During the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Regular Season, the best team in the competition was FC Barcelona. And the best player for that best team was Nikola Mirotic, who led the league in performance index rating with an average of 21.96 after tallying 16.9 points and 6.3 rebounds per game.
The playoffs, though, were an entirely different matter for the forward, who struggled to make any kind of meaningful impact as his team was pushed to the limit by Zenit St Petersburg. Over the course of the five-game series, Mirotic could average only 8.6 points after making just 28.6% of his two-point attempts. He also struggled to dominate physically, grabbing an average of 3.6 rebounds including only two off the offensive glass in the whole five games.
So, when Barca touched down in Cologne for its first Final Four appearance in seven years, there was justified concern that the team’s key player was struggling to produce his best form. But as Friday’s semifinal against AX Armani Exchange Milan got underway, those fears were very quickly dispelled.
The first time Mirotic touched the ball came after 85 seconds when he took a three-point shot…and made it. If his confidence had been fragile following his struggles in the playoffs, that early strike was just the medicine required and it was quickly followed up by a floater. Then he delivered on the defensive end, blocking a shot from Zach LeDay, and after making a long jumper, he added free throws to finish the first quarter with 9 points and a PIR of 13.
Mirotic had a break during the second quarter before returning to action by grabbing and converting an offensive rebound, something he repeated early in the fourth quarter to cap an 8-0 run which gave Barca the lead, 72-71, and strengthened their belief that victory could be seized. He stayed in the game the remainder of the way, using his physicality to draw fouls and take advantage from the foul line and he finished with more playing time – 27:58 – than any other Barca player.
Mirotic concluded the game with team-highs in points (21) and rebounds (6) with 4 of those boards coming at the offensive end. He also tallied 1 steal, 1 blocked shot and a game-high 8 drawn fouls, adding up to a PIR of 28 – also the best in the game.
With Nick Calathes looking like a major injury doubt for Sunday’s championship game after suffering an ankle injury in the latter stages of the semifinal, his leadership will become more important than ever. Friday’s performance showed he is more than ready to deliver. Efes beware: Nikola Mirotic is back.