Real Madrid, Europe’s dominant force, soar into Euroleague final
Real Madrid will face Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Euroleague final after the two heavyweights recorded contrasting wins on Friday.
Maccabi produced a blistering fourth-quarter comeback to stun CSKA Moscow 68-67 in the semi-finals and set up a mouth-watering clash with Real on Sunday after the winners of a record eight Euroleague titles crushed Spanish rivals Barcelona 100-62.
The all-Spanish contest was devoid of any such drama as Real overcame an early 12-4 deficit to win their fifth game in six meetings with Barcelona in all competitions this season.
A good start suggested Barcelona would push favourites Real to the limit, like they did in last year’s narrow semi-final defeat at London’s O2 Arena, but they were undone by relentless pace and a barrage of 14 three-pointers.
Playmaker Sergio Rodriguez led the charge with a game-high 21 points. Montenegrin-born forward Nikola Mirotic added 19 while three other Real players netted at least 10 points.
“It is an incredible victory for us after playing really well in the second half,” said Rodriguez.
“We have played many times against Barcelona and we know they are always capable of coming back so we kept our foot on the gas pedal right until the end.”
Friday’s dominant victory over their Spanish rivals continued a season of near-unstoppable form for Madrid. In group play, they went a perfect 10-0. Real so controlled group opponents that none of the rest of the sides in the group finished with a positive point differential. Real Madrid’s was plus-237.
In Top-16 group play they slumped to just a 10-4 record, finishing behind the 12-2 CSKA side. But they still had the best point differential, at plus-143.
In the quarter-finals they were taken to five games by a traditional European powerhouse, Olympiakos, but emerged the victor before slamming Barcelona on Friday night. Real are 30-2 in Spain’s domestic Liga ACB.
Mirotic has been perhaps Europe’s best player. The Chicago Bulls-claimed forward is third in total points throughout the competiion, with 477, trailing only teammates Rudy Fernandez and Rodriguez. Additionally, the 23-year-old has grabbed 4.5 rebounds, shot 55 per cent from two-point range and 46.5 per cent from three. It’s likely the NBA’s Bulls will try to convince him to make the leap across the Atlantic in the off-season.
Meanwhile CSKA, who beat Maccabi in both regular season meetings this term after defeating them in the 2006 and 2008 finals, seemed to be in control after going 55-40 up late in the third quarter but their defence collapsed in the final period.
Roared on by the majority of the fans in the Mediolanum Forum Arena, Maccabi rallied in the last 10 minutes and capped the fightback when guard Tyrese Rice forced a turnover and drove in a lay-up with five seconds remaining.
CSKA coach Ettore Messina shook his head in disbelief as former NBA forward Sonny Weems missed a difficult three-pointer on the buzzer, condemning the trophy-laden Italian to his first defeat in nine meetings with counterpart David Blatt.
“It’s hard for me to even talk about it right now because I feel we beat a better team than us today and we did it in amazing fashion,” said a delighted Blatt who led Russia to the 2007 European Championship title in Spain.
“I never felt we couldn’t win the game. We’ve done it before, maybe not against such a formidable opponent like CSKA, but I never heard the fat lady singing,” he told the Euroleague website.
Rice said: “This is what you play basketball for, to be in these situations with game-winning shots to go to the championship game.”
Forward David Blu led Maccabi with 15 points, hitting five three-pointers from nine attempts. Rice added 13 and five rebounds while Ricky Hickman and Alex Tyus chipped in with 10 points each.
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