I kinda like it when the Turkish Airlines Euroleague has a day with only two games on the marquee, since I go to bed with the idea that I did not miss any action … That was the case this last Wednesday, when indeed two very interesting games were played, decided by 4 points total with an overtime thrown in. This is not to diss Thursday, of course, and its six rings of fire. It's enough to say that half of those were decided by 6 points or less and in two of the other games that looked by their scores like easy victories, one winner was down by 8 points at halftime and the other by 5 with 10 minutes left. The only complaint about Thursday is that I couldn't watch them all!
Unbeaten Fenerbahce Ulker was in Kaunas with a chance to seal a place in the playoffs with a victory over winless Zalgiris. But the Lithuanians had other ideas on their minds and fought valiantly to the end (which, as we will see, does not necessarily come after 40 minutes). The Greens had to cope with a so-so shooting night (27% from three-point distance), with their usual nemesis (20 turnovers) and with a powerful and deep opponent. But boy, were they aggressive from the start, doubling hard on pick-and-rolls, jumping on any fastbreak chance and generally playing like a team with their collective backs against the wall (which indeed was the case, basketball-wise). I think one of the reasons this game will be remembered in the future is because it was Emir Preldzic's definitive coming of age. The 23 years old star-in-the-making has doubled his playing time in the Top 16, and for the fourth straight game has increased his point production. But numbers don’t tell the whole story, which is comprised of a 2.06-meter legitimate point guard, who finished with 6 assists and a relevant amount of big plays off screen-and-rolls and draw-and-kick plays, handling the ball at the point with a high degree of poise besides scoring 19 points. Two times down the stretch, Preldzic scored while drawing a foul, showing that he can go left and right with the same effectiveness, and that he can see the whole floor passing over the top of defenders. The scary part is that this young talent, thrown into the fire by the visionary genius of Boscia Tanjevic, the previous Fenerbahce Ulker head coach, can get much better with a little seasoning. Sometimes he relies on his height a little bit too much, ditto for his driving ability (there are instances where he seems to shoot the ball only to beat the 24 seconds clock, like it’s simply a last resort). He can, and must, become stronger and more consistent. Having said that, the match-up problems he poses and the all-around ability he possesses are, to say the least, remarkable.
Going back to the game, it went to the very end. Omer Onan made two big shots in the fourth quarter, then missed an important one with slightly more than a minute remaining. After 2 free throws by Paulius Jankunas for Zalgiris, Preldzic found Sean May for another gem of a three-point play. FB Ulker head coach Neven Spahija resorted to an “offense/defense” substitution inserting Tarence Kinsey for Sarunas Jasikevicius, but the move did not prevent Mantas Kalnietis from scoring a tough runner to tie it up with 35 seconds to go. Since this is not ice hockey, and you can’t substitute on-the-go, Jasikevicius was not back on court to help his team avoid turning the ball over (which is not to say anything bad about Kinsey, since the ball was mishandled by Oguz Savas). Jankunas, though, missed a three-pointer, sending the game into overtime, where many more emotions were in store. Martynas Pocius made a four-point, banking in a triple to go with the foul and free throw. Preldzic found Savas to keep FB Ulker up 75-78. Collins made a wide open three that he did not want to take at first (a tough shot, mentally speaking), then Tadas Klimavicius on the following possession did exactly the same. Onan apparently tied the game with another big shot, but his foot was on the three-point line, leaving Zalgiris with a precious one-point margin, 81-80. That same margin was there with 8.7 seconds to go, when Kalnietis made only 1 of 2 free throws. Preldzic, with his team down 3, dribbled frantically upcourt and was met by a defender who fouled him deliberately to deny him the potentially game-tying three-point shot. But for some reason - and it happens more times than we may think - the referee was caught by surprise and did not call the obvious foul. Preldzic was … surprised by the surprise and threw up a wild shot, before snatching the rebound under the basket and scoring a layup. Again, it’s obvious that looking at the replay the referee would probably call it differently, but this is something that may happen in such a hectic situation. I think the right thing to do is talk about the episode so that it can help others in the future if the same situation arises (which is a given), accept what is decided on the court with maturity (which indeed what happened in Kaunas, by all parties) and realize that a single play is relevant, but needs be viewed in a 40- or in this case 45-minute context. This is a game of mistakes, and referees, as good as they are (and they are good, believe me) are not immune from this very human thing we call "mistake".
