'It was time to wake up': Real Madrid players reflect on team's playoff comeback

Giorgos Kyriakidis
Staff Writer
2022-05-19 11:00

Real Madrid started the current campaign strongly, collecting back-to-back wins that rendered them as one of the candidates to get the first spot both in the EuroLeague and the Spanish ACB League regular season.

However, some major setbacks were to appear. Los Blancos gave the impressions of a satiated ensemble, a squad well past their prime. Then, discipline issues were noted, in addition to the ongoing lack of a scorer in the backcourt, especially since Jaycee Carroll never came back to the team for another year.

For the first time in a decade, rumors regarding Pablo Laso's uncertain future started to surface. Those were the ingredients of a losing streak that is considered impermissible at a club of this magnitude. And it's not just the losses. In some cases, it's also the way they came and the negative records that were broken.

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Real Madrid lost to the two of EuroLeague's weakest teams (Panathinaikos OPAP Athens and Zalgiris Kaunas), scoring only 47 points against the Lithuanian side and another 51 at Fenerbahce.

Team and individual confidence had dropped to zero. The culmination of this problematic situation became particularly evident in the home game against Bayern Munich, when the Germans had nothing to play for. Real were leading by 20 points but conceded 63 points in the second half and 37 in the fourth quarter to lose 88-97.

As if all this was not enough, two important players, Thomas Heurtel and Trey Thompkins were taken off the team (as it turned out, temporarily) a few days prior to the playoffs due to disciplinary issues in what appeared to be a kind of shock from coach Pablo Laso's side.

With Carlos Alocen injured and Nigel Williams-Goss having an underwhelming season at best, things couldn't possibly go worse for the ten-time EuroLeague champs.

Collecting only two wins in the last ten games brought Real Madrid to fourth place at the end of the regular season. Had it not been for the ideal start in the first part of the season, they would have struggled to make it to the playoffs.

In the Spanish League, the situation wasn't any better. Until the end of January, Real had one loss before suffering another seven over the course of six weeks. To add insult to injury, they also lost to main rivals FC Barcelona five straight times. 

"We had a lot of situations, COVID and all those stories that didn't help us," Pablo Laso told BasketNews from the Stark Arena mixed zone, ahead of Real Madrid's Final Four clash with Barca.

However, the result that really made the difference was their Spanish Cup defeat. Barcelona won that one too, but Real Madrid were close for the most part. In the fourth quarter, Laso's men fell into an offensive pit from which they could never get out, committing six turnovers and shooting 5/22 from the field.

Gabriel Deck had the chance to tie the game with only a few seconds remaining, but he missed, and Nikola Mirotic drew the curtain from the free-throw line. 

"The loss in the King's Cup really hurt us," guard Fabien Causeur remembered.

"We played a great game, and sometimes it hurts very much to play a great game and lose. We started to lose momentum and games. When you keep losing, doubts come. I think it was mental more than anything else," the Frenchman added.

"I think the King's Cup final hurt us because we were there, we were about to beat Barcelona," Laso continued.

"And then, we started to struggle a bit, losing games. When Real Madrid lose, it looks like everything is bad. It's not about winning and losing."

Causeur's fellow countryman, center Vincent Poirier, thinks that the problem is that when the team loses in the final, players start to doubt themselves. 

"You lose one or two games, and you can feel down really quick," said Poirier. "The important thing is that you can only go up when you touch the bottom. That's what we did."

"I was pretty confident that my team was going to give its best performances at the right time," Laso concurred.

With the exception of Game 1, which they also won, Real Madrid comfortably passed their EuroLeague playoff test against the Israeli powerhouse with flying colors. The Spanish powerhouse prevailed by 3-0 and reached their seventh Final Four in the Laso era.

Guard-forward Alberto Abalde said that during his team's slump, problems were more than one. 

"When you have bad dynamics, doubt creeps in, and you start picking up defeats. That can happen during the season, but we were not used to losing as frequently as we did this season. It is important to stand firm in the face of adversity so that the good times come back."

Forward Guerschon Yabusele has a different opinion on the issue and maintains that Real Madrid players always had confidence and never doubted themselves.

Yabusele, who received a hefty fine as a disciplinary sanction, adds that players knew that the situation was reversible.

"We stayed together, even though it was tough," said the French forward. "We kept pushing, and we always knew what we had to do on the court. Coach made sure we never dropped," he pointed out.

"Coach Laso always talks to us, pushing the team every day," Causeur agrees.

"When we were on a winning streak, he pushed us even more," the French guard continued. "He was trying to give us back our self-confidence by telling us that we're great players and a great team. So, although the situation was complicated, we turned the page and started writing a new book."

For Nigel Williams-Goss, it was about staying together.

"When times were tough, it's easy to go your separate ways," he said.

"But we really came together as a unit, focusing on what had us playing well at the beginning of the season. I'm glad that we started to click again at the right time."

"The season is very long," Abalde pointed out.

"There are many moments, ups and downs. The road to getting to the four best teams in Europe is very tough. In that bad run in terms of impressions and results, we knew that we had to keep working to change the dynamics. That was the key.

The players in the locker room were very clear about it, and so was Pablo (Laso), who also supported us as the team's leader. Now we are at another stage in the season. We are more united than ever," the Spanish international confidently stressed. 

"I think we're proud of how we bounced back," Vincent Poirier said.

"We knew that our time would come. We saw each other in the eye, and we said, 'It's time to wake up, we got big issues coming up.' It was before the EuroLeague playoffs. But that means being part of a big team. You need to forget about the past and move on."

There were many factors that helped Real Madrid turn the situation around by getting season-defining wins.

"For sure, we changed some things, but it all comes down to what we can do well," Pablo Laso thinks.

"I believe that our lack of consistency during the games was killing us. We were up by 18-20 points, and we could lose that margin in five minutes."

The most telling example was that Bayern Munich game, which might have done more good than bad for the team in the long run. 

"I feel like we weren't playing that bad in all of our losses," Fabien Causeur added in a similar vein.

"In a lot of games, we were good for 30 minutes. When you're on a team, players have to talk sometimes. That's what we did.

At the end of the day, you have to put your heart on the court. That's what we did. We started to gain confidence again and made a good series against Maccabi that gave us a push to get better."

Williams-Goss has a definition for it - the 'next game mentality'.

"Knowing that you always have another opportunity, you have more confidence the next time you step on the court," he explained.

Walter Tavares said it made perfect sense that some would get so far as to write Real Madrid off.

"Of course, normal people were going to think that we're not as good as we were at the beginning of the season," he admitted.

"But we're trying to step up, and we feel that we'll give 100% for our team. That's something that we're going to show from the first minute in the semi-final."

Williams-Goss holds that it's all about timing.

"The season is long, and teams go through ups and downs. The key to bringing home the EuroLeague is to click at the right time," the American guard explained. "I like to think that we're playing some of our best basketball in the season right now. Our chemistry is really good."

For Real Madrid to outscore a dominant Barcelona squad, not only chemistry but also math and physics might be needed.


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