Mike James CSKA Moscow Zalgiris Kaunas
Photo: EuroLeague Basketball

Last night it felt like revisiting the 1980s when CSKA and Zalgiris were regularly drawing capacity crowds that flocked to watch arguably the greatest matchup in the history of Soviet basketball. Though there were many empty seats in Megasport arena Thursday, the 6,114 fans who did show up for the classic were treated to an unforgettable thriller. The two teams were going full throttle from tipoff, the game eventually went into overtime and it all came down to one last shot.

The crowd was on its feet, CSKA had 4.7 seconds to make a play, and Mike James did what he does best – he shook off Zach LeDay with a few fast dribbles, stepped back and nailed a buzzer beater from behind the arc.

Had he missed and Zalgiris won in a second overtime, it wouldn’t have been unfair. The visitors never let go, kept playing aggressively until the final buzzer and might go down in EuroLeague history – statisticians will correct me if I’m wrong – as the first squad to snatch 48 boards and lose. The Lithuanian team’s performance index rating was also higher (86-84), but it’s just another consolation stat – the numbers that matter read 85-82, CSKA.

In the clutch, everything was decided by one man.

Before scoring the game winner, James had fired three three-pointers and missed all three. He struggled with his shot all night, going 1-of-9 from the field in regulation.

He never doubted shots would start falling though. And they did – James made all four in overtime, including the three-point basket for CSKA’s eighth win of the season.

“It’s just about having confidence in myself. Even though it sounds bad, I kind of don’t care about missing. I feel like if I get a good shot, and miss it, it’s still a good shot, a good possession. I kept that mentality throughout the whole game, just tried to keep being aggressive and get my shots. My coach and my teammates trusted I could get where I needed to be, I ended up hitting some shots and we won,” James told TalkBasket after the game.

In the closing minutes of the game, CSKA’s offense heavily relied on its best scorer. The play on the last possession was also designed for James.

“Pretty much every play I was in in the last three minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime was basically isolation for me. My teammates have confidence in me, they trust me. I try to be a good passer when there’s a lot of people around. Obviously, I’m not perfect, but my teammates trusted me and I made the shot,” he said.

Zalgiris was pretty physical on both ends of the floor from the very beginning and it took CSKA some time to adjust to that level of intensity. By the middle of the second quarter, the “Army” had dug itself a deep hole trailing by 12 points (15-27), and then started to climb back out of it.

“It’s always a physical match, a tough game for whatever reason – because of history, the two teams…In the first quarter, we didn’t play our game.We let them set the tone, the pace,we pretty much let them dominate. However, we were able to change our mentality, play a little more physical, more aggressive. We still made a lot of mistakes, but were able to find a way to win the game,” CSKA captain Kyle Hines told TalkBasket.

Led by a magnificent Janis Strelnieks, the defending Euroleague champion closed the second quarter with a furious 17-4 run, which was capped by Ron Baker’s three-pointer at the buzzer. CSKA’s Latvian sharpshooter kept making baskets and finished the first half with 11 points.

Zalgiris could have – and should have – gotten more out of its fantastic rebounding effort after grabbing nine offensive boards and outrebounding CSKA 24-16 in the first half, but its shooters kept firing three-pointers that just weren’t going in. By halftime, they missed all eight shots from long range.

Zalgiris remained dominant in the paint and massacred the reigning European champs on the glass (48-30).

“It was a battle in there, they are a very scrappy team. A lot of teams send two or three players to the glass, and they sent just about everybody, especially because they didn’t shoot extremely well from the three, so they were all running to the glass. Obviously, we want to play better in the paint, we made a lot of mistakes there tonight, but we still found a way to win and that’s what matters most,” explained Hines.

When the game was on the line, CSKA’s composure provided the edge, he added. “We lost a few close games this year. Tonight, we just stayed composed, continued to take what the defense gave us, and our guys knocked down some big shots. Bolomboy, Hackett, Baker all made them, and then Mike in overtime knocked down a few big ones. I think that the bad experiences we had in the early stages of the season allowed us to stay confident, and we’ll hopefully build on this for the remainder of the season,” said Hines.