Monday, March 26, 2012
Blood, sweat and tears
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!
How about these playoffs so far?! Players and coaches like to talk about another level of play that the playoffs bring out of everyone. I think it is safe to say that we have not been misled by such statements! The opening rounds of the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Playoffs gave us a chance to see how elite this group of the last eight standing teams truly is – or rather with how much pride and effort these teams play with. All the supposed Davids held their heads high and it turned out to be no walk in the park for the on-the-paper favorites. Playoff rookie Unics gave perennial favorite FC Barcelona all it could handle in Barcelona, coming just few shots away from major upsets in both games. Maccabi proved once again that it’s irrelevant by how many points you win or lose by in the playoffs as it shifted from a crushing defeat in Game 1 to a sweet overtime victory only 48 hours later. All the players deserve a lot of credit for their performances, which reflected the seriousness of the situation. Sparks and bodies were literally flying everywhere in the heart of Tuscany as Siena clashed heads with Olympiacos. While CSKA looked as sharp as ever in the opening game the Red Army representatives had to overcome a fierce resistance in Game 2 en route to a 2-0 lead. It is realistic to assume that the teams will know everything about each other down to the last detail coming into this week’s games and dramatic surprises or major adjustments will be hard to carry out. Nonetheless, those that study and learn better from the first games stand a better chance of surviving. With the Final Four on the horizon, you can expect no one to hold anything back, be it on the court, the bench or in the stands. Expect another feast of top notch basketball coming your way this week!
Maccabi Electra vs. Panathinaikos (1-1)
Those of you who watched in shock Game 1 of this series as Maccabi was taught a lesson in almost every aspect of the game must have felt equally surprised watching the rematch. Maccabi coach David Blatt made some gutsy moves in the lineup, distributing the minutes among his troops in an innovative way. Namely bringing Sofoklis Schortsanidis, who lately has been more in foul trouble and out of sync than not, off the bench and playing Lior Elyiahu and Demond Mallet limited minutes. Maccabi now relies heavily on the duo of Keith Langford and Devin Smith, which was supported on perimeter by a breakout performance from Yogev Ohayon in the winning effort. The more agile Hendrix down low together with sharpshooter David Blu proved to be the right combination in the frontcourt to throw at the defending champions on their home court. Panathinaikos, after looking like serious repeat contenders, couldn’t get any meaningful lead in Game 2. Knowing how Coach Obradovic sharpened the senses of his team in the playoffs last season, nothing less than a split will be on his mind heading to Tel Aviv. I expect him to put heavy emphasis on defense, on the individual and team levels. Panathinaikos has to stop Maccabi’s perimeter led by Langford, who is playing the best basketball of the season right now. Dimitris Diamantidis will likely be looked upon to head the Greek perimeter defensive taskforce. Offensively, some adjustments will have to be made to make the marquee pick-and-roll offense work against a smaller, more agile Maccabi lineup that uses a variety of defensive looks. Panathinaikos needs to find a way to exploit its size advantage on the blocks and not live and die by its three-point shot. The ball seemed to get stuck just a second too long in the hands of the Greens in Game 2, which gave Maccabi a split second longer to recover defensively with the shorter lineup. Yellow hell in Nokia arena will break out in eager anticipation of taking down the defending champs. I can’t imagine a ticket harder to come by in Tel Aviv than the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Playoff one.…
Unics Kazan vs. FC Barcelona Regal (0-2)
Barcelona has fulfilled the role of the favorite in the series by grabbing a 2-0 lead to bring to Russia. But just looking at that doesn’t tell the story, or rather how much of a run Unics did give the heavily-favored home team. Kazan remained as bold and cold blooded as ever on the road in the opening games, showing once again that its remarkable road record this season did not come by a stroke of luck. Kazan has been able to stick religiously to its slowdown game plan that frustrated the more-talented and eager-to-get-out-to-the-open-court Barcelona squad. Watching Game 2 in the series where Unics had to do without Wilkinson and with Domercant momentarily indisposed, this very experienced rookie team finally did commit some rookie mistakes that cost it a shocking upset. Barcelona can be thankful to its all-around veteran star Pete Mickeal, who starred in both games. Chuck Eidson, who is making a comeback after an injury, saw limited minutes in Game 2 and should be in better shape for the coming game, as is Wilkinson. Kazan has failed four times already against Barcelona and Tuesday’s game will be a big test of character for it. Unics knows that it has to play almost a perfect game to have a chance to win. Slowing down the tempo, taking care of the ball and giving the ball to Jawai on the block with proper spacing will be the so far successful mantra that Coach Evgeni Pashutin will likely continue to preach to his troops. Barcelona, on the other hand, should be relaxed and in a killer mood to finish the series as soon as possible. Coach Xavi Pascual’s to-do list should include most importantly controlling the boards to get a chance for Marcelino Huertas to push the fastbreak. Barcelona wants to run to unleash its athletes’ full potential. In a halfcourt game, Pascual will resort to the trio of Mickael, Lorbek and Navarro which, at the end of the day, is not a bad option at all….
