On Thursday night, in a thriller worthy of a EuroLeague final, Nikola Mirotić swished a fadeaway jumper 0.4 seconds before the final buzzer to help Barcelona snap a seven-year losing streak against CSKA in Moscow.
The game was tied at 80 when CSKA point guard Mike James hit a miraculous corner three with 5.4 seconds remaining, but the Montenegrin forward had the last word after a timeout.
Mirotić’s winning basket capped another in a string of his superb performances this season. He scored the game-high 23 points, was the best rebounder with eight boards, and also added two assists. His performance index was 32 as he cleared the 30 mark for a sixth time in the 2019/2020 campaign.
“I didn’t know that Barcelona hadn’t won here for seven years. We are very satisfied with the win,” Mirotić told TalkBasket.net after the game.
The last time Blaugrana beat CSKA in the Russian capital, Juan Carlos Navarro was 32. On that November night in 2012, “La Bomba” shot the lights out as Barcelona won by 21 points, handing CSKA its worst home loss in EuroLeague history.
The Catalan giant’s ranks have changed a lot since then – Navarro retired, as did Šarunas Jasikevičius who later embarked on a stellar coaching career, Marcelinho Huertas shared the L.A. Lakers’ backcourt with Kobe Bryant before returning to Spain, and Joe Ingles is jazzing it up for the fifth straight season in Salt Lake City. In one of the most unexpected career turns, their former coach Xavi Pascual recently landed a job in Russia, taking over EuroLeague newcomer Zenit St. Petersburg from his fired predecessor Joan Plaza. The only piece remaining from Barca’s victorious squad from 2012 is Ante Tomić, the Croatian center who was named the team’s new captain after Navarro retired in August 2018.
Thursday’s game could have gone both ways. Barcelona charged right out of the gate, building an early 0-7 lead, and leading by as many as nine late in the first quarter. CSKA quickly regrouped and found cracks in the Catalan defense. On the heels of a 13-0 run the hosts grabbed their first lead of the night and several times had a seven-point cushion in the second period. When it looked like they might be able to close the half with a double-digit lead, they conceded back-to-back threes by Mirotić, allowing Barca to make it a one-possession game at halftime. Local fans were especially irked by the poor defending of Barcelona’s last possession with 3.4 seconds remaining on the clock. In a two-pass play, the visitors inbounded the ball to Brandon Davies who then threw a long diagonal pass from midcourt to Mirotić patrolling CSKA’s perimeter. The forward faked a shot to send his defender flying, and then released a three-pointer to beat the buzzer. Swish.
As in last week’s game in Belgrade, Mike James’ scoring input in the first half was modest – 5 points on a 1-of-7 shooting from the field. The resemblance stops there. The CSKA fans’ hopes that James would replicate his second-half shooting explosion against Crvena zvezda when he dropped 24 and almost single-handedly won the game, never materialized. The diminutive playmaker was harassed by Barcelona defenders from the tip-off, but Daniel Hackett and Nikita Kurbanov stepped up to provide the scoring and made some huge plays with the game on the line.
In the fourth quarter it was a game of runs with Barca making the last one. The score see-sawed and the level of intensity kept rising. In a late-game drama, the players on both teams succumbed to the high pace and fatigue, turning the ball over on several key plays. CSKA’s mistakes were costlier – after making another comeback courtesy of an inspired Kurbanov who scored all of his 11 points in the second half, the “Army” committed three turnovers in the final three minutes. CSKA was headed toward defeat after James lost his dribble with 8 seconds remaining, and Davies converted two free throws on the other end to stretch the Catalans’ lead to three, 77-80.
But then came James’ miracle in the form of a beautifully executed catch-and-shoot three-pointer that tied the game and made Barcelona head coach Svetislav Pešić use his last timeout. The 2.04-meter Joel Bolomboy, one of the quickest frontcourt players with tremendous leaping ability, was supposed to guard the 2.08-meter Mirotić on the last possession, but the Montenegrin superstar raced to the left corner, forcing CSKA defenders to switch. Howard Sant-Roos, seven centimeters shorter than Mirotić, rushed to guard him. He had to defend cleanly, without making a foul, but Mirotić flawlessly did what he had done so many times in the past.
“As soon as I got the ball, I saw that I’m matched up against a shorter player who defends very aggressively. On the weak side there wasn’t enough space for me to drive to the basket, so I immediately took one dribble and shot a fadeaway jumper, the kind of shot I’m very comfortable with, and the shot that a shorter player can’t block. We had five seconds, if I missed, the game would have gone into overtime, but the shot went in, and that’s what matters,” Mirotić told TalkBasket.net.
In his postgame remarks, Pešić identified Barcelona’s tight defense as the key factor behind the win, and so did his best player.
“Generally, we played a good game from every aspect. In the second quarter, they played well and scored a lot of points in transition. Our priority was to do a good job of guarding Mike James. I think we accomplished that with a team effort, though he did make a very important three-pointer at the end. We committed a few unnecessary turnovers, but so did they, including James who lost the ball in the final seconds. It’s all part of the game. At the end of the day, our defense and rebounding paved the way to victory, we controlled the boards really well,” said Mirotić.
Barcelona’s hot streak continues, the win in Moscow was its seventh in a row, and it also helped the two-time EuroLeague champs capture a playoff berth. The victory cemented Barcelona’s bid to finish in the top four and secure homecourt advantage in the playoffs.
“A top-four finish is definitely our goal, so we can have that extra game on our floor in the playoffs. But even if we close the regular season as one of the top four teams, it doesn’t guarantee us a Final Four berth. However, we need to control what we can, and I think we’re headed in the right direction, as the season progresses we’re playing better and better. We have many new players, we have had to deal with numerous injuries, but the team is playing great and I hope we’ll improve further heading into the playoffs,” concluded Mirotić.