A do-or-die game for Unicaja Malaga, trailing 2-0 in the series, they needed to win if they didn't want to kiss their season goodbye. The series moved to Malaga, where the noisy fans could have given Unicaja an extra hand. Besides, Tau Vitoria had suffered another injury: shooting guard Drew Nicholas
joined Jose Manuel Calderon on the bench with an injury, and even Travis Hansen
wasn't 100% healthy heading into the game.
Anyway, the goal seems almost impossible. Very few people believe that the best basketball machine in Spain, Tau Vitoria, can lose three games in a row. Even if they are not playing a brilliant basketball, their defense and different reliable offensive resources had been too much for Unicaja.THE GAME:
One of the best games of this year's playoffs, fans were treated to 50 minutes of intensity, thrills, and drama culminating in a double-overtime victory for Unicaja Malaga (final score 95-92).
At some points during the game, it looked like again the toughness and talent of the Tau players would give them the victory, even if the point differential wasn't large at that time. Facing offensive machines such as Luis Scola
(22 points) and Arvydas Macijauskas
(15 points), it was easy to think that they would finish Unicaja off. However, Unicaja never gave up, and was able to come back and take advantage of Scola's fouling out to sneak away with the victory.Jorge Garbajosa
was a good example of this victory. Despite a horrible performance from the field (2/12 FG) and 4 turnovers, he found a way to contribute to the final victory with his excellent passing (8 assists), defense (among other things, 4 blocks), and by hitting an at-the-buzzer three-pointer that sent the game into double overtime. But the unexpected stars were the skilled Stephane Risacher (25 points), who managed to use his great talent for bigger stretches than usual, and Kris Lang
(21 points), a kind of poor man's Fran Vazquez
(without the jumper), who was force near the basket in the offensive department and also helped Unicaja stay in the game in the second quarter.THE MATCHUP:
And finally, both Fran Vazquez
and Tiago Splitter
started for their teams. While that has been the usual pattern for Fran Vazquez
, as the player who was supposed to fill that starting spot (Zan Tabak
) has been injured for the most part of the season, it was a bit of a surprise in Splitter's case. Even though he has started a few games this season, mostly at the end of the regular season, when Tau's first place ranking was out of danger.
But the joy soon turned into sadness. Two quick fouls for each sent them to the bench well before the first quarter was over. Before that, Vazquez was able to score a couple of easy baskets: an open seven footer and a shot almost under the rim after grabbing an offensive rebound over Splitter. Fran showed that he's currently a more reliable player in terms of amassing rebounds. Tiago's best move was a slashing cut down the endline, drawing a foul from Fran Vazquez
while the Brazilian was trying to finish with a reverse layup. Quite a sweet move. Neither of them played in the second quarter, so that was it for the first half.
Vazquez came back into the game to start the third quarter, and Splitter came back in a little bit later when Scola was forced to the bench after getting hurt (bleeding cut). Fran got another two field goals, not quite as easy as the ones he had in the first quarter; the second one was actually a short one-handed shot over Splitter.
The Brazillian rarely jumps to stop his man unless he's confident that he won't risk his defensive position (he usually gets his blocks through defensive rotations), so Fran's leaping ability and skilled delivery were enough to get the job done. Anyway, Splitter was playing his usual great defense. Offensively, he was attacking the rim through pick & roll plays, drawing fouls, although he rarely had the chance to get the basket as well as the foul (perhaps his hands aren't the best; when he's fouled a bit hard on his hands or arms, he's not usually capable of keeping the ball under control).
Once again, Vazquez couldn't finish the quarter after picking up two more personal fouls.
The best offensive moments for Splitter in the entire series came in the fourth quarter of this game. He fearlessly attacked the rim and asked for the ball much more than usual (he actually got angry at one sequence when he didn't receive the ball in the low post).
Splitter also ran a few slashing play to great success. In the first one, he ran a hard cut, received the ball, and finished with his left hand without dribbling and while getting fouled. A few minutes later he started an awesome penetration move, dribbling with his left hand, and managed to sneak in between a couple of defenders. However, he inexplicably failed to convert a very easy left-handed layup. Nevertheless, my favorite highlight of the game was a very nice low post move by Tiago, in which he fooled Fran Vazquez
to get a rather easy basket, showing pretty good footwork and footspeed in the process. Another fake move, this time with a short shot, provoked Vazquez into his fifth foul (five is the maximum in the ACB League). However, the Brazilian also delivered a rather significant turnaround air ball.
Then the two overtimes. Despite Scola having fouled out, Splitter wasn't too active on the offensive end. He missed a 12 footer, although he did make a few nice passes. On the other end of the floor, he had a huge block on Jorge Garbajosa
, and kept up his usual defensive effort.THE VERDICT:
This was Splitter's game. It's not that he was overwhelmingly superior, but he managed to remain on the court longer, and contributed greatly in various departments of the game.Fran Vazquez
was short-handed by foul trouble, and even if his performance was nice, he simply couldn't find hist rhythm. However, when it's a matter of pure strength and athleticism, he showed he had an edge over Tiago. It was particularly noticeable in rebounding situations, precisely where Splitter loses out due to his lack of bulk.
In addition to that, Vazquez keeps proving that he's a good finisher around the basket, and not only when he dunks the ball. His final stats were 9 points (4/7 FG; 1/3 FT), 4 rebounds, 1 steal and 1 turnover in almost 17 minutes.
It's not a secret anymore that Tiago is a force on defense (true defense, the type which is focused on stopping his man rather than just adding blocks and steals to his statline). Today he put on a show on his man (his contribution almost drove Garbajosa crazy) and whenever there was a defensive rotation. He was matched up against all kinds of players: playmakers, wings, and post players. None of them could beat him off the dribble. Indeed, most of the time, his rivals didn't even try to take advantage of the mismatches, while Tau Vitoria comfortably switched defenders whenever a pick was set.
On the offensive end, besides the known stuff (horrible jumper, numerous pick & roll situations, signs of a promising low post game), he looked pretty aggressive. That play when he put the ball on the floor to attack the rim was rather interesting. He's a guy that can dribble with both hands if he finds himself in a good situation. It also deserves to be mentioned the way he outsmarted Vazquez a couple of times (sometimes leading to fouls for Vazquez). In my opinion, Splitter's basketball IQ is clearly higher. His final stat-line: 14 points (4/7 FG; 6/10 FT), 3 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 steals, 4 blocks, and 1 turnover in 35 minutes.
All in all, we have been rewarded with at least one more game in the series, to be played on Thursday, June 9th.