By: Rob Scott / @robscott33

It’s the morning after the night before. Real Madrid’s players must all have woken up with that feeling of bleary eyed confusion followed by the sinking realisation that yes, what happened last night was real. They went into Siena knowing that a win and a Bilbao loss in Malaga would see them escape their two weeks of temporary insanity and progress to the Quarter Finals. If they could somehow beat the Italian powerhouse by 23 points on their own floor, it didn’t matter what Bilbao did, but that was always a fanciful notion.

Hope

For a time, as both games wound to climax, it appeared that the basketball Gods may have taken a conference call and decided to let Madrid pass. Wiped from history thoses games against Siena and in Bilbao where they played like startled children. Not just losing, but losing by 19 and then 24 points, each one another brick in a wall that would ultimately prove too tall to climb.

Unicaja took a one point lead inside two minutes, edging in front 51-50 in an ugly, low scoring game. Unicaja’s simple zone was working against a Bilbao offense that has a habit of grinding to a halt for long periods. CSKA’s scouts would have been drooling, and they probably haven’t stopped.

Meanwhile, in Siena

At that approximate moment over in Tuscany, with more time on the clock, Madrid were leading by six, showing off the kind of offensive fluidity that had put Barcelona to the sword in the Copa del Rey final. This wasn’t run and gun basketball; it was, by and large, almost flawless halfcourt execution.

Deflation

In hindsight, relying on Unicaja doing you a solid and managing to beat Bilbao was like relying on your black-sheep uncle with a drinking problem and chronic amnesia picking you up from the airport. Painfully, he managed to get most of the way there but forgot where he was, pulled over to the side of the road and got out the hipflask. After sneaking in front in—if it wasn’t for the cozy ‘A licence’ system—what would have been their last Euroleague game for a while, they reverted to type. The latest Bilbao player to discover a sense of dramatic timing stepped up, just as he had done last week in Siena to set up this frantic denouement.

Lopez the Killer

Raul Lopez, the former Madrid legend, swished a deep three pointer, under minimal duress from the hosts. He found Marko Banic under the rim with Zoric in bad defensive position, and the Croatian muscled in for the layup. Bilbao saw out the final minute against a Unicaja team that has forgotten how to win. EJ Rowland’s bricked foul line jumpshot and Joel Freeland’s missed layup were sad symbols of the rut they find themselves in.

A continent exhales

Despite this, with Unicaja down four in the final minute, as Alejandro Abrines was fouled, his shot rolled around the rim but fell out by a matter of milimetres. The whole of the Euroleague community held its breath at once. Seasons can be decided by such matters. Abrines represents hope for the future in Malaga, but there is a whole lot of rebuilding needed if they are to justify their continued presence at the top table.

Ress puts Madrid to rest

There were still around five minutes left in Siena, but Madrid couldn’t possibly push the lead to the 23 they needed. In the end they got just over halfway, winning by 12, putting up 102 points against the 5th best defense in the competition. In a night of ‘could have beens’ if they hadn’t have run into Tomas Ress shooting 5/6 from three point range, even that unlikely margin of victory might have been attained. Madrid delivered the offensive performance they needed, they just couldn’t find the defense to match.

A price worth paying

It is difficult for some to feel sorry for Madrid. They have a huge budget, and have paid for their inconsistency, but other teams who similarly rose and fell during the Top 16 have survived to tell the tale. Bilbao, for one, looked like potential champions for 40 minutes when Madrid came to town, but won by scoring 60 and 59 points in their decisive last two games. True, there is more than one way to win, but their offensive struggles will be held up to ruthless scrutiny by a CSKA team that is physically imposing at every position.

This is the last year that we will have this brief burst of six games to decide the top eight teams. While the second phase is so short, there is always the potential for points differential to sink its teeth into one team or another. The competition may be poorer for Madrid’s exit, but if the drama of last night is the prize, most would say it’s one worth paying.

Rob Scott writes ‘Switching Screens’ every week for ELA. He also writes for Euro-step.net and The Basketball Post. Follow him on Twitter @robscott33.