Nothing lost, nor won, so far
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!
I won't be the first person to tell you: Week 2 of the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Top 16 was absolutely fascinating. The biggest surprise, of course, was Lietuvos Rytas winning on the buzzer at Caja Laboral and thereby putting itself very much in the race to advance to the Playoffs. Elsewhere, Real Madrid was phenomenal. I only caught Madrid’s second half, but that told the whole story. Montepaschi Siena definitely misses Bo McCalebb, who I think could have helped prevent a 20-point turnaround and one of the biggest meltdowns we have seen in the Top 16. On the other hand, I do not count Siena out at all. I think there is definitely still a chance for them to get back in the race.
If I stick with my categories for ranking victories, last week's would go like this:
Expected victories: Panathinaikos, Maccabi
Good wins: Barcelona, Efes, Olympiacos, Fenerbahce
Steals: Lietuvos Rrytas and Real Madrid
Among the other games I want to mention from last week, as I expected, Valencia gave Fenerbahce a tough game. Valencia under coach Svetislav Pesic is showing itself to be a very difficult team to play. They are proving it in every game, and that one was fun to watch, coming down to the last shot. That's when Fenerbahce got the big blocks by Emir Preldzic to go along with the performance on offense of a player I have really enjoyed lately, Omer Onan, who came up big with 22 points.
I also enjoyed Olimpija-Barcelona. You have to give a lot of credit again to Olimpija. It looked like Barcelona had the game in its hands in the third quarter, but Olimpija just never gave up. It is clear that even the biggest teams don't have it easy in Stozice Arena, where there is just incredible energy and power coming from the stands. Olimpija played versatile basketball, and even though Kevinn Pinkney didn't have a great game, other guys stepped up. Goran Jagodnik was impressive once again in the second half. Olimpija almost came up with a huge upset. What a scrappy team!
Caja Laboral vs. Panathinaikos suddenly turns out to be a do-or-die game, in my opinion, for the hosts. Laboral got themselves in a difficult spot by losing to Lietuvos Rytas. Now, they have some questions to answer as far as their rotation. It seems from the stats that they are using mostly seven men in the last few games, which is a very short rotation for this time of year and all the high-quality Euroleague and domestic games they have to play. Now, if they want to make up for the unexpected loss against L. Rytas, they must win this pivotal home game against Panathinaikos. And that will not be easy.
L. Rytas is on the road against Unicaja in Malaga, and if it can pull off another win in Spain, that would make this team the biggest surprise of the competition so far. Unicaja, with new coach Chus Mateo, almost beat Caja Laboral on the road in the Spanish League, and now must find the inner strength to avoid going 0-3 in the Top 16. It won't be easy. L. Rytas just showed a few days earlier that it could beat Caja Laboral under similar circumstances, so going to Spain just a week later might be an advantage for the visitors. They played a great all-around game in Vitoria, and if Khalid El-Amin can lead them like he did that night, anything is possible in Malaga. El-Amin showed again how important guard play is nowadays: if your team gets a good performance from the point guard, it has a chance to win. Add in the versatile, motion-oriented game the Lithuanians alwasy play, and it makes it a tough team to defend. Unicaja has to be prepared. They key for the hosts will be trying to get ahead early and control the scoreboard, staying out of a shooting contest with L. Rytas. The longer the game stays close, the better shape the visitors will be in. If you let them hang around - with the way that guys like Milko Bjelica and Kenan Bajramovic are playing - Lietuvos Rytas will be very dangerous.
I am sure this will be more interesting than most of Maccabi's home games until now. First, the stakes are a lot higher for the hosts, which puts some pressure on them. Maccabi was the hottest team in the regular season, but after Barcelona showed themselves to be the defending champions still, beating Maccabi to open the Top 16. To me, that makes Barcelona the favorite to finish first in this group. But in any case, after what Olimpija did last week to almost beat Barcelona, I see this as three teams fighting for two spots, and with Barcelona having beaten the other two already, these next two games between Maccabi and Olimpija will be great. For Maccabi, however, this is a must-win game. In Tel Aviv, with a full arena and a lot of energy, they are the favorites in the game, of course. I think head coach David Blatt will do with Maccabi what he has done all year, use pressure defense by Jeremy Pargo and Doron Perkins on the guards of Olimpija, Vlado Ilievski and Saso Ozbolt, as much as possible. Maccabi will press fullcourt, make it difficult for Olimpija to set up their plays, then collapse and pack the basket area. Of course, the other thing to keep an eye on is the physical play under the basket with Sofoklis Schortsanitis and Chuck Eidson for Maccabi. At the same time, I expect Olimpija to put up a fight. They seem to have put behind them the tough loss to Barcelona by winning against Hemofarm in the Adriatic League by more than 40 points. What you see watching Olimpija is a group of guys who play well together, a lot better than anyone would have expected to start this season. It's obviouys that they like to play together. They are a good mix. And I think that they feel they have nothing to lose, no pressure. And that makes them dangerous. They are always interesting to watch, and they have behind them a proud franchise that has produced many great players in the past. I am happy for Olimpija and for Slovenian basketball to see them playing such important games.
As for Barcelona-Lottomatica, the champs are the clear favorites. Roma is not playing well, as they demonstrated in Tel Aviv. It should be an easy affair and a chance for Barcelona to use all its players.
The only game possible between undefeated group co-leaders, Real Madrid vs. Efes Pilsen, is all that needs to be said. Madrid has pulled off a win in Siena last week that shows the character of the players and, of course, their good coaching. Coming back from 18 points down in Siena, even though Montepaschi didn't have its starting point guard, is a major statement. It takes a lot of focus to come back like that against one of the top defenses in Europe. In what I saw, the big role of Pablo Prigioni stood out for me. He scored only 2 points, but in 31 minutes he was a great floor leader. That gives Sergio Llull more of a scoring role, which is just perfect, because he can handle that big scoring role. Then there is Nikola Mirotic, with his 17 points in 16 minutes, which makes this team even more dangerous. Real Madrid is a group of good atheltes in the sense that they are physically dominant, ranked number one in rebounds, with guys like D'or Fischer, Ante Tomic and Felipe Reyes. But to me, the big difference in Siena was Prigioni. I saw Madrid earlier this seeason and the team was very rough around the edges. I think Prigioni makes everything smooth and now they are playing really well. As for Efes, I put their victory over Partizan last week in the category of good wins even though it was their first on the road in eight tries going back to last season. Maybe it was a steal in that sense, but if I look at the roster of Efes and their coach, my ambitions for them are high. I expected more than a