At 7-1 each, Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv and Montepaschi Siena share the best record in the Turkish Airlines Euroleague. When you say "best record", of course it's a good thing, but at the same itme it's very far from definitive, with the Top 16, Playoffs and Final Four still ahead on the schedule, not to mention the regular season's last two games, still waiting to separate the pretenders from the contenders from the eventual champions. It's not exactly original to say, but Euroleague titles are not won after 8 games, or 16 for that matter. Still, to have a legitimate chance to finish the regular season in first place is something that can really help when Top 16 groups are formed. Going back to those 7-1 records, we are not talking about a shocker at all, mind you. But at the same time it's not something I can honestly say I would have foreseen in preseason. The logical approach was that Siena had lost three key players in Terrell McIntyre, Romain Sato and Benjamin Eze, and therefore it would have taken some amount of time to recreate the wonderful basketball machine that played the Final Four in 2008 and came close a couple other times. More or less the same could have been said of Maccabi, which brought some new faces to town along with its old/new head coach.
It still looked in the beginning like a re-forming stage for Siena, which lost an early game in the Italian league (thus equalling its total defeats there from the previous season), escaped with a narrow win over Zalgiris in Kaunas, and then was beaten in Istanbul by Fenerbahce Ulker, its rematch opponent in the Game of the Week this Thursday, by 13 points. Four games - and as many victories - later, Siena is as hot as any Euroleague team. It validated its ambitions against defending champion Regal FC Barcelona and recently got back from injury Malik Hairston, who started in Zagreb after missing six games. Hairston can provide Siena head coach Simone Pianigiani with another scorer, thus making even more explosive an offense that is already getting familiar with the unbelievable boost supplied by Bo McCalebb. It's really something to see the former Partizan point guard literally fly while driving or rebounding the ball. Is he a pure shooter? No. Is he a vintage point guard? Again, no. But he's a basketball player, a beast in the open court and a driver who poses serious issues for any defense by beating his defender quicker and deeper than anybody in the league. By "deeper" I mean McCalebb penetrates the defense so quickly that helping is nearly impossible, unless you pre-rotate a little bit to prevent him from getting in the paint. It's actually a pick-your-poison situation for defenses facing McCalebb: if you don't help and he makes it to the rim, his percentages are great (58% on two-pointers in general, 75% on layups). If you help late, you are very susceptible to fouls, and again McCalebb makes you pay: he shoots a free throw every 7.5 minutes, converting them at a 92% clip. If you help early by pre-rotating, he can find the open man (10 assists and 5 turnovers in the last 3 games). Besides having Shaun Stonerook and Darjus Lavrinovic spacing the floor so well with their passing (the former) and shooting (the latter), the recuperation of Hairston means that Siena can count on 12 players, none of which played less than 8 minutes against Cibona. And being deep is what really can make the difference in the long run.
There is only one thing, IMHO, that makes more difference than a deep roster, and that is playing solid defense. I think the best way to gauge the effectiveness of a defense is by measuring points per 100 possessions. Number one in the Euroleague? None other than Siena, which allows opponents 81.2 points per 100 possessions. Number two? It's Maccabi, at a very solid 83.8 per 100 possessions. Now, when I read the roster in preseason, I would have definitely expected the Israeli team to be able to score, which they are very decent at, indeed. But the fact that they've kept five opponents under 70 points (and another at 71) is something that really reflects the good job David Blatt is doing with his staff and the players. To play such effective defense, you have to move your feet, know what you are doing and be willing to sacrifice, because such a result can't be accomplished with mere tactical preparation and strategy. By the way, I see some similiarities between these two teams on defense. Both teams rely on the system more than on extraordinary individual defenders. Both teams generate a turnover by the opposing team roughly 1 out of every 5 possessions, and those steals create some serious havoc, besides much-needed fastbreak points. I don't think it's an accident that Chuck Eidson, Doron Perkins and McCalebb are the only Euroleague players over 20 steals after 8 games. What is remarkable is that two teams that force turnovers on their opponents, usually a risky defensive strategy, are also solid on in overall defensive. So, having said these teams have scorers and can put points on the board, it's still what they do when the other team has the ball that is leading them to success. After all, it's no mistery: offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships.
FLAVIO TRANQUILLO - ITALY
Tuesday, December 14, 2010