Monday, November 7, 2011
It's a guards game now
The only European player ever to win both the Euroleague and NCAA titles, Jiri "George" Zidek has been a collaborator with Euroleague.net and Euroleague.TV since the 2006 Final Four was held in his native Czech Republic. Big George, who won the Euroleague with Zalgiris Kaunas in 1999, continues as a color analyst of Euroleague games for Czech TV, not to mention for Euroleague.TV, where he has worked the last three Final Fours. As George returns for the 2011-12 Turkish Airlines Euroleague season, expect more great insights from an ex-champ's point of view!
You might be surprised to hear this from a former big man, but this week I again realized how much impact guards have on the modern game. Watching Siena toy with Galatasaray, Bo McCalebb looked impressive as he ran his team with precision and patience. It’s great to see a player that has the physical ability to break down most of his opponents at any time in one-on-one situations working to involve his teammates. Seeing McCalebb turning on his jets brought back memories of another speedster, Euroleague great, my former teammate and college roommate, Tyus Edney. Would love to see those two guys go head to head! Here is my take on Week 4.
The three Euroleague newcomers in this group have fared well so far. Bennet Cantu finds itself alone in second place (2-1) with a chance to improve its record against Olympiacos at home. The recent addition of Giorgi Shermadini was a solid roster move for Cantu. The big man has given inside presence, both offensively and defensively, to an already talented mix of exciting Euroleague rookies. Cantu will have to get itself ready for a physical battle as Olympiacos will arrive ready to do whatever it takes not to drop to a 1-3 record. With most of the initial enthusiasm likely forgotten in Bilbao, after two consecutive losses, Bizkaia Basket will face a team that has ambitions higher than are its current standing. Fenerbahce Ulker finally got its first win of the season last week but some questions still linger in my mind as they barely fended off SLUC Nancy's mighty second-half comeback. The win was the most important piece of news from Fenerbahce's point of view, but its guard production still remains below its potential. Bilbao will try to feed off its home crowd, the solid play of Marko Banic and Alex Mumbru, while Fenerbahce has to hope for another step forward in its team play progression. Even though Caja Laboral has yet to lose a game they will travel to a lion's den in this round. Nancy, grouped around impressive Nicolas Batum, has been capable of some good basketball. While Caja has found a way to win consistently, especially thanks to the all-star form of Mirza Teletovic, Nancy has showed a lot of promise with its up-tempo, athletic basketball. This is an important game for the French champs as they can't afford to lose a game on their home court. Should big man Akin Akingbala play, they have fair chances, but their mental concentration needs to remain at its maximum for 40 minutes as Caja Laboral is capable of exploiting all its opponents' mistakes without mercy and to its full benefit.
Lady Luck has shown its favorable face to Unicaja in the last two Euroleague games: an OT comeback win against Zalgiris and a victory at Bamberg sealed by a clutch shot from Andalusia basketball's favorite son, Berni Rodriguez. This week, Unicaja just needs to take care of business early and give no hope to KK Zagreb, whose players are just looking for some chance now to compete. A new man on the bench for Zalgiris, head coach Aleksandar Trifunovic, leads Zalgiris into a "game of truth", as his team will likely compete with Bamberg for the fourth place in Group B. Known for understanding his players' strengths and weaknesses well in the past, and exploiting them just as well to maximize the team's performance, Trifunovic has had limited time to impose his approach in Kaunas. Bamberg doesn’t have the top talent but the players enjoy a good chemistry among themselves. Zalgiris can’t rely solely on the individual skills of its players and needs to set the tone from the get-go. Casey Jacobsen, Julius Jenkins and Predrag Suput have been around long enough to know that on the road you need to hang close behind and hope for your chance in the end when pressure shifts to the home side. Finally, we have a meeting of giants, a possible Final Four preview, mouth-watering matchups, coaching legends and more to describe the anticipation when CSKA travels to Panathinaikos to take on the defending champs. The Red Army machine has been superb so far by sharing the ball, playing a fast-paced team game with individual players steadily improving. Needless to say, this will be the first true test of their strength as Panathinaikos will pose a much different level of challenge than CSKA's previous opponents. Defensively, expect individual performances to be crucial to team success as neither team wants to double-team unless absolutely necessary. Both teams are just too good in capitalizing on the scrambles that arise from rotations out of the double teams. CSKA shall focus on Dimitris Diamantidis, as he has been the head of the Greens, and on firming up every possession against Panathinaikos's stifling, in-your-face defense. I expect Panathinaikos rise to the occasion and turn up its defensive intensity a notch. Small details will decide when these titans collide.
