In a remarkably close and entertaining final game of the 7DAYS EuroCup season, an inbounds play deciding the trophy might have seemed like a quirk of fate with a lot of unpredictability involved.
A constantly tight scoreboard and non-stop small shifts in momentum made Game 2 of the best-of-three finals between host UNICS Kazan and visiting AS Monaco a joy to behold and a credit to both teams.
The game's first 39 minutes, 40 seconds had featured 15 lead changes and 11 ties, with neither team leading by more than 6 points. Monaco had reached that difference twice, lasting a combined span of 25 seconds, while UNICS had held 5-point leads soon after the opening tipoff for a total of 40 seconds. The rest of the game had been played within a 6-point band of Monaco's next-highest lead, 4, or UNICS's second-best, 2.
But in the closing seconds, the play that decided the game and made Monaco the champion was not unpredictable at all, not to anyone who had been following the game closely.
Indeed, the same exact play that decided the series had been run successfully just 78 seconds earlier, ending in the same exact move and shot by the same player, 29-year-old small forward Jaleel (J.J.) O'Brien.
In between, Monaco had a similar inbound position and had given the ball to O'Brien again. There was a good reason for Monaco head coach Zvezdan Mitrovic choosing to run his team’s chances through O’Brien all three times, as he explained after the celebrations died down.
"That was a sideline out-of-bounds we played for J.J., a guy with experience, a guy with a cool head and a cool hand, and he scored in the end," Mitrovic said. "It's like a song, 'Cool head, cool hand, scored in the end.'"
Monaco had held a 69-75 lead with less than 6 minutes left after scoring 9 of the fourth quarter's first 11 points. But that's when UNICS guard Jamar Smith, the newly-minted EuroCup MVP, came alive with 6 points in a row to put his team ahead 79-79 with 1:38 to play.
Monaco called timeout and ran a sideline inbounds play that saw the passer, Dee Bost, wait for O'Brien to get open in the middle of the half-court with space to work. O'Brien drove left, pivoted hard and then spun to his right with two wide steps to hit a running hook shot over his shoulder and put Monaco back in front, 79-81.
After Jordan Theodore tied it 81-81 for UNICS with a layup, Monaco's top scorer, Rob Gray, missed his shot and the rebound was knocked out of bounds by UNICS as O'Brien fought for it into the corner. Again Bost inbounded from the same side to O'Brien, but after they passed between each other this time, O'Brien lost his handle on the ball momentarily and had to throw up a quick jump shot that missed. Smith came the other way and buried a huge go-ahead shot for UNICS to take its biggest lead in almost 18 minutes, 83-81 with 15.4 seconds left.
After another timeout, Monaco went back to the same sideline to make the same inbounds choice. Bost again put the ball in the hands of O'Brien. This time, just like in the previous minute, O'Brien had the middle of the court to himself. He pushed defender Okaro White toward the baseline again with a left-handed dribble and then executed the same spin move, dropping the same right-handed running hook shot. Only this time, nearby defender John Brown of UNICS tried to help but was whistled for an arm slap, giving O'Brien a three-point opportunity that he converted for the go-ahead point with 10.5 seconds left.
UNICS went to its hot hand, Smith, for 2 more three-point attempts that both missed, in between which Marcos Knight rebounded and hit 2 free throws.
The hot hand was eclipsed by the cool hand and the cool head, O'Brien's, to complete what was arguably the biggest upset ever in the EuroCup Finals.