After the 45-minute marathon in Kaunas, another vibrant game was played in Siena, were Partizan refused to go down without a fight against the Montepaschi Siena team that beat them two weeks ago in Belgrade. Partizan had an exceptional first half by Jan Vesely, who scored 15 points before intermission and showed his unbelievable athleticism and uncanny knack for tapping the ball under the offensive boards. This kid has long arms, great feet, can run, jump, shoot, post up, rebound, pass, play D: is there anything he cannot do? I was really impressed. Siena was a step slow in the first quarter, maybe having a hard time getting the three Italian Cup games it had played in four days out of its system. But in the second half, Siena got back to good habits, thus also putting Partizan in the foul bonus with 7 minutes, 37 seconds remaining, the by-product of a defense bordering on over-aggressive. Siena did not miss a beat, though, and despite allowing a bunch of bonus free throws to the opponent came back with very important contributions from Marco Carraretto and Andrea Michelori, the heroes of the Belgrade game. Siena head coach Simone Pianigiani used a lot of zone to take away the pick-and-roll from Curtis Jerrells, Shaun Stonerook had a couple of epic battles with Nathan Jawai, a presence that has to be reckoned with, and the game was up for grabs again.
At that point you think Partizan might have given up, its players saying “nice try” to themselves and checking out of the game. No way. The black-and-whites went the whole distance, keeping a very physical and intense game alive. Siena lost Ksistof Lavrinovic to fouls and broke the game open only when Stonerook, after a couple of shots he had passed up, made a wide open three-pointer from the middle in the waning seconds. Partizan, at 0-4, is out of the race, but the Serbians can keep their heads up. Yes, they will not win the “Passing Technique Award” for this season. But when you leave it on the floor every single play, I tend to think you deserve appreciation nonetheless. I’d be very curious to see Jerrells and Jawai come back next season, with a full year of experience under their belts. Especially Jerrells, who looked to me like an American car, which is to say, automatic. When you don’t have to switch gears, everything is alright. But when you have to slow down and play at different speeds, you need an old European stick shift. Still, the talent is there. If he keeps up with this and comes back, his sophomore season might be extremely good.
Great game in Athens, where Caja Laboral gave Panathinaikos fits until the buzzer. The first thing I noticed was the unbelievable confidence that Fernando San Emeterio has now in his offensive game. This guy came to the Euroleague with the label "defensive specialist" attached on him, but work and trust turned him into a bonafide star. He has 40 points in the last two games, and to score such a high amount of points in a balanced offense like that of his coach, Dusko Ivanovic, is even more impressive. You might talk at length about the beautiful spacing Panathinaikos creates on offense with people moving around endlessly. Or about the ability of Marcelinho Huertas and David Logan of Caja Laboral to pull-up when the defense was dictating that in pick-and-roll coverages. Or about the 10-0 run Caja Laboral put together in the fourth quarter before Mike Batiste scored on a dunk and, on the next possession, put pressure on Pape Sow of Caja Laboral, who tapped the ball into his own basket. There was a big three by Antonis Fotsis in the last 2 minutes, and an even bigger catch-and-score, with the foul, by Esteban Batista with 38 seconds left to tie it, before Batiste scored on a low post isolation and made two big FTs with 4.2 seconds left to put Panathinaikos ahead 76-74. But when the statistics show a 19-24 to 6-15 discrepancy at the free throw line in favor of Panathinaikos, it's only fitting that the last chance for Caja Laboral slipped away when San Emeterio, the game MVP, missed his first free throw of a pair while trying to tie the game. He was forced to miss the second and let his team try for the rebound, but the damage was done. Missed free throws will always come back to haunt you, and this game was no exception to the rule.
I then flew, thanks to a remote control … to Istanbul, where Efes Pilsen and Real Madrid were playing a key game. The name of this game was defense. Great defense. Unbelievable defense by Real Madrid. Rotating, swarming, helping, recovering, containing. Doing all those things that don’t impress the statsheet but definitely impress the eye of people in the know. I think Real Madrid now has a DNA, an identity. They know they don’t have as much talent as the top teams in the league as far as individual scoring. So, I guess, they accepted and embraced the concept that they have to win with defense and by spreading the wealth on offense, looking for high-percentage shots by moving the ball from side to side (57% on two-pointers against Efes). They rely on transition, another fruit of good defense, but when they play halfcourt offense they always look up for their big men down low, using a lot of cross screens to free them. When posting up, Real Madrid shoots 41%, a decent but not overwhelming statistic (for instance, their “adjusted field goal percentage” in pick-and-roll situations is situated at 45% and in spot-up situations the same indicator goes up to almost 48%). But hammering the ball down low does wonders by keeping balance, maintaining pressure on the opponent and ultimately creating the space to be effective on the perimeter. Sergio Llull was the MVP of the game, but don’t sleep on D’or Fischer only because he scored 2 meager points. Defense wins games, and this guy comes to play defense every single game. Efes Pilsen has more talent than the final score indicates, and can very well rebound in the near future, provided they can add Flip Murray to the mix. Despite scoring 10 points in Madrid, Murray is a 4.5 points-per-game player now, something really out of character when taking his offensive punch into consideration. Everything points to a Montepaschi Siena-Efes Pilsen showdown next Thursday in Siena, the Game of the Week: can't wait to see it …
FLAVIO TRANQUILLO - ITALY
Friday, February 18, 2011