The legendary American university coach Bobby Knight used to look at the season by counting games played and games yet to be played the way wins and losses are computed. Using his method, we are 3-3 in a fabulous Top 16. For us watching from the outside in, the best part is that we are going to win no matter what at the end of these six games!
A lot of balance again in a week where only two games were played on Wednesday. One of the those Wednesday matches saw Fenerbahce Ulker topping Zalgiris to remain unbeaten in Group H, the only non-Spanish team that has yet to lose in the Top 16. Defense was, one more time, the name of the game for the Turkish team. After allowing 41 points to Zalgiris in the first half, FB Ulker head coach Neven Spahija turned a couple of defensive screws tighter in the locker room and, as a result, Zalgiris scored just13 points in the decisive third quarter. I see a trend here in the shape of teams with a very deep rosters turning up the intensity right after halftime and marking the difference. You could say a 17-13 third quarter is not much of a break, but sometimes it's enough to change the pace of a game and to establish a lead that goes beyond the scoreboard numbers. And when you play a nine-men rotation whose ninth man is called Sean May and plays no more than 7 minutes and 16 seconds, your roster must be undeniably deep.
Another face of the same coin is balanced scoring. Fenerbahce Ulker had five players in double figures, none scoring less than 12 or more than 15 points. You couldn't script it better, as the best offense is one that does not allow the opponent to focus on stopping one or two guys, but rather keeps everybody honest by sharing the ball and the scoring load. And when you can use a player the caliber of Sarunas Jasikevicius as a deluxe reliever, your roster is, again, extremely deep. Speaking of which, also on Wednesday in Group H, Olympiacos beat Power Electronics Valencia with defense - this time right off the bat, as the Spanish team scored 12 points in the first and second quarters of a very tough first half - and balanced scoring. Do you notice a trend here? Olympiacos and Fenerbahce Ulker have to hold serve to qualify for the Playoffs, though the fight for first place is far from irrelevant, since that team will earn home-court advantage in the playoffs.
A similar situation plays out in Group F, where Barcelona and Maccabi routed Lottomatica and Union Olimpia to take control of the situation. We all think Roma and Ljubljana will end their adventure within the next three games, but you don't want to take any game lightly when a mistake along the way can be the difference between playing Game 5 at home or on the road in the Playoffs. And teams are competitive even when the logical read of the situation points to their exit from the competition. In the other two groups, the situation is much more fluid than that. I took in the Partizan-Montepaschi Siena game and also saw the end of regulation and the overtime in between Real Madrid and Efes Pilsen. In Belgrade, Siena played for its basketball life without Bo McCalebb and Ksystof Lavrinovic, i.e. the two most irreplaceable players on the roster. With all due respect to the rest of their teammates, nobody on head coach Simone Pianigiani’s depth chart - few, if anyone in the entire Euroleague, in fact - has the athleticism and the driving ability of McCalebb, while true centers with legitimate three-point range like Lavrinovic don’t exactly grow on trees. To win on the road at the fantastic fully-packed Belgrade Arena is a testament to what Siena really is. No, it was not a Picasso at all. Turnovers were raining all over the place, including a third-quarter sequence that went like this:
8:23 - turnover Kaukenas
8:17 - turnover Bozic
7:57 - turnover Kaukenas
7:55 - turnover Vesely
7:52 - dunk Stonerook
Partizan had 9 turnovers in the third quarter alone, but that did not diminish the wild intensity the home team put into the game. I can’t deny that they had all kinds of problems moving and passing the ball, especially considering the passing technique used by too many players. Partizan also tried too many times to penetrate through an aggressive defense to take its shots, something very dangerous when you are, in fact, going into the teeth of the defense. Having said that, the intensity of the Siena defense was unbelievable. And even better was the game played down the stretch by two Italian reserves, Marco Carraretto and Andrea Michelori. Carraretto is no stranger to deciding a big game on the road, His poise and his shooting are legendary in Siena, where they know he can give a great effort even if his minutes don’t often reach double figures. But the real outsider was Michelori, who literally decided the game between the third and fourth quarter with 3 consecutive baskets. In such a low-scoring game, to score 6 straight points amounts to a decisive break. To do so being essentially the sixth big man on the roster (after Stonerook, Lavrinovic, Rakovic, Akindele and Ress) is even more impressive. Oh, and I don’t want to forget that while dominating on offense Michelori, a 2.02-meter center who is not afraid to play undersized, was a lion on defense. At a certain point, I came to the conclusion that there were two Micheloris and two Stonerooks in the middle for Siena's defense. And I’m pretty sure the same conclusion was reached by a lot of Partizan players …
The game in Madrid was even more intense, and Real Madrid won it by not panicking. Thanks to Euroleague.TV, I caught a late Messina timeout in regulation. The situation was not easy, Efes Pilsen was riding an 11-5 run and time was scarce. But Messina talked calmly to the team, not letting the players perceive the game as lost even for a second. Sure enough, Pablo Prigioni came out of that timeout with a big three-pointer and an even bigger steal. And Madrid did not give up even after a big Keren Gonlum triple that appeared to seal the game for good with under 20 seconds left. Of course, it took 3 three-point tries and as many free throws - all made by Sergio Rodriguez with 2.6 seconds left - to send the game into overtime. But the signature plays for Madrid were defensive ones: Clay Tucker perfectly playing Flip Murray on the last play of regulation and blocking his shot and D'or Fischer patrolling the lane in the overtime and finally covering Kerem Tunceri on Efes Pilsen’s last shot. Not an easy win at all, and a two-thirds full glass for Efes Pilsen, who fought hard 45 minutes on the road. Yes, Group G, like Group E, will be fun until the end…
FLAVIO TRANQUILLO - ITALY
Friday, February 04, 2011