BAMBERG (Euroleague/EuroBasket 2013) - With his club mired in financial turmoil and personnel instability, Marko Popovic kept his nerves on Thursday night by hitting three free-throws with no time left on the clock to give Zalgiris Kaunas an 88-87 win over Brose Baskets Bamberg for their first road victory in the Top 16 stage of the Euroleague - and keep them in the running to reach the Quarterfinal Playoffs.
The Croatian international led the visiting team with 21 points in a crucial win that pushed Kaunas' record to 3-4 in Group E of the Euroleague Top 16 - good for fifth place just one game behind Panathinaikos Athens, Zalgiris’s next opponent at home next week.
"It's definitely a joy to win the game, especially in that way. It's always sweet," Popovic, the team's leading scorer this Euroleague season, told FIBA.
"But I believe that we are a much better team than we represented today. We could have decided the game much earlier a couple of times - both in regulation and overtime. But it was a lack of concentration, and in the end we luckily won the game."
Flipping a coin
The victory was not only Kaunas’ first road win in the Top 16, it was also a big monkey off the team’s back after losing twice in the Top 16 away from home by one point (67-66) at Panathinaikos and Real Madrid (75-74) and by four points (56-52) at Efes Istanbul.
"Just like our coach said, it's like flipping a coin. Finally it landed on the right side," said Popovic.
"We are just trying to do our best. Sometimes it goes well, sometimes it doesn't. But definitely we need to have better concentration at the end because it would have been too much if we had lost another game by one or two points. But now we can maybe learn from this game."
Real Madrid and Efes Istanbul top Group E with 6-1 records at the halfway point of the Top 16 with CSKA Moscow behind them at 5-2, followed by Panathinaikos at 4-3 and Kaunas and Unicaja Malaga both at 3-4. The top four in the group will advance to the Quarterfinal Playoffs.
"We just have to go game by game. We can't think that far in advance," Popovic cautioned.
"Of course we have four games at home in the second half of the Top 16. Hopefully this win is going to give us wings to play better and reach as high as we can."
The 30-year-old Croatian veteran and his Kaunas team-mates are going through some tough times at the moment. There are widespread reports of players not getting paid for several months. Starting point guard Ibrahim Jaaber left the club out of the blue two weeks ago for personal reasons - believed to be religious - and Lithuanian national team captain Robertas Javtokas returned from injury just last week.
"We're professionals. We have to stay together as a team more than ever right now. We made a deal at the beginning of the season that this team would stay together until the end of the season, no matter what happens. Hopefully people are going to recognise the way that we play for this club," said Popovic, who played for Kaunas last season.
The 1.85m guard said the team has been affected by the financial turmoil surrounding the club.
"Hopefully the financial status is going to change. Of course we hear the rumours going on around the club, but we are trying to be focused, which is not easy, I have be honest. But you know…it’s hard. But that’s why we have our agents to look out for us," he said.
High hopes for EuroBasket 2013
While Popovic hopes his team reaches at least the Euroleague quarterfinals, he also is looking forward to this summer’s EuroBasket in Slovenia, where Croatia are drawn in Group C with the two-time reigning champions from Spain, Georgia, Poland, hosts Slovenia and the Czech Republic.
Even though Croatia have not reached the semi-final stages of the competition since taking bronze in 1995, Popovic believes his team has the talent for a top four finish.
"It's definitely a dream for all of us who have played in the past," said the veteran of five EuroBasket tournament.
"We have a talented team. I believe that we can compete with every single national team this year, especially because we have a lot of players being leaders in Euroleague teams. That’s a huge step up for Croatian players."
Popovic noted the increased leadership roles that Ante Tomic is playing at Barcelona and Bojan Bogdanovic with Fenerbahce.
One thing is certain for Popovic - he does not want a repeat of EuroBasket 2011 where Croatia were bounced from the first round.
"We need to have good preparations and find a good chemistry inside the team and be on the same page," he said.
"Not like in the past, especially after a terrible European Championship in Lithuania when we got knocked out in the first round. That’s unacceptable in such a country like Croatia, that gave such great players like Drazen Petrovic, Toni Kukoc, Dino Radja and others.
"Definitely I believe it’s time to make that move and the next step and hopefully reach the top four."