Istanbul’s Anadolu Efes triumphed in Belgrade in one of the most claustrophobic finals in Euroleague history and tied for their second continental crown after beating Real Madrid in a duel that became an ode to agony (57-58). Laso’s team, unable to add points to their defensive bravery, saw the dream of the eleventh European Cup vanish on the shore in an arid, stormy and cruel second half, in which the madridistas were only able to score 23 points and they did not need 17 seconds to go to have tried to have one last bullet. After holding Larkin and writing off Vasilije Micic —mvp of the event with 23 points—, Tibor Pleiss appeared as the unexpected protagonist (19 points) and unfathomable in an extravagant outcome. Micic and Pleiss scored 42 of their team’s 58 points.
Efes achieved a historic double. The feat of winning two consecutive Euroleagues, something that only Maccabi (2004 and 2005) and Olympiacos (2012 and 2013) have achieved in this century. Madrid was left with the insufficient consolation of competing for the title until the last millimeter after coming from beyond just over a month ago. A season as inexplicable as the final. A path that began with the soundtrack of the Cavalcade of the Valkyries, with a forceful staging in the first four months of competition, later led to Albinoni’s Adagio, with 17 defeats in 28 games, in 82 days of perdition between on January 23 and April 13. And to the point, to a point, it was to lead to the Radetzky March against Efes. But, in Belgrade, the Danube was not white, as in 2018, but blue, as always.
As soon as the ticket to the Final Four was sealed, Ataman said without qualms that they would beat Barça in the final and, as the azulgrana were not found at the meeting, he entered unknown territory, as he himself admitted the day before —”Laso always prepare something unexpected against us. Every match is a tactical surprise.” But the bet was firm, entrusted to the most differential figures in Europe: Micic and Larkin.
This time, the Madrid coach presented himself with a more academic quintet than against Barça —with Abalde, Hanga, Deck, Yabusele and Tavares— and the Whites’ only trick was collective involvement, like a battalion of bomb squads, with Micic and Larkin as clear targets to disable.
With five rebounds, a steal and three baskets by Tavares in a jiffy, Madrid seized the initiative and began to cement their game plan; defending the stellar duo of Efes with a dedicated effort of changes and help. The 0 of 8 in triples weighed down the Whites’ momentum in the staging and Micic made an effort to quickly wake up his team. But Tavares continued to grow in size and prominence, threatening at the back, dominant at the top. Incomprehensible for Efes, the Madrid giant accumulated 12 points and seven rebounds in his first nine minutes on the court, but a foul on Larkin, the second on his record, blurred his great start and allowed Ataman’s team to balance the game (15- 14, m. 10).
Without Tavares in front throughout the second quarter, Efes breathed fully and their two stars found more cracks. However, Madrid’s second unit in the final maintained control of the match time and the scoreboard. Laso’s men held on to the court with experience and dedication. Two triples by Randolph and one by Taylor allowed the Whites to find the switch on the perimeter (3 of 15 in shots from three at the break). And three assists from Llull confirmed the greater fluidity of Laso’s team.
Micic and Larkin entered the intermission with 13 and 10 points, respectively, in their statistics. But his run was insufficient for the Turkish team. But, by then, Efes were two solitary riders carrying on their backs all the options of their team, and Madrid a concrete group (34-29, m. 20). That’s where the basketball game ended and a horror movie began.
After the restart, Tavares returned and Hanga’s hyperactivity and Rudy’s vicious spirit gained relevance. Adding pieces, Madrid made a piggy bank of nine income points (40-31, m. 25). A fortune in the midst of the thicket prevailing in that section and the growing tension. But, immediately afterwards, with the score at 40-33, two three-pointers by Abalde made the tie in the Turkish rim and, in the next attack, Pleiss did hole out for Efes. A flash that illuminated and reactivated Ataman’s men, who tightened the nuts in defense and raised the revolutions in attack. They did not know it yet, but there was the final. With a 6 of 33 three pointer, the Whites broke the negative records for missed three pointers and the lowest percentage (18%) in a Final Four.
Madrid only scored 8 points in a third quarter and only four baskets in play from then to the end. An outcome marked by unsportsmanlike Anderson and Poirier after resolving a dispute by pushing. And, between the trenches, Efes gained ground until completing a 2-14 run that Singleton crowned with a kill on the counterattack. From that 40-31, to 42-45 in seven minutes of quagmire for the Madrid team. An deja vu of the Cup final against Barça in Granada (59-64 then).
Amongst the rubble of blocks, skirmishes and anguish, the bravery of Poirier and the administration of Deck emerged to strengthen the Whites, who recovered the initiative on the scoreboard with a triple by Llull (50-49). Another one from the Madrid captain was about to enter and bounced off the hoop. The ones that did go in were two consecutive baskets by Pleiss.
The German represented the symptom and the drift of the party, from the initial effervescence to the general anguish. With no word from Larkin, stuck until the end on the 10 points he scored in the first half thanks to Causeur’s remarkable defense, it was Micic who rowed alongside Pleiss with classy whipping. Each basket became an epic and a three-pointer by Deck settled the scores in the midst of fear (53-53 with 2m 39s remaining). But Micic answered, with his fourth success from the line of three, and Pleiss with a tap that put Efes facing the trophy.
Llull rolled up his sleeves to remind the epic of their eternal romance and, with 44 seconds to go, Yabusele played the Whites’ free-kicks off balance to try to avoid the inevitable. But, with Madrid already in bonuses and 17 seconds ahead, Efes hurried up the last possession without the madridistas putting a tie on them (“we should have missed it,” Laso said later) and the rebound from Larkin’s last shot went so high that it was unattainable for Madrid like the Euroleague. The glory in Belgrade was this time for the Efes of Micic, Larkin and Pleiss. The passion was Turkish.
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