RIO DE JANEIRO — As Pau Gasol reared up to launch the hook shot NBA fans have seen many times, it seemed a cinch he would loft it into the basket and force overtime between Spain and Croatia.
Suddenly, under the rim, a tall man launched himself, raising his right hand to meet the ball at the apex and swat it away. Dario Saric’s block of Gasol’s layup in the final second secured a 72-70 upset win for the Croatians and let the rest of the basketball world know what his homefolks already do.
Saric is headed to the Philadelphia 76ers this fall, and for the first 39-plus minutes Sunday at Carioca Arena he looked as if his transition to the highest level would be difficult. Yet, that block secured a momentum-boosting win for Croatia and perhaps answered some questions about the guile of the 22-year-old, 6-foot-9-inch power forward after being a draft-and-stash for the past two years.
It was a difficult first Olympic game for the future NBA player, as he finished with 5 points on 1-for-7 shooting with 7 rebounds and 5 assists, but the block overshadowed those offensive struggles.
“The block I think is a gift for the whole team,” Daric said. “That block was like a cherry on the cake because [my] team fights all the time and everybody could make that block. It was just my situation and I did it. I’m proud of this team.”
Saric spent two years with his Turkish team after he was drafted 12th overall by Orlando and then acquired in a draft-night trade by the 76ers in June 2014. He took that trip to New York for the draft two years ago, participated in all the activities with the fellow lottery picks — including the Celtics’ Marcus Smart — and walked the stage to shake hands with commissioner Adam Silver, knowing full well he was headed back overseas.
The Croatian signed a two-year deal with Anadolu Efes in Turkey, finally agreeing to opt out of his deal and join the 76ers for next season.
And the pressure is coming from all sides. Philadelphia fans, after years of putrid play in former general manager Sam Hinkie’s “Trust the Process” philosophy that resulted in 47 wins in the past three seasons, want Saric to become an impact player. In Croatia, there also is pressure from his countrymen and the media to become the next Drazen Petrovic or Toni Kukoc.
“Maybe you guys are not aware,” Croatian guard Roko Ukic said. “But whoever comes from our country to the NBA is like our next big thing [in Croatia], so much pressure from the media and for us, if we are like sixth in the Olympic Games, it’s not great. It’s pressure for those kinds of kids [like Saric], so this kind of game can give him a push in the back for his career.”
The Celtics may be entering a similar situation with fellow Croatian Ante Zizic, a 19-year-old center expected to play overseas next season.
While the Celtics knew Zizic was likely headed back to Europe when they drafted him 23d overall, the 76ers have been waiting on Daric, who began Sunday night matched up against Spanish power forward Nikola Mirotic, who waited three years after he was drafted to join the Chicago Bulls.
Saric is big enough to play in the NBA, and he can move well for his size. But against the second-best team in the Olympic tournament, Saric didn’t impose his will until that final play.
And Croatia needed his production. Spain started three current NBA players — Gasol, Ricky Rubio, and Mirotic — and former NBA swingman Rudy Fernandez. And the Spanish team led most of the way before Saric and current Brooklyn Nets sharpshooter Bojan Bogdanovic fueled a second-half run.
Saric was more engaged, whipping a nifty behind-the-back pass to teammate Darko Planinic, who was fouled at the rim. Saric also showed his ball-handling skills, dribbling in the open court, but he had a couple of missed layups and poor footwork.
In a key sequence late in the fourth quarter with the Croatians trailing by 1 point, Saric used his ball-handling skills to get to the basket, only to be tied up by Spain’s Felipe Reyes and Croatia lost the possession.
Until the final seconds, Saric appeared to be another European product not quite ready for the rigors of the NBA. And then that final play happened, and his international image soared.
“This last play from Saric, that’s like a picture of our team,” Ukic said. “Everybody thinks he needs to get the medal by himself. It’s not easy to play the first time in Olympic Games and things didn’t go well for him offensively, but the effort he made and saved the day with the last block, that shows character.”
Croatia is seeking to return to respectability. They did not qualify for the 2012 London Games and finished 10th in the FIBA World Cup in 2014. They needed three consecutive wins, including in the FIBA qualifying tournament final against host Italy, to clinch an Olympic berth.
So his comrades are accustomed to such clutch plays from Saric, and that block against a six-time All-Star and two-time NBA champion perhaps catapulted Croatia to the favorite in Group B.
“He has no fear of anything,” Croatian coach Aleksandar Petrovic said. “[Sunday] he just wasn’t able to gain offensive rhythm, but he’s a guy who brings us a lot of different [things] so he maybe misses five shots but he [does] so many little things that makes my team better. I’m not afraid at all [that he won’t play well], not here, not in the future with his NBA team in Philadelphia.”
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com.