Fighting for the Top 16 dream!
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!
Khimki Moscow Region 92-65 Partizan mt:s Belgrade
The game with the earliest tip off time in Euroleague history featured a match up of a team with high pre-season ambitions and a scrappy, inexperienced team that finds a way to win. Khimki Moscow Region, with its aggressive off season acquisitions, most likely did not imagine itself to be in fifth place, out of the Top 16 running, headed into Week 7 of the Turkish Airlines Euroleague regular season. Partizan, meanwhile, stood third in Group A, in my opinion a good accomplishment by that young group of players, especially in light of their mediocre play in the Adriatic league. Prior to the game, Partizan made an important roster change, releasing point guard Oliver Lafayette to replace him with another Euroleague rookie Curtis Jerrells. That hinted at a tough situation for the Serbian side, having only a few days for a young player to familiarize himself with the team. On the other bench, however, Khimki boss Sergio Scariolo got a nice boost by finally having Thomas Kelati ready to play. So going in, it shaped up as a must win for home side or a definite push towards the Top 16 for the visitors: that’s what this game meant for both sides.
Both teams were aggressive from the get-go. Partizan, with Petar Bozic at point guard, tried and succeeded in establishing big man Nathan Jawai under the basket for 5 successive points. Unfortunately for the visitors, the Aussie big man was also whistled for 2 quick fouls that forced him to the bench. Khimki relied the offense of its guards, as has been the case most of the season. That perimeter unit, led as usual by Keith Langford, added another dimension with a healthy sharpshooter Kelati ready to strengthen the aerial assault. Superb ball-handling and one-on-one skills by Langford and Zoran Planinic, outside shooting by Kelati and hard-nosed defense by Vitaly Fridzon gave Khimki its first step towards a crucial victory. Down by 13 at the end of the first quarter, Partizan head coach Vlado Jovanovich was forced to get Jawai back into the lineup, even with 2 fouls. Jawai worked very hard for position close to the basket but after receiving the ball did not have enough space to play one-on-one. The active Khimki guards never fully committed to double-team him, but pestered Jawai enough to throw him off his rhythm on many possessions. Nonetheless, the Partizan big man remained the sole bright spot in a black jersey byrecording a team-high 14 points in the first half. But the whole Khimki team looked very sharp on offense in that first half. They pushed the ball up-court but if no opening was apparent, stayed under control and patiently executed their half-court sets. These sets in most cases ended in Langford, Planinic, Kelati or Lopez going one-on-one. One might say that only 2 assists for Khimki in first 20 minutes showed a lack of team play and could not constitute a winning strategy for the full game. This would hold true in many games, but on Wednesday, the Khimki perimeter players were just deadly accurate, shooting over 50 percent from the field. So when Partizan took their defensive intensity up a notch minutes before the end of first half, Planinic was there to answer with his brilliant finishes to the basket, going for 11 points in 15 minutes.
How to defend Jawai could have been the only question on mind of Khimki ead coach Sergio Scariolo at halftime. As poised as he was on offense, however, Jawai took himself out early in second half with an unnecessary foul away from the basket. His substitute, Rasko Katic, failed to find a rhythm, James Gist fought foul trouble, too. As such, Partizan lacked power, direction and focus. Lopez started the second half and sparked a run that opened up a decisive gap. His consecutive threes and all-around hustle backed by by Langford's drives widened the lead more than 20 points. Partizan head coach Vlado Jovanovic could not hold Jawai out of the game much longer, and soon the big man's presence was felt as both Khimki centers, Benjamin Eze and Aleksey Savrasenko, got into foul trouble. Again, however, an out-of-position foul put the clamps on Jawai's impact. Meanwhile, newly-arrived Jerrells showed flashes of offensive brilliance, scoring 11 points by the end of third quarter, but Partizan needed an organizer and distributor at that moment to feed Jan Vesely on fastbreaks, backdoors and crosscuts, find Kecman coming off the screens and help Gist scored his points, rather than make him work very hard individually and out of team system to get them. The fourth quarter turned into exhibition for the home side. Eze pleased the fans with phenomenal defensive plays, while the perimeter offensive show continued to click on all cylinders. As a result, Khimki took a one-sided win by 27 points and by an incredible difference of almost 70 in performance index rating!
