With Zenit St Petersburg missing both its leading overall rebounder, Mateusz Ponitka (5.2 rpg), and leading offensive rebounder, Arturas Gudaitis (1.7 orpg), through untimely injuries, you might have thought it would be difficult for the Russian team to compete on the boards with FC Barcelona in Game 4 of their playoffs series on Friday night.
Fired by the necessity of simply having to win to stay alive, however, Zenit overcame those absences to earn a resounding 74-61 victory on the back of a physically dominant performance.
The numbers speak for themselves. Zenit won the rebounding battle 40-26, with only two Barcelona players – Nikola Mirotic and Nick Calathes – managing to secure more than 2 boards. Seven Zenit players did just that, led by Will Thomas with 9 and featuring strong contributions from Tarik Black (6) and Alex Poythress (5).
It wasn't just about the rebounding, though. Zenit's biggest bodies also provided plenty in the way of scoring, with Poythress (12) and Black (11) getting into double figures while Thomas and KC Rivers both hit 2 of their 3 two-point attempts, helping the Russian team convert a solid 21 of 38 (55.3%) of its two-point shots.
On the other side of the ball, Zenit's all-round intensity and discipline made life extremely difficult for Barcelona, which set an unwanted early tone by missing 5 of its first 6 field goal attempts, scored only 13, 13 and 12 points in the first three quarters, and finished with just 23 of its 59 field goal attempts converted (39%).
Following the pattern of Zenit's total dominance inside, most of Barca's successful strikes came from its guards, with Nick Calathes (8), Kyle Kuric (4) and Cory Higgins (3) contributing 15 of its 23 made field goals. The visiting team's forwards and centers, in contrast, endured a very tough evening, with Nikola Mirotic – once again brilliantly controlled by Thomas – making only 2 of 11 field goal attempts in his total of 7 points. Brandon Davies, who had scored 22 points in both Games 2 and 3, missed all 6 of his field goal attempts and contributed just 1 free throw, also taking 1 rebound. And that's not all: Pau Gasol missed his only field goal try, while Pierre Oriola and Sergi Martinez didn't even attempt a single shot.
All these numbers add up to tell a very simple story: with outstanding performances from Black and Poythress, Zenit overcame its important absentees to physically dominate the game. That was even more impressive considering Black had to be benched early on after picking up two fouls, which just proved to be the signal for Poythress to enter the action and score 9 points in 4 minutes, including a pair of statement-making dunks. Black, still fresh, was then able to return later on and finish what Poythress had started, with Barca physically outfought and unable to find any answers.
It was an historic night for Zenit as the hosts recorded their first-ever home playoffs victory. But if Barca doesn't match the Russian team's intensity in Game 5 on Tuesday night, Zenit's season might just get even better.