Gescrap BB vs. CSKA Moscow (0-2)
Just as the “experts” predicted and got a 2-0 lead for Barcelona, the same holds true for the CSKA-Bilbao series. With a full roster and on mission not to allow any surprises, CSKA learned why many call Bilbao one of the most potentially dangerous teams in the league. While in Game 1, Bilbao stayed close in the first half only, Game 2 turned out to be a dog fight till the opening minutes of the last quarter. Bilbao upped its energy and physical contact on every position to another level and CSKA had to dig deep while keeping its composure to earn the second playoff victory. The “we are happy just to be here” attitude will likely continue to be left in the locker room for Bilbao this week, even more so in the frenetic setting of Bilbao Arena. Gescrap is a feisty team that has fought off adversity many times this season and has a roster with players that have won “a few things” in their careers. It still remains the case that Bilbao has nothing to lose, therefore I expect the players to enjoy Game 3 at home to the fullest and reward their fans with a shot at downing a European basketball giant. The long list of experienced superstars on the CSKA roster should withstand the test in the north of Spain. Kirilenko is the undisputed leader by example of the group and I expect him to make sure that all his teammates will be ready to get down and dirty come this Wednesday. If CSKA has the highest ambitions this season, it should welcome any physical challenge that Bilbao can throw at it….
Olympiacos vs. Montepaschi Siena (1-1)
What a heads on prediction I made 2 weeks ago when I called this the most even series of all and Olympiacos the most unpleasant second seed to face. The series stands at 1-1, but could just as well have either of the teams leading 2-0. Olympiacos defined what can be accomplished with all out physical play on the road. The Reds’ mobile, but very powerful big men – Kyle Hines and Joey Dorsey – set the tone with their relentless play around the basket on both sides of the floor. No loose ball is lost to them and no cutter comes through the lane without being properly full body blocked. Siena made the cardinal sin of not putting an opponent away in Game 1 in the beginning of last quarter when it had plenty of chances to do so. Shaken self confidence almost produced a carbon copy ending in Game 2 wouldn’t it be for Bo McCalebb’s heroics and leadership. Games 3 and 4 to the series stand just as unpredictable as the games in Italy. What I can mark off as a sure thing is Olympiacos’s hard-nosed attitude on defense and rebounding. Should Acie Law help Vassilis Spanoulis as much as he has done lately, Olympiacos has a good foundation for success. Siena can’t look back and allow itself to drown in what could have been. McCalebb will have to lead the team and control the tempo. Coach Pianigiani will have to ask his big men to toughen up for the most physical battle of the season and hope for a good shooting performance from beyond the arc from his sharp shooters. At the end, however, scratch all my predictions and suggestions and understand that games in this series will be won with heart through blood, sweat and tears….
JIRI ZIDEK - PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC