Thursday, March 1, 2012
Hot and getting hotter
Euroleague.net's editorial director, Frank Lawlor, has spent most of his career as a basketball journalist in Europe and his native United States, writing about and interviewing the top players in the world on both continents for more than two decades. In terms of practical basketball experience, he was a head coach in the Spanish second division for one fortuitous season in the late 1990s. Frank's blog will draw on all that background to enhance the Turkish Airlines Euroleague experience for you, the fans.
The Top 16 is not even over yet, and the playoffs are already fascinating. Let's take one at a time.
On this, the last night of the Top 16, two games with great plots are at play.
In Group F, an unusual clash of titans. If Gescrap BB wins on the road at Unicaja, Real Madrid needs to beat Montepaschi by 23 in Siena or miss the playoffs just 12 months after making its first Final Four in 15 years. Siena and Madrid have been slugging like heavyweights for several seasons now since they first met in 2005. Siena is said to still feel revenge over a huge Madrid comeback on its own floor in their first Top 16 game last season. Siena started taking that revenge in the rematch, a month later, in Madrid. The visitors won by 18 and Ettore Messina resigned from the Madrid bench after the game. They met soon enough in the third-place game at the Final Four and Siena did it again, winning by 18. Then, a month ago, in their first Top 16 game this season, Siena won by 19 in Madrid. In other words, Siena has three wins over Madrid on Spanish soil by an 18-point average in the last year.
Madrid should be the team thinking revenge now. And the truth is, they've already felt some revenge lately, blasting Barcelona in the Spanish Cup final two weeks ago in Palau Sant Jordi. Madrid also has the second-best Euroleague offense this season, even though it needed to "rediscover" that offense in Barcelona. Everyone from Sergio Llull to Nikola Mirotic to Jaycee Carroll and more can light it up for Madrid. Is that offense good enough to outscore Siena by 23? Well, there's only one way for Madrid to find out. Force a breakneck pace and make a lot of threes, both of which its players are quite capable of doing. Expect coach Pablo Laso of Madrid to forgive a couple early mistakes as his team tries to reach the right rhythm. At the pace Madrid needs to score, mistakes happen.
Siena is not about to bow down, however. In fact, it would be playing with fire to think otherwise. If Madrid were to win by 29, Siena would fall to second place and face CSKA in the playoffs. If it maintains first place, it would play the winner between Olympiacos and Galatasaray. Siena has to put the brakes on Madrid, or be ready to run with the visitors. But with Bo McCalebb at the wheel, any team can run. Madrid has the uphill battle, and must race in that direction all game. This one could be electric.
And speaking of Olympiacos and Galatasaray, the Game of the Week on Euroleague.TV.... what an interesting cast of characters to decide a playoff spot.
On one side: the dean of international head coaches, Dusan Ivkovic of Olympiacos, a man who is a champion pigeon racer in his free time. On the other, Oktay Mahmuti, who turns 44 next week, but has done everything in the Euroleague except reach the Final Four. He's trying to make Galatasaray the first qualifying team to go all the way to the playoffs. Their respective point guards, Vassilis Spanoulis of Olympiacos and Jaka Lakovic of Galatasaray, have both won the Euroleague recently and are two ultra-competitors in the history of this competition. Interesting fact: Lakovic has four Top 16 or playoff games scoring more than 24 points. Spanoulis has zero. If Lakovic is feeling it, Galatasaray will be dreaming big dreams.
And what about the kids? Mahmuti has a 20-year-old, Furkan Aldemir, and another who just turned 21, Huseyin Koksal, starting 8 of 10 games in the Top 16 so far. Aldemir ranks sixth in rebounds per minute among all Euroleague players after 15 games. Ivkovic and Olympiacos has a pair of 21s and a young 22-year-old: Evangelos Mantzaris, Kostas Sloukas and Kostas Papanikolaou. They have been on court 47 minutes per game all season long. That trio's defense is non-stop and Sloukas nearly robbed the first game with Galatasaray in Istanbul last month, sending it to overtime with a shot from 15 meters away. Galatasaray subsequently became the first team all season to beat CSKA.
There's no recent history between these two teams. Before last month, they hadn't played each other in 50 years. So for Olympiacos and Galatasaray, tonight will be their battle of the century.
Meanwhile the first two playoff series are decided. Neither are predictable.
Panathinaikos vs. Maccabi. Those three words say it all. It's the best, highest-level rivalry in world basketball this century, bar none. And a rematch of last year's Euroleague title game. But this time, only one of them can make the Final Four. Panathinaikos boss Zeljko Obradovic, the man who has won it all more than anybody, matching wits again with Maccabi's David Blatt, who has done everything except lift the Euroleague trophy as a head coach. Papaloukas vs. Diamantidis. Say no more. That's a classic. Batiste vs. Sofo. Another one. Jasikevicius going back to Tel Aviv, a city that adores him. And the city where the Panathinaikos repeat attempt must pass through. Remember, Panathinaikos might have more trophies than any Euroleague team in the modern era, but Maccabi is the only team in the last two decades to win back-to-back. Both want what the other has. This is their first five-game series ever. I can't wait.
The other series that has been decided, Barcelona vs. Unics, would seem more predictable, since the former beat the latter twice this season, and easily. But after CSKA, Barcelona and Siena, Unics has the best road record in the Euroleague this season. Unics already won in Siena and in Athens against Panathinaikos. Barcelona might not have Chuck Eidson, who helped hold Unics sharpshooter Henry Domercant to 17 points in two games. Against the rest of the league, Domercant averaged 17.3 per game. Even if he shoots well, Domercant will need help against a Barcelona defense threatening to shatter the record for least points allowed per game this century. The Unics defense is no slouch, either. In fact, by allowing just 67.4 points per game it has the best defense by any Euroleague rookie team ever. Although rookie team is an overstatement in this case. Unics has the oldest average roster age in the competition and some its own former Euroleague champs. Barcelona has top all-time scorer Juan Carlos Navarro and Erazem Lorbek anchoring one of the most versatile frontcourts this competition has ever seen. Lorbek is flanked by do-it-all Boni Ndong, shot-blocking Fran Vazquez, sentinel Kosta Perovic and rebound-ripping C.J. Wallace. Unics has nothing to lose. Barcelona has a lot to lose after missing the Final Four in its own city last year. Another series full of intrigue.
So, we have one foot in the Top 16, waiting to see who survives tonight, and another in the playoffs, anxious for those to start on March 20, with all teams rested and we hope healthy.
This already-hot season is about to get a lot hotter.
FRANK LAWLOR - EUROLEAGUE.NET