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 new blog will draw on all that background to enhance the Turkish Airlines Euroleague experience for you, the fans.
When he steps on the court tonight in Istanbul, probably late in the first quarter, Theodoros Papaloukas of Olympiacos will become the Euroleague's new all-time leader in games played, 210, since the turn of the century. Papaloukas has long been the all-time leader in assists (878, and counting) as well as steals (304). All great accomplishments and numbers, to be sure. But to me, they don't begin to say how important a figure in basketball history Papaloukas has been over the last decade since he made his Euroleague debut with Olympiacos in 2001. Someone in Greece who knew I was a fan of tall point guards alerted me when Papaloukas signed with the Reds way back in that summer of 2001. "Watch him," they said. "He's special." It turned out to be an understatement.
The better word for Papaloukas now is "transformational", because he has done nothing less than transform how we think of basketball superstars. The operative fact is this: Papaloukas has started only 12 games in those 10-plus seasons. Coaches like to say it doesn't matter who starts games, but who finishes them: Papaloukas is the living proof. By perfecting the art of studying a game from the bench, then coming in and resolving it for his team, Papaloukas is no doubt the most successful substitute in basketball history. His two Euroleague titles with CSKA in 2006 and 2008, the first as MVP of the Final Four, speak for themselves, but do not say it all. The year in between, he was voted the Euroleague MVP without having started a single game. He was also the top scorer and assist-maker at the Final Four, where CSKA lost the title game by 2 points to host Panathinaikos. Then he returned to Olympiacos, which hadn't reached the Final Four in a decade, and led the Reds to two in a row.
At the Final Four in 2008, coach Sergio Scariolo made a very perceptive symposium presentation about trends in European basketball. He pointed out statistically how the days of 35-minute-per-game scoring stars who carried whole teams were long gone. More players were being relied upon by coaches and stars were playing fewer minutes, making non-starters more and more important to the outcomes of games. At the same time, Scariolo presented statistics showing that greater numbers of players were making assists than ever before, more evidence that the group was becoming more and more important than the individual in European basketball. Or to put it another way, true team basketball was being taken to another level.
After 10 seasons at the top, Papaloukas has a career scoring average in the Euroleague is 7.6 points. In any other league, he might be an afterthought. In the Euroleague, he is a symbol of how greatness can be achieved by sacrificing yourself for your team.
Sting like a bee
As someone famous once said: it just gets interestinger. Emphasis on the "stinger". Lietuvos Rytas floated like a butterfly and stung Panathinaikos like a bee in Athens on Wednesday.
Should any of us have been surprised? After a regular season full of shockers, the Top 16 has had almost one per week, too.
In Week 1, it was Fenerbahce Ulker ambushing Olympiacos in Piraeus, by 70-84, a result that the Reds are still trying to overcome as those two teams meet in the rematch on Thursday.
In Week 2, it was the same Lietuvos Rytas beating Caja Laboral on the buzzer away, with Khalid El-Amin's memorable three-pointer launched near mid-court - and his memorable smooth-operator reaction to it, before his teammates arrived to smother him. Those teams will now play a life-or-death rematch in the Top 16 finale in Vilnius next week. Imagine what a sold-out 11,000-seat Siemens Arena will be like for that one.
In Week 4, it was Zalgiris over FB Ulker 85-84 in overtime, with an inspired four-point bank shot-plus-free throw by Euroleague.net blogger Martynas Pocius. Zalgiris is walking a high wire that continues on Thursday when it hosts Power Electronics Valencia.
And now, to start Week 5, this: Lietuvos Rytas by 67-68 over Panathinaikos on the road. The Greens not only had a Quarterfinal Playoffs qualification in their hands, but also could have clinched first place and homecourt advantage in the next round as soon as this week. Instead, they are in a must-win situation going to play Unicaja in Malaga next week. Otherwise, Caja Laboral could win tonight at home against Unicaja, lose next week to Lietuvos Rytas on the road, and the Greens would be eliminated in a head-to-head tie with Caja Laboral for second place by 4 points. Nothing is impossible in this competition: just ask CSKA Moscow.
Keeping the faith
Lietuvos Rytas is 6-2 in its last eight games and now has beaten Barcelona, Caja Laboral and Panathinaikos - the latter two on the road - each by one point. Props to the whole team, but especially to head coach Aleksandar Trifunovic and El-Amin. Although he had coached Lietuvos Rytas before, Trifunovic arrived in Vilnius 9 days before the start of the Euroleague regular season, soon after the team's starting point guard, Jerry Johnson, went down with a long-term injury. El-Amin was signed on the season's opening day and didn't play in Istanbul as Lietuvos Rytas lost to FB Ulker, the first of six defeats in the first seven Euroleague games.
Along the way, three point guards left Lietuvos Rytas. Igor Milosevic, the original backup, was the first to go, after six games. The team then saw the arrival and departure of an inspirational leader, Sarunas Jasikevicius, over the span of six games. Johnson also returned from his injury, but he and the club soon agreed to part ways. With all those comings and goings, El-Amin had to take charge, and did. He is now among the best five scorers and 10 best assist-makers in the Top 16, and hit the game-winning shots against both Caja Laboral and Panathinaikos. Trifunovic, meanwhile, had to keep the team believing in itself and playing hard, and he did just that, in part by investing a lot of trust in El-Amin. The result has been a team that plays spirited basketball tot he very limit of its abilities. Now, Lietuvos Rytas now not only has a playoffs berth to go for, but could even finish first in its group. At the very least, next Thursday will bring a great basketball party in a most-deserving place that lives and dies for this sport: Vilnius.
Missing in action
Even as the excitement levels rise game by game, week by week, round by round in the Euroleague, it is sad to note that injuries have taken some of the Euroleague's top players out of the competition for the foreseeable future. In just the last two weeks, we heard that Mirsad Turkcan of Fenerbahce Ulker, Pete Mickeal of Regal FC Barcelona and now Victor Claver of Power Electronics Valencia will be out for what's left of this Euroleague season. The fact that they are born competitors whose teams are still fighting for Euroleague glory makes it even worse, on them and on the fans who won't get to see them help their teams. Let me add another signature star whose team was eliminated earlier this season, Matjaz Smodis of CSKA Moscow, who is undergoing some health problems of his own. All are missed on our courts and our TV screens, and we can only wish them the quickest and easiest of recoveries.
Frank Lawlor - Euroleague.net
Thursday, February 24, 2011