Baskonia’s thrilling season ended limply and trophyless on Friday night but their fans recognised the ride, writes Emmet Ryan
The season in Spain promised so much carnage. Valencia had its ridiculous unbeaten run to start the year that was ended by, of all teams, Limoges. Unicaja had moments where up until injuries came a knocking they looked capable of hanging with anybody. Even Murcia had their time to shine, scaring the heck out of Real Madrid in the opening round of the playoffs.
It was Baskonia, Laboral Kutxa Vitoria as they go by, who really set the cat amongst the pigeons. Over the course of the Euroleague season they kept bringing on believers right up until Fenerbahce finally reeled them in at the death in Berlin and eventually saw them off in overtime. Darius Adams, Mike James, Davis Bertans, Kim Tillie, and, most of all, Ioannis Bourousis were a budget line-up that hung with the best of them.
There was a self awareness to this team that carried over to its supporters. Competing all season long on domestic and Euroleague fronts was not only a terrible idea, the side had nowhere near the depth for that, it was also pointless. The season was going to come down to at least one series with Barcelona or Madrid so if sacrificing hope of home court gave them a shot at going all the way in Euroleague it made sense to overload on the competition that finished first.
Long after Baskonia had fallen to Fener the fans remained in the stand, the band leading the horde from Vitoria in song as the players returned from their media duties to thank them for making the journey and in full knowledge that the season’s road was far from done.
The ACB playoffs always had the fear of being a letdown, having come so close to glory in Berlin it wasn’t going to be easy for Baskonia to focus on a dangerous Gran Canaria side. Like Murcia, Granca forced Baskonia to the brink and that looked to have roused the Basque club.
The strain however became obvious once Baskonia visited Palau Blaugrana for the opening two games of the semi final series. A Barcelona side that was flummoxed by the Vitoria club earlier in the year had no problem ripping through the visitors to roar into a 2-0 lead. Barcelona’s depth was surely their biggest asset entering this post-season, a side that is frankly fresher than any other in ACB including Los Blancos, and they looked on course for a sweep in Vitoria before a giant performance from Bourousis carried Baskonia to a win in Game 3.
It was the Greek, more than any other, who made Baskonia what they were throughout the season. While the other interlopers in Berlin, Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar, played like they lived and died by Malcolm Delaney this Baskonia team played like one that energised Bourousis. It’s all too easy to forget that this time last year he was an afterthought on a Real Madrid team that won all before it. His time as the man on a team that could actually do things seemed done. Bourousis looked really freaking old for a guy who was only 31.
Now, on the back of that extraordinary run with Baskonia, he’s being discussed as a potential NBA* target and is once more among the hottest properties in Europe. Last night however he was just trying to deliver one more miracle for the club that had resurrected him.
*It would make my year if he played in a Rising Stars game aged 33
Instead Barca’s depth proved far too much. Bourousis, the ACB MVP and the man who should have been Euroleague MVP, couldn’t give the Vitoria faithful what they needed. With the Baskonia front office having made some clever deals to put together this roster for a big season, it’s unlikely the line-up that flew so close to the sun will return next year. Change is coming and the crowd knew that the farewell last night wasn’t just about saying goodbye for the season. This group had its last dance in this form. There won’t be any titles on the books to mark what this side did because at the end of another ridiculously long European season it’s greatest achievement was making people believe it could contend.
Game 1 of Barca vs Real is on Wednesday, it was always likely but at least this year it didn’t feel like a certainty.