Feel the momentum building!
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 blog, George will offer analysis from an ex-champ's point of view on what games and players are impressing him most!
Here comes the Top 16, and I cannot wait! To me, the structure of the Euroleague is perfect because every round brings more intensity, more fascinating matchups and more interest for the fans. You can feel the momentum building! As I said right after the draw, every player and every team has to make a big mind-shift now to a group of four as opposed to a group of six. The difference is there can be no major fumbles now for any team. Last round, four out of six teams advanced: now it's just half, two out of four. Any team that wants to be in the playoffs has to protect its court in all home games and try to surprise another team on the road. The experience of playing under those parameters can be key. It's also very important to realize that point differences can matter a lot now. This is not only about winning games, but teams have to think about how much they win by. On paper, there are favorites and potential surprise teams. It will be very interesting to me to see who does as expected and who will surprise. This year's Euroleague has been very even, as much or more than ever, so we might just see some surprises. The Top 16 is also the round where we find out if the regular season standings really reflect the strength of the these teams. Some teams have tried to get stronger by making signings. It will be interesting to see how these players mix and jell with the rest of their teams despite a lack of time. I only changed teams in midseason once in my career, and I can say that it's rather difficult for any player to make that transition. The players going to experienced teams - like Sarunas Jasikevicius to Fenerbahce or Alan Anderson to Barcelona - have more of an advantage in that regard. In European basketball, there are a lot of player transactions in the summer and not as many during the season. All experienced players understand that if a move is made now, it's to help the team. The experienced players know that and work to help the newcomers. There is no animosity or competition in a negative way. Players come in mid-season because everyone recognizes the team needs something more. It's not easy for the other players to go over all the plays again and do extra work to help the new guy, but the best teams understand that the goal is to strengthen the team for the next challenge, in this case the Top 16.
Wednesday Watch: Efes Pilsen vs. Montepaschi Siena
This was a great matchup to begin with, and becomes more interesting because the top seed, Montepaschi Siena, is coming in hurt at the worst possible spot - point guard - and at maybe the worst moment - the start of the Top 16. The visitors have to play without injured star Bo McCalebb, their most important player until now. It was 100-percent clear to me in the regular season that he was the heart and soul of this team, dictating the tempo, scoring, defending and doing so many things. Regardless of whether it's McCalebb or anyone else, if your starting point guard is hurt, it's not a good situation. That means other guys have to step up. It remains to be seen if Marko Jaric, who they just signed, can help right away. As I said, it's an extremely difficult situation - for him and for the team - to just step in like that. That will put much of the responsibility this week on Nikos Zisis, who has the experience to handle it. He's only 27, but he has been the main man on major teams before he took on the role of solid backup to become a Euroleague champ with CSKA. Zisis has to step in now and take over: he doesn't have to be great, just consistent. Having Zisis and another veteran, Rimantas Kaukenas, in the two important ball-handling positions, and several other players who have been together there for some time, leads me to believe that Siena can manage the situation. Still, I think they will need Jaric to give them quality minutes, 10 or 15 under control with low turnovers. In general, on the road at this time of year, the recipe for keeping games close is being careful with the ball.
If you look at Efes, it's a team that started the season with high ambitions, based on the great coach and players they signed. I have seen them play, and honestly Efes has been too inconsistent for my taste. I have seen great moments followed by down moments in the same game. Right after five brilliant minutes come another five that is the opposite: the team suddenly goes cold, can't accomplish anything and stops playing together. It's a team of two faces, which you can see in their regular season record, winning all games at home and none on the road. With their roster, I expected more from this team on the road. Fortunately for Efes, this game is at home, with all the atmosphere that their fans are providing this season. If Efes controls the tempo and plays together, it's a very dangerous basketball club.
Thursday Watch: Regal FC Barcelona vs. Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv
Basketball anticipation rarely gets better than this. Barcelona-Maccabi to start the Top 16 is just awesome. Maccabi might be the top seed after having the best regular season record, but as I have said many times before, the champions are the champions until the moment they lose the title. So for me, Barcelona is just as much of a favorite in this group as Maccabi. Things have been difficult for Barcelona because of injuries, but I think the team did a great job of staying competitive and tough in what was maybe the hardest regular season group. They have recently added new players: Joe Ingles, who has played well in the time he's been given, and now Alan Anderson, who is looked upon as a player who should make a sudden impact. I look forward to seeing him play alongside Juan Carlos Navarro and running with Ricky Rubio. That trio could be truly explosive together.
But right now, Barcelona has to focus on keeping its homecourt advantage if it wants to keep going toward the Final Four in its own city. That's because Maccabi is already the most explosive team of the competition on arrival. I have given a lot of credit to Sofoklis Schortsanitis for that, emphasizing his defense over his offense. It's not just his strength and his kilos, but Sofo's ability to move his feet in the lane and plug the holes well for 10 games has given license to Maccabi's perimeter defenders to pressure and pester all opposing ball-handlers. And that defensive style - giving opposing perimeter players no comfort zone in which to make plays - has been the key to Maccabi's success so far. I know that Maccabi head coach David Blatt will do everything possible to make Rubio and Navarro feel the same discomfort. His main guys on the ball, Doron Perkins and Jeremy Pargo, are physically gifted players who have the right mentality for ball-hawks, too: they show no respect to the great players on other teams. So I don't think it will be easy for Rubio and Navarro. Even saying that, however, Navarro especially has incredible experience, and he will know how to be crafty and use the homecourt to his advantage at this important moment of the season. It will be equally important how Rubio holds up to the pressure of the Maccabi guards. At home in the Top 16, it is so vital to control the tempo and prevent mistakes, and Rubio will have to do both.
Also interesting for me, on the inside, is how Sofo plays. Remember, his last game against Barcelona was with Olympiacos in last season's final. Fran Vazquez and Terence Morris did a phenomenal job of stopping Sofo in that game, one guarding him up close and the other coming from the weak side. They made it a long, long night for him. I am looking forward to seeing if he erased that game from his memory, and how much he has really changed from last year, when he tried to overpower Barcelona. We will see now if he really has more agility and is a different player. Another factor will be the play of both benches. The starting lineups have shown strong play so far - and assuming that Anderson will start against his former team, I think he will help Barcelona's starters remain solid. If Maccabi is equally ready and solid despite playing on the road, let's see what the people off the bench do. As everyone knows, at this level of the Euroleague in recent years, depth is crucial, so there is no discounting the possibility that one or more players not in the starting lineups will make the difference.
This is an unbelievable matchup to look forward to; both teams have the intensity, the speed and the will to control games. Both want to be aggressors. Maccabi with its incredible pressure-and-collapse defense, Barcelona with its creativity. For Anderson, it will be a special game, since he played for Maccabi just last year. He'll have to play against Chuck Eidson, an extremely smart player who takes any mistake by other teams and turns it into points. Nonetheless, I think the pressure is on Barcelona. To start the Top 16 at home hosting the number one seed is not easy. Remember, even if both these teams advance, only one will make the playoffs holding the crucial home-court advantage, and that could depend on this game. The champs will have to show they can defend their homecourt now if they want to have that advantage to defend later.
JIRI ZIDEK - PRAGUE
Monday, January 17, 2011