A pair of strong finishes
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!
Power Electronics Valencia 73-72 Union Olimpija
These were two teams with two different goals headed into Wednesday’s game. Valencia still needed to make the Top 16, while already-qualified Olimpija was looking to win Group D. Valencia was coming to the game as one of the hottest teams in the competition, having found its character and soul after arrival to the bench of Svetislav Pesic. Olimpija, albeit a traditional name on the European basketball scene, was considered by many a surprise, particularly after an unsure summer and preseason, to be fighting now with Panathinaikos for first place.
Both teams started smoothly by using their big men to score inside. When Valencia managed to add outside shooting to the mix, an even game slowly started creeping to the home side. Rafa Martinez stayed as deadly as in the previous week's big road win against Armani Jeans Milano, burying a couple of early threes to spark an 8-0 Valencia run. Accurate from the outside and running when possible, Valencia built a double-digit lead by the end of the first quarter. On defense, Valencia was able to maintain high intensity as coach Pesic called early on reserves who responded with the same fire and precision as the starters. Olimpija couldn't find a way to slow down Valencia and had to swallow 29 points in just 10 minutes.
As though Victor Claver's spectacular breakaway dunk to end a dominant first quarter had taken away some of Valencia's focus, Olimpija soon found itself able to score easy points. Valencia's shots missed the mark while Olimpija benefited from the pick-and-roll clinic that Vlado Ilievski was running. With great patience, Ilievski proved deadly at finding screeners on the roll or open shooters on the perimeter. Unable to revive its offense, Valencia gradually gave up the lead. The second quarter turned into a one-sided affair for Olimpija, and when a lucky three by Kevinn Pinkney fell through, Olimpija went ahead and silenced the crowd. The visitors preserved a two-point lead heading to the locker rooms at halftime thanks to a poised, patient performance on offense and to a defense that put the breaks on Valencia's up-tempo game. Pinkney and Kenny Gregory had shared 26 points by then on plays directed by Ilievski. Omar Cook boosted Valencia early with his 11 points off the bench, but fell out of rhythm with the rest of his team in the 5 minutes before the half.
The game evened out again after the break, with both sides trading baskets and small leads. Try as it did, Valencia could not control the tempo as it surely expected to do in such an important game. On the other hand, even when under pressure Olimpija passed remarkably well, both on the perimeter, where Ilievski kept dishing, and among its big men, as Pinckney and Gregory kept finishing strong. Ilievski kept the ball in his hands most of the time before finding his teammates in the right position with enough time to make their moves. The third quarter was a tug-of-war with the lead changing hands after almost every basket. With shooting percentages and all other important statistical categories even, so was the scoreboard after 30 minutes.
Pinkney continued his superb play as he scored 5 straight points to start the last quarter. Unstoppable and very economic with his footwork, Pinkney was the main man for the visitors, whose defense continued to stop Valencia's transition and clog the middle against half-court sets. Valencia found neither paths to the basket nor good shooting positions. Determined not to be left at the mercy of the outcome of the simultaneous Panathinaikos-Milano game, Valencia collected itself for a last offensive, cutting and eight-point Olimpija lead to 2 with 3 minutes left. That's when Martinez resurfaced to swerve the lead to the home side. In the closing minutes of the game Olimpija made untimely errors on offense but still had a chance to take the victory. Trading basket for basket, the game went down to the very last second as Dusko Savanovic sent the home crowd into a frenzy with his buzzer-beating three-pointer. This early holiday present sealed Valencia's advance to the Top 16.
Fenerbahce Ulker 93-61 Cholet Basket
Could Fenerbahce get out of its two-game losing slump, including a 30-point spanking in Siena a week before? At stake for the home team was second place in Group C and a better position in the Top 16 draw. Meanwhile, to advance to the Top 16, Cholet faced the need to upset a favorite on the road or depend on Cibona Zagreb pulling off its first victory of the season against Lietuvos Rytas.
I could not detect any early signs of self-pressure in a difficult game for the visitors. Cholet looked for and found easy transition baskets rather than slow the game in hopes a low-scoring affair on the road. Fenerbahce looked rather sluggish initially, as if thoughts of its nightmarish performance in Siena were weighing heavily. Fenerbahce did not manage anything better offensively than to attempt 5 three-pointers on its initial possessions. Reading properly when to go one-on-one in transition and passing the ball well inside and out, Cholet jumped out to stunning 0-9 lead. Even after Neven Spahija's timeout the Turkish side was still looking for its rhythm. Cholet kept its hopes up on the boards, where its agile big man successfully challenged the much bigger Fenerbahce lineup. The hosts finally got their bearings, inspired by all-time Euroleague rebounding king Mirsad Turkcan. He and another off-the-bench spark, Tarence Kinsey, fueled an 11-2 run to force a 16-16 tie after one quarter.
With a fresh Emir Preldzic, Lynn Greer and Sean May in the lineup, the full Sinan Erden Arena finally got to see the home team take charge. While the score stayed low, Fenerbahce focused on rebounds and good passing to its inside players to open up a small lead. Defensively, Fenerbahce found a way to stop Cholet's transition game and use its big players to form a wall in the half-court game. Claude Marquis and Randall Falkner played with heart for Cholet under the basket but at times their lack of size was visible. Fenerbahce maintained even scoring across the whole team to close the half with an eight-point lead. Despite its good start, Cholet could not maintain the same level of play throughtout the initial 20 minutes. Coach Spahija also greatly benefited from the luxury of having a deep bench. In the first half, Fenerbahce starters accounted for just 30 percent of their team's points and 20 percent of its rebounds. Fenerbahce was also able to keep Cholet's best scorer, Sammy Mejia, in check. He had only 3 points when he dialed from long distance late in the second quarter. Also, 10 turnovers hurt Cholet as Fenerbahce used those mistakes to its advantage.
Darjus Lavrinovic established himself on the court to start the second half, which only increased Fenerbahce's lead. Unable to run after Fenerbahce made baskets, Cholet tried to penetrate and kick in an effort to find open shooters. Fenerbahce was more focused now, however. Its players helped and recovered very well, shutting down any penetrations. Not having any room to score, each possession turned into a struggle for Cholet. The lead grew steadily as Fenerbahce took over in all important statistical categories during the third quarter. The fourth quarter presented the same story. Fenerbahce went for the kill and a decisive 20-point lead by increasing the pressure defensively, choking off all Cholet's passing options. Likewise, both big men and the perimeter players rotated well to prevent any scoring around the basket. The only statistical category that Cholet gained in was turnovers. These were punished mercilessly by Fenerbahce with easy points.
After a slow start, Fenerbahce left no doubt that it meant to finish second in the group. Cholet slowly lost hope for a miracle upset and saw its aspirations of reaching the Top 16 shattered thanks to a somewhat expected victory of Lietuvos Rytas in Zagreb.
JIRI ZIDEK - PRAGUE
Friday, December 24, 2010