A pair of full-control wins on the road and an unexpected loss at home. So far Anadolu Efes has shown two faces; a concentrated, focused and motivated group that knows what’s at stake or a team that dissolved into pieces when things didn’t go right. I believe that Efes has learned its lesson and that veterans Kerem Tunceri and Vlado Ilievski won't allow any letdowns to be repeated. Maccabi comes in fresh off an important victory against another heavyweight, Real Madrid, with bwin weekly MVP Jordan Farmar in its midst. Efes has no reason to change its game-winning plan from last week, which focused on game tempo control and limiting turnovers. Maccabi wants to run, use Farmar in fastbreak situations and Sofoklis Schortsanitis down low, with support from their shooters, especially David Blu. This "group of death” offers no easy games and this will be no exception. Belgacom Spirou will try to show that their win against Efes in Istanbul and an strong but losing effort in Beograd were not strokes of luck. With consistent team leader Demond Mallet on perimeter, an undersized but agile frontcourt and surprising self-confidence have been key aspects for the Belgians so far. The visitors from Milan need to find strength to bounce back after all went awry against Efes last week. The Italians must hope to have their shooters get back in sync, that Omar Cook takes firmer control and that Danilo Gallinari keeps charging forward to collect fouls and free throws. Milan has their backs against the wall, too, as on paper this looks to be their best chance to win on the road. In the Game of the Week, Partizan will hope that the momentum from its first win turns into a second one against Real Madrid. Of course, when Partizan takes to its homecourt, the first thing that comes to mind is the Pionir Arena factor. Madrid has the experience to keep a cool head in a hostile environment, but many before have left their self-confidence in locker room in Beograd. The Nikola Pekovic-Serge Ibaka matchup on the block should be an invitation in itself to watch the game. On the perimeter, Madrid has number of guns ready unleash their fury while Acie Law will play key role from the outside for the hosts.
Another possible Final Four preview will take place in this group, as F.C. Barcelona Regal welcomes Montepaschi Siena to Palau Blaugrana. Both teams are looking very sharp at the moment, inside and outside. Erazem Lorbek has been off to a sizzling start and will face a mighty challenge in the paint with three-time Euroleague winner David Andersen. McCalebb and Lithuanian sharpshooter Rimantas Kaukenas create an explosive duo for the Italians on the perimeter. Barcelona has to its advantage the sure hands of Juan Carlos Navarro and the fundamental play of Pete Mickeal, not to mention the obvious home-crowd support. Barcelona needs to find a way to slow down McCalebb, get the ball out of his hands as much as possible, and make him use some of his energy on defense. The last call is what’s at stake in Asseco Prokom vs. Unics for the home side. Winless so far, Prokom has been able to show good moments in games but needs consistency and bench play to get a victory. Unics is aware that another road win would be a major boost. If Union Olimpija wishes to repeat last season's success, the team must come together and spoil the homecoming of local product Jaka Lakovic, the leader of visiting Galatasaray Medical Park. Lakovic's play is the key for his team's potential success in Ljubljana. This is a truly interesting group, with two run-away heavyweights and a pack of four teams fighting for the other two Top 16 spots with almost equal chances to survive.
JIRI ZIDEK - CZECH REPUBLIC