LONDON – The most incredible men's shot of these Olympic Games hadn't existed in the Russian basketball playbook when Russia coach David Blatt began to diagram it in the final huddle on Thursday. He was down a basket, six seconds left; and Brazil had multiple fouls to give before it reached the penalty.
Somehow, Blatt needed to get a Russian shooter the ball for a catch and a quick release.
Somehow, he needed to trust the intellect of an older, experienced team to execute on a play that it had never practiced.
Somehow, he needed a shot to likely spare the Russians an eventual quarterfinal meeting with Team USA.
"We drew it up in the time-out," Blatt said. "We didn't have that play."
From a sideline out-of-bounds play, the Russians set a flare screen near the elbow for Andrei Kirilenko to "try and activate the defense" on their best player. The eventual shooter, Vitaly Fridzon – a 51 percent 3-point shooter – set a back screen to draw the defense's center to Victor Khryapa for a possible lob pass. This freed Fridzon to hustle to the corner, leaving the defense with a tough angle to chase him down to contest the shot.
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The inbounder, Alexey Shved, delivered a perfect pass. As Fridzon lifted into the air, Brazil's Leandro Barbosa rushed underneath his feet – perhaps even making contact – and still Fridzon kept his balance and drilled a perfectly arched 3-pointer before tumbling to the floor.
"The coach told that if I was open to shoot it," Fridzon said. "I shot it."
The shot itself was fantastic, off-balance, with Barbosa undercutting his legs and probably fouling him. It dropped into the basket with four seconds left. Barbosa had four seconds to bring the ball down the floor, missed a desperation shot, and Russia defeated Brazil 75-74.
"Anybody could draw up that play," Blatt said. "Can you run it and make the shot: That's the question. And Vitaly made an incredible shot."
Shved had been horrible, and Blatt admitted: "Ten years ago as a coach, I would've yanked him out of the game." After several turnovers and two missed free throws with 29 seconds left, Shved stayed on the floor, hit a late 3-pointer to tie the game, and made the pass to Fridzon to win the game.
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Blatt, an American-Israeli, is one of the best coaches in the world. He's a two-time Olympic coach for the Russians, and now has a versatile, experienced team with a star, Andrei Kirilenko, who's been the Olympics top scorer at 25 points per game. And so, the Russians – 3-0 in Pool B play – go a long, long way toward avoiding a quarterfinal meeting with Team USA in the medal round of these Olympic Games.
A possible meeting with Team USA would be on the 40th anniversary of the worst, most controversial loss in American basketball history: The Russians' gold-medal victory over the USA in the 1972 Munich Games.
Until then, Blatt savored a dramatic victory over Brazil, one of the favorites to medal in these Games.
"You've got to travel well and enjoy the scenery," Blatt said. "This was a beautiful flower along the way."
"A flower?" the female Russian translator asked him.
Blatt nodded and smiled. "A flower," he said.
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