Despite being harassed all day with constant double-teams and despite early fouls problems, Luka Doncic managed to keep his cool when it counted the most and lead Slovenia to an impressive 95-87 victory over Spain in the Tokyo Olympics on Sunday.
Slovenia, playing in the Olympics in men’s basketball for the first time ever, is now a perfect 3-0 and will move on to the knockout round. Meanwhile, Doncic is a perfect 16-0 while playing for the Slovenia national team.
After winning Group C, Slovenia will next play Germany on Monday at 8 p.m. CDT in the quarterfinals of the more favorable bracket of the knockout rounds. And that winner will face the Italy-France winner in the semifinals.
Doncic finished the game with 12 points, 14 rebounds and nine turnovers. But it wasn’t easy for Doncic to keep his national team slate clean as he was charged with three fouls before the first quarter was over.
However, the Dallas Mavericks’ superstar point guard got plenty of help from his teammates as Slovenia finished the game on a 19-5 run after trailing 82-76 with 6:22 remaining in the game before stunning the defending World Cup champions.
Other than Doncic, Slovenia got 22 points from Vlatko Cancar, 16 points and 14 rebounds from Mike Tobey, 15 points from Klemen Prepelic tallied 15 points, and Jaka Blazic added 10 points.
Ricky Rubio paced Spain with 18 points and nine assists, Alberto Abalde scored 14 points, and Rudy Fernandez and Sergio Llull collected 12 points apiece.
For a long time, the strategy of taking the ball out of Doncic’s hands and forcing his teammates to beat them had judiciously worked for Spain.
“I don’t think we expected that, but they had basically two or three guys on me and ,(for my teammates) I just had to find open shots,” Doncic said. ” I think we didn’t play great today.
“We missed a lot of shots, but I’m really happy for the win.”
That box-n0one defense Spain employed against Doncic also was a surprise to Slovenia coach Aleksander Sekulic.
“There were three players at some point on him,” he said. “They were pressing him. Luka always found the good solution, so he made open shots for (his teammates).
“We had great ball movement. It’s not easy to play against zones. We had a lot of open shots. Fortunately, we made them at the end when it was the most important (time of the game).”
Back-to-back three-pointers by Fernandez vaulted Spain ahead, 55-43, with 7:12 remaining in the third quarter.
Undaunted, Slovenia hustled back and used a 25-15 run to close to within 70-68 of Spain by the conclusion of the third quarter. It was nip-and-tuck until Slovenia – thanks to some nifty passing by Doncic — took an 88-85 lead with 1:39 remaining following a dunk by Tobey.
A bucket by Ricky Rubio narrowed Spain’s deficit to 88-87. But Prepelic buried a pair of free throws with 13.4 seconds left to pad Slovenia’s cushion to 90-87.
Following a missed potential game-tying 3-pointer by Rubio, Zoran Dragic nailed a couple of charity tosses to increased Slovenia’s led to 92-87 with just 5.4 seconds left.
The game didn’t exactly start the way Doncic and Slovenia envisioned as he picked up two fouls with 3:55 remaining in the third quarter. But instead of going to the bench for the rest of the quarter, Doncic remained in the game, then proceeded to be charged with his third foul with 48.4 seconds to go in the first quarter – and then was removed from the game.
Two of Doncic’s fouls came via charging calls. Also, Spain utilized a box-n-one defense which frustrated Doncic and gave him a new look on the defensive end of the court.
Despite the foul difficulties by Doncic, Slovenia remained close. But with Spain nursing a 33-28 lead, Doncic was inserted back into the game with 5:24 left before halftime and managed to play the rest of the half without being charged with any more fouls.
At the half, Spain held a narrow 44-41 lead, and Doncic had eight points, nine rebounds, five assists and four turnovers, and was 1-of-3 from the field and 5-of-8 from the free throw line in 15 minutes.
Doncic finished the game with just two baskets in seven attempts, and also was 6-of-11 from the free throw line. This was in stark contrast to his first two Olympic games when he averaged 36.5 points, including a massive 48-point explosion against Argentina in his Olympic debut last week.
On this day — after his early foul difficulties — Doncic simply surveyed the landscape and proceeded to take what the defense gave him. And that impressed Spain coach Sergio Scariolo, who said: “He showed his class, his mental toughness, his competitiveness, his understanding of what’s was going on.”
Nursing those three early fouls and facing constant double-teams all day against Spain, Doncic made the necessary adjustments and decided he was just going to beat Spain with his passing. And that’s exactly what he did as the two-time NBA All-Star rifled a pass inside for an assist and followed that up with a length of the pass to Tobey that earned Slovenia a 72-70 lead early in the fourth quarter.
Now it’s on to the knockout round for Slovenia after surviving their toughest challenge to date.
“I think we’re ready for everything,” Doncic said. “It’s the quarterfinals. If you lose you go home, and we’re going to come out 100 percent.”