It is always special when Real Madrid and FC Barcelona share a basketball court, but if El Clásico comes near the end of a Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Regular Season whose playoff race is tighter than ever, the intensity is even higher. Both teams know each other well and the games between Real and Barcelona come down to details.
Such was the case in their Round 29 showdown at WiZink Center. It was close throughout. The game saw 18 lead changes. Real’s largest lead was 4 points and Barcelona did not lead by more than 0-7 right after tipoff.
Usman Garuba gave Real its last lead at 69-68 with under 5 minutes left, but after that Barcelona took over by depending on its regular go-to guy, Nikola Mirotic, helped by team captain, Pierre Oriola. In the remaining time, Mirotic scored in the paint, assisted Oriola for a three-pointer, hit free throws, and made a huge block. Oriola also detonated the dunk that finally put Barcelona in charge for good at 72-77 with 55.9 seconds remaining. Cory Higgins finished off Real with 4 perfect free throws in the final 38 seconds.
Free throws played a big part in this game. Barcelona made 12 of 15 (80.0%), hitting all 6 attempts in the final 121 seconds, while Real struggled from the foul line, making just 11 of 17 (64.7%).
“We have to start to think of how we can lower the number of turnovers we are making. I think that a team with our talent cannot have more than 15 turnovers per game,” Barcelona head coach Sarunas Jasikevicius said after his team’s Round 28 win against TD Systems Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz. “We have important offensive talent, but if we don’t shoot the ball at the basket, we will never score.”
Barcelona certainly fixed that problem, cutting its turnovers to just 9 and forcing Real into 16 in another key to this exciting game.
Saras, however, was not particularly happy after the game: “I don’t think we did very well. We prepared a lot of things, trying to anticipate how Madrid would play. We didn’t do very well, we gave Madrid a lot of easy baskets and they were able to get confidence,” he said. “In the end, either team could have won, but I believe Cory and Niko did some very important plays so that we could win.”
In one of the game’s most decisive tactical surprises, Oriola was also a difference-maker. A career 40.7% three-point shooter, Oriola had tried just 3 shots from the arc in his 27 previous games this season. Against Real, Oriola took 5 shots from downtown and made a career-high 3 of them, thus forcing Real’s Walter Tavares, the EuroLeague’s top shot-blocker in recent years, to stray far from the paint, where he often put the brakes on opposing offenses. Oriola would finish as the game’s top scorer, with 18 points, and the second-best rebounder after Tavares, with 6 boards.
“We are happy with the win. It is true that we made a lot of mistakes which allowed our opponent to return to the game many times, taking the lead. But we were cold-blooded and were able to win the game,” Oriola said afterward, highlighting focus as the key to earning playing time on Barcelona. “There are a lot of talented, competitive players. It is not easy to play and you have to be ready. If you are not ready, anyone can take your spot.”
With this loss, Real has finished 0-6 against Spanish teams in the current EuroLeague campaign. Real previously lost 79-72 at Palau Blaugrana and dropped both of its games against TD Systems Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz and Valencia Basket. Last season, Real was 4-0 against the same teams in the EuroLeague. As for Barcelona, it has now swept all three Spanish opponents for a 6-0 mark, a good chunk of its league-leading 21-8 record.
With this victory, Barcelona all but mathematically clinched a playoffs berth. If either Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul or Zalgiris Kaunas loses on Friday, it will become official. Barcelona can now turn its attention to clinching home-court advantage in the playoffs, starting with another pivotal showdown in Round 30, on the road against second-ranked AX Armani Exchange Milan.