Philadelphia 76ers fans have patiently waited two years for forward Dario Saric, the 12th pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, to reach American shores. His clutch performance in Croatia’s 2016 Olympic opener over a stalwart Spain squad should only add to excitement over what the 22-year-old can do in his upcoming rookie season.
Up 72-70 with 12 seconds on the clock, Croatia forced veteran guard Sergio Llull into a poor possession that ended in a fortunate bounce off a defender. That left Spain with just one second to force overtime or create a buzzer-beating 3-pointer. They found longtime star Pau Gasol for a decent look at a layup off the inbound pass, but Saric was there to erase the shot for a game-saving block and an upset win.
It was a fitting end to an impressive game for Saric, a much-hyped player many American fans watched for the first time Sunday. Although he struggled to score – five points on 1-of-7 FG, 0-of-4 3FG and 3-of-6 FT – Saric exhibited the range of skills that have earned him FIBA Europe Young Men’s Player of Year honors in each of the past two years. He hit the boards for seven rebounds (including three offensive), dished out five assists, and came through with that huge block to pick up one of the most impressive wins over these first two days of basketball in Rio de Janeiro.
Croatia’s victory was a stunner not just for the result itself, but the way in which the team did it. Trailing 50-36 with just under 13 minutes remaining in regulation, Croatia mounted a furious comeback against the back-to-back silver medalists to take its first lead since 4-2 on a Luka Babic dunk with 6:24 remaining in the fourth quarter. A thrilling final few minutes saw three ties and seven lead changes before reserve Krunoslav Simon gave Croatia the lead for good on a layup with 1:24 on the clock.
While Saric figures to earn the most attention for his performance, Croatia’s star of the night was Bojan Bogdanovic of the Brooklyn Nets, who scored 23 points on 8-of-15 shooting from the field. Bogdanovic helped offset a terrific all-around game from Gasol, who opened his fourth Olympics with a game-high 26 points (11-of-17 FG) and nine rebounds. Unfortunately for Spain, Gasol and Chicago Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic (19 points on 7-of-14 FG) got little help from a collection of notable teammates. All other Spaniards shot 7-of-31 from the field and 4-of-20 from long range.
The good news for Spain is that it has a strong recent history of overcoming preliminary round struggles to finish with a medal. Spain lost to Russia in its fourth game of the 2012 Olympics in London before intentionally losing to Brazil in its final matchup to finish third in their group and avoid the United States until the gold-medal game. Gasol and his teammates will do their best to avoid another loss, but it would not be a surprise to see them engage in similar gamesmanship to finish third in Group B once again.
Meanwhile, Croatia can greatly improve its chances of winning the group with a victory over Manu Ginobili and Argentina in its next game Tuesday night. Wherever this team finishes, though, it’s a safe bet that Saric will continue to be a big draw of the tournament. He’s a fascinating player who has the chance to become the next great European star of the sport.
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