Baskonia had their chance. Up four inside the final minute, they had given everything they could. The colour was draining from the faces of the Fenerbahce fans, even if the stands remained a deep, electrifying yellow, save for the raucous corner of red at one end, threatening to send eighty percent of the crowd back into the craziness of an east Berlin night in a fog of disbelief.
If defeat was painful in the moment and the immediate aftermath, it was probably dulled by mental and physical fatigue. Baskonia guard Mike James, who had the highlight of the night throwing down a lob from Darius Adams, was candid after the game. “I think we blew one tonight. We get one stop, we win the game.”
Reflecting in the cold light of a dull morning after, the tiny mistakes and near-misses will probably haunt them even more. Could they have closed out on Datome a split second quicker? Could someone have bodychecked Sloukas in the paint and at least make him earn the tying points at the stripe? Maybe, but
The way Baskonia came back after their early jitters was a microcosm of their season. Ioannis Bourousis was at the centre of everything, dominating a juddering battle in the paint with Ekpe Udoh. He came in with the Basques down 13-4, and immediately went to work. Nando De Colo may have been unstoppable with the ball all season, none more so than in the earlier semi final, and it may seem churlish to question his MVP award. But in terms of his overall impact. nobody took on more of a load for his team than the bear-like Greek centre.
Bourousis is everything to this team: low-post bruiser, point centre, Nowtzki-esque swish merchant. But for all of his relentless grinding in the paint, it’s his ability to pop out to the arc that is the key to Baskonia’s offense. Send the screen defender to help on the ball and he can punish you from deep. Refuse to help off him and Mike James and Darius Adams have space to attack, or pull up from three, as he did in the reckless exhilaration of Baskonia’s comeback.
Ultimately, Adams only had so many matches to light, and his last one burned out just a little too early, his final jumper rimming out as they dribbled down the clock.
Reflecting less than 24 hours later, maybe they could have got a better shot. 25 seconds left on the clock, scores level, the plan was to make sure they got the last shot, James confirmed to ELA after the game. It’s easy to criticise here, and you minimise the chance of turnovers without passing the ball, but some off-ball movement wouldn’t have been too much? As Adams pounded the ball up top as the digits fell away, the feeling was all-or-nothing. If he didn’t make it, overtime was more or less beyond them. As Bogdan Bogdanovic made up for his bad shooting night to bury the knife, then twist it, Adams and James strained every sinew to respond, digging into reserves of energy that just weren’t there.
This Fenerbahçe team is too experienced and too resolute not to put their foot into the sliver of space as the door closed and kick it off the hinges. They stumbled at this point last year, but seemed supremely relaxed in the build up. Pero Antic told ELA on Thursday about how much confidence and togetherness they gain from their leader, Zeljko Obradovic. In these situations, ‘coach’ seems like an inadequate word to describe it. Not to say that Zoc’s on-court direction wasn’t important.
— Manuel Baraniak (@manuel_baraniak) May 13, 2016
When Zoc rewatches the tape of this game, he might allow himself a brief smile as he sees his team executing one of his pet plays to survive when their backs weren’t so much against the wall as holding up the damn building.
To carry that out, you need experience and talent. Fener spread the responsibility for the win right across their squad - Bobby Dixon had a poor game, Bogdanovic’s shot didn’t drop in regulation, Vesely is still less than healthy, although he personally hauled Fener back into contention late on when Baskonia took everything else away.
Go down the list of names and you get veteran after veteran. Luigi Datome buried a three to cut the deficit to a point before Adams missed his crucial free throw. Kostas Sloukas - who has won this championship twice already - was ice-blooded with the ball in hand and the game on the line. Udoh and Pero Antic never backed down.
The final seven or so minutes of this game were the practical application of everything Obradovic would have prepared them for, but the players still need to carry out those instructions, no matter how good they are.
Some juggernaut basketball teams seem machine-like: The CSKA Moscow 2012 vintage, or Pascual’s Barcelona at their peak. But this Fener team is different - like a lot of champions, it combines a thorough commitment to detail and preparation with a tangible emotion, it plays with feeling. That’s something that I probably didn’t appreciate until seeing them play in person. Rather than a machine, it’s a sinewy, red-blooded animal. A possibly un-killable beast that a ragged band of hunters nearly - but not quite - took down.
Postgame, ELA asked Bogdanovic where his love for pressure comes from. “From Serbia,” he said, grinning. Just like grey haired general prowling the sideline. It will take even more than Baskonia bravely threw at them to stop the trophy going to Istanbul.