudy returned to delve into the Barça defense, and started to pick it apart. Madrid’s transition opportunities were nullified in the first half but a long outlet to Llull set up a layup plus the foul on Navarro. Rudy hit a three and Madrid were in business again.
But again, the game swung back to Barcelona – Huertas’ ability to freeze Bourousis stepping under screens, allowing him the space to drop in floaters was beginning to do damage. Marcus Slaughter’s entrance was probably overdue. Not for the first time, a Madrid player converted a wildly difficult shot to beat the shot clock, this time Draper shaking off the close out and draining the three to put his team up 60-59.
Nikola Mirotic picked up the MVP award for his 17 points, 11 rebounds, three blocks and 32 ranking points. It was well deserved. Although Rodriguez and Llull combined for the iconic play of the game, maybe of the latter’s career to date, Mirotic grabbed the game from Barça’s control. His third block, crashing in from the weakside, saved a certain two for Tomic, who had Llull in the post on a switch. At the other end, he calmly set his feet and sank a three from the right corner that put Madrid up 71-64 inside two minutes.
It looked like that would be the critical play, the icing on a 7-0 run, Rudy floating across the paint, drawing help and firing a bullet pass to the corner. Barcelona had other ideas. Juan Carlos Navarro earned a trip to the line, sinking both. Rudy replied in kind, but Boki Nachbar hammered a dunk from a baseline drive to make it 73-68.
Reyes was constantly involved in refereeing decisions, at both ends, and he got the call as Navarro ran into his screen. A pair from the line gave Madrid their seemingly insurmountable lead. Jaycee Carroll, speaking to ELA after the game, said he though it would be “impossible” for them to come back. He was wrong.
Barça missed their next shot but the ball found its way to Oleson, who stroked a three to make it a four point game. Reyes fouled out on a debatable loose-ball foul on Dorsey, but the latter missed both foul shots. Again, Madrid couldn’t control the rebound and Huertas hit a floater to make it 75-73. Madrid still controlled the clock though, with the shot clock turn off and a two point lead.
Madrid may have anticipated the foul, but Pascual trusts his defense more than that. Caught in a sideline trap, Rodriguez threw the ball straight to Dorsey, and it found its way to Oleson, who not only tied the game on a driving layup but caught the foul as well. He sank the free throw to cap a miraculous 8-0 run in the final minute, but Rodriguez still had time to redeem himself, and write the ending to one of the greatest clásicos in either sport.
The twin superpowers of Spanish sporting landscape have contested this final for the fourth time in five years. Now they have two trophies apiece. It may be becoming repetitive, but this game showed once more, why the frequent meetings between these two still make the European basketball world grind to a halt.
Why Real Madrid Won
Llull’s game winner is the kind of play that headline writers dream about, and Mirotic deserved his MVP not only for the shots he hit, but for his part in forcing Ante Tomic into shooting 5-for-15. However, with no timeouts left – which was probably a good thing – Llull could not have hit the shot without the wizardry, handling skills and calm head of Rodriguez bringing the ball up court under the ultimate pressure. The behind the back dribble to buy enough space to pick out Llull was phenomenal, which has come to be routine this season. Special mention must also go to Reyes for his uncanny ability to attract the attention of the officials to every nudge, elbow or slight contact under the rim.
Why FC Barcelona Lost
Instant analysts pointed to Kostas Papanikolaou leaving Llull alone in the corner on the game-winning play, but to expect perfect decision-making on the fly is highly unfair – yes, it was not the right play, but he hardly threw the ball out of bounds or dribbled off his foot. Players are not robots running a decision-matrix at all times, and to pile onto Papanikolaou without recognising what a heads-up play Rodriguez made, would be churlish.
It’s a tribute to their defense that Barça could easily have won this game, while shooting 5-of-20 from behind the arc and a morbid 15-of-27 from the line.
A star from each team
Real Madrid: The transition of Rudy Fernandez from high-risk aesthete to methodical hitman is almost complete. Each time he plays a big game like this, dancing around screens, finding open shooters, making threes in rhythm, not as a narcissistic fancy, he seals his place as the pre-eminent wing player of modern European basketball. His 19 points including 4-of-5 from three and three assists were indispensable.
FC Barcelona: Joey Dorsey’s pick and roll defense was impeccable. Another case of Xavi Pascual turning a player with the tools to play great defense, into a great defender.
ELA managed to grab Jaycee Carroll for a quick word after the game, as he told us what he was thinking as Barcelona came back in the final minute:
A deflated Boki Nachbar talked to reporters after the game, and vowed to come back stronger from the defeat: