A pair of true road warriors
The only European to ever 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 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. In his new blog, he'll offer post-game analysis from an ex-champ's point of view on what games and players are impressing him most!
Caja Laboral 88-92 Zalgiris Kaunas
On a court where no visitor ever has it easy, Zalgiris came in Wednesday and stole an important Group A victory against powerful Caja Laboral - arguably the biggest upset of Week 4, if not the season so far. A good start is critical for visitors to Vitoria, Spain, because Caja Laboral makes a point of being very aggressive at the beginning of games, especially on its home floor. I detected early signals that the Lithuanian side was not coming in just to be a sparring partner for the Spanish champs. Zalgiris started out very aggressive and confident. Defensively, its guards succeeded in putting consistent pressure on their Caja Laboral counterparts. On the inside, the Zalgiris big men stood their ground, helped by Caja Laboral's inability to finish consistently around the basket. Offensively, Zalgiris played simple basketball, executed well on set offenses and, most importantly, never gave up on any loose ball. It sounds like a broken record, but to have a chance to win on the road you must limit your turnovers, make some tough shots, keep the game close and hope for the best at the end, when pressure shifts to the home team to not lose in front of the home crowd. Zalgiris did just that. The visitors' 7 TOs in the game document their precise execution and patience on offense. On the other hand, Caja Laboral gave up the ball 16 times, more than double Zalgiris. This is even more impressive considering that Zalgiris played without two important backcourt players, Marcus Brown and Aleksandar Capin.
Right from the tip off, however, Zalgiris came out as a compact group. An attempted dunk by 2.03 forward TravisWatson over 2.19 center Stanko Barac, Paulius Jankunas's tip-in basket ona a fastbreak, and activity in the paint by Mirza Begic must have caught the hosts by surprise. Caja Laboral got some points off post-ups by Mirza Teletovic and medium- to long-distance shots by Martin Rancik, but the team's offense never seemed fully in sync. Athletic forward Marcus Haislip was available to head coach Dusko Ivanovic after injury, but he came in for only 4 minutes, took a couple quick three-point shots and spent the rest of game on the bench. Caja Laboral's high-octane perimeter guys played below expectations, not causing trouble to the Zalgiris defense in what became a subpar scoring night for them. On the contrary, there was lightness, joy and confidence in the perimeter play of Zalgiris with good ball movement up the court and in the set offense, good movement of players in their sets, and quality execution of screens, especially small players on big players. All that combined with tireless rebounding that led to 17 offensive boards and a penetrate-and-kick offense run to perfection spelled trouble for the home team. I am not sure if poor defense by Caja Laboral enabled Zalgiris to play free-flowing, high-scoring offense or perhaps a nothing-to-lose attitude by a Zalgiris team with an incomplete roster was the bigger reason for the upset. Regardless, if you take care of the ball, balance the scoring between inside and outside, and dominate the glass the way Zalgiris did, you will always have a chance to win on the road.
A very important sequence for the outcome of the game was the end of the first quarter, when Zalgiris went on a 12-2 run and closed the gap that Caja Laboral had built in first 8 minutes of the game. From that point on, Zalgiris never lost sight of its opponent or took its own small leads throughout the game. With a 3-1 record atop Group A, in my opinion Zalgiris is the big surprise not only of the group, but also of the whole Euroleague. It's funny, but on the day of the game I did an interview for my former club's website, and when they asked where I see Zalgiris this season, I responded that their goal has been for last few seasons to make the Top 16. After watching yesterday's game, they are set to achieve this and perhaps take it even a step further.
Khimki Moscow Region 76-78 Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv
I am sorry to repeat one of the teams I watched last week, but I could not keep my eyes off another Maccabi game because I was eager to see how Big Sofo and Co. were going to play in another Euroleague away game after a big win at Partizan last week. Maccabi picked up right where they left off in Belgrade, looking very sharp and focused early, jumping out to a commanding 2-16 lead on Khimki. Just as last week, Maccabi's guards pestered Khimki's guards and did not give them any comfort zone to prepare their offense. Sofo right from the beginning was very economical, patient and under control. His teammates hit their big target with passes after penetration and Sofo was also isolated one-on-one. Khimki big men Ben Eze and Alexey Savrasenko had their hands full of the ever-improving Greek big man all night.
After its horrible start, down 14 points before really starting to play, Khimki got a necessary wake-up call from veteran guard Raul Lopez, who shot the ball well but more importantly distributed passes better and quicker among his teammates and penetrated effectively. Eze, Zoran Planinic and Vitaly Fridzon fed off his energy to close the gap. Maccabi again put its game in higher gear using the mobility of Eliyahu and David Blu at the power forward position to get easy points on fastbreaks, even finding Sofo on the break a few times as the trailer. Even with a subpar long-distance shooting performance at halftime, Maccabi enjoyed a comfortable 11-point lead.
Maccabi did not let up after halftime, either. Khimki's star so far this season, Keith Langford, tried hard - perhaps too hard - to find his rhythm, keeping the ball in his hands too much and turning it over. However, it was Langford's penetration and pass to Raul Lopez that has sparked a remarkable turnaround for Khimki. Maccabi got away from until then was a successful game plan of using matchup advantages at each position, started playing individually instead of looking for teammates, and showed poor spacing when isolating Sofo. On the other side, Langford was finally able to use his excellent ball-handling skills to create shots for his teammates, and Khimki was more active thanks to inspirational play from Kresimir Loncar and Fridzon. The home shooters were finally able to connect from downtown during a third quarter run that resulted in a 17-point turnaround and a 58-56 lead at the end of the third quarter.
The hot hand of Loncar soon opened up the gap to a very hopeful 7 points for the hosts. When it almost seemed as though Khimki was taking command of the game, Blu recorded his first three-pointer and woke up Schortsanitis, too. Perhaps too tired from hustling to make up the earlier 15-point deficit, Khimki could not muster enough energy to stop Schortsanitis, and the game was tied again in no time. Guard play was dominant at the end, as it came down to one key defensive stop for Maccabi and a mental mistake by Khimki. And of course, another hustle play at the end, with Doron Perkins making a spectacular play to get Blu the ball for the open three-point game winner at the buzzer. Exciting stuff!
Friday, November 12, 2010