Zalgiris Kaunas 68-71 Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv
Another duel in group A caught my eye as one of the Euroleague's hottest teams, Maccabi Tel Aviv, traveled to Kaunas, Lithuania to take on one of the most pleasant surprises of the competition, Zalgiris Kaunas. The sellout crowd in Kaunas, accustomed to great Euroleague battles, was eager to see if the Greens could outgun the competition's highest-scoring team and make a giant step towards Top16.
Without fear and playing simple basketball, Zalgiris took an early lead. The hosts played pick-and-roll with Mirza Begic, penetrated and kicked out passess with efficiency or connected from downtown without hesitation. Maccabi again established center Sofoklis Schortsanitis early in the post, but it was visiting head coach David Blatt who had to call the first timeout after Tomas Delinikaitis buried a second pointer that put Zalgiris ahead 14-7. Maccabi looked a bit shaken, atypically turning the ball over and reacting rather than dictating the game tempo. Blatt went to a faster line up with Richard Hendrix and David Blu being able to switch on all screens. Quicker offensive ball movement put Maccabi right back into the game. Now, Zalgiris was on its heels and turning the ball over a total of 6 times in the first quarter. Zalgiris ended first quarter with a three-point lead and looked more active early in the second, but under the basket, the Lithuanians had their hands full with Sofo. A slight Zalgiris was preserved thanks to active defense, especially perimeter players deflecting passes, and successful three-point shooting, as the hosts used the penetrate-and-kick option most frequently. The key man for Maccabi defensively was Chuck Eidson, who made 4 steals and was all over the court in the first half. Offensively, even with good looks, Maccabi's shooters could not find the bottom of the net. A low-scoring game ended with Zalgiris up by 1 point after the amazing play of the week, a thunderous tomahawk dunk by Jeremy Pargo of Maccabi. Zalgiris shot and rebounded better so far, but had 12 turnovers already to Maccabi's 5.
As if energized by Pargo's spectacular finish, Maccabi came back stronger on defense, forcing tough shots and additional turnovers on Zalgiris. Sofo and Doron Perkins were a deadly combo offensively, the former scoring almost at will on Begic and Travis Watson, the later using his superb athleticism and hard-nosed play to attack the basket. Backed by a great crowd that cheered the Greens tirelessly, Zalgiris did not panic when Maccabi took a six-point lead. Head coach Aco Petrovic's team patiently set up its shooters, secured lose balls and rebound and took advantage when Maccabi, in a momentary lapse of mental concentration, committed 2 unsportsmanlike fouls. If not for its unforced errors, Zalgiris could have been looking at an even bigger lead.
The last 10 minutes began as defensive war, with every player giving his best but Zalgiris staying ahead. After a hard fould by Paulius Jankunas on Sofo, the big man had to be treated by the trainers as his shooting hand was in pain. Blatt wanted to match the speed of Zalgiris, so went to a very small line up with Lior Elyiahu and Blu as his big men. Zalgiris seemed on target for a great win, however, as Maccabi's shooters kept chipping the paint off the rim. Mantas Kalnietis led the Zalgiris fastbreak as his team's lead climbed to 8 points. With 4 minutes to play, Blatt reverted to a traditional rotation featuring Schortsanitis in the middle. Still ahead by 5 with less than 2 minutes left, Zalgiris showed its Achilles heel again by turning the ball over and giving chance after chance to Maccabi. A thriller ending saw Maccabi take the lead with less than a minute to go. Martynas Pocius, who was stellar off the bench with 10 points and 4 assists, kept his cool and pushed the lead back to Zalgiris. Then, on the crucial play of the game, Eidson showed why he was the Sportingbet MVP of November. With Maccabi shooting 2-15 from three-point distance until then, and Eidson 0-3 himself, he did not hesitate to launch one from the corner, taking back the lead. Zalgiris still had a chance for a shot, but did what it did 27 times before in the game – turned the ball over.
What proved to be one of the most dramatic games this season proved clearly that on this level, no matter how well you play otherwise, a team can't commit 28 turnovers and think about winning. Quite a few of those I would credit to Maccabi's great defense, but too many came from playing out of control. Maccabi reenforced its first position in the group and clinched passage to the Top 16. Zalgiris will have to fight harder now for its own Top 16 dream.
Jiri Zidek - Prague
Friday, December 03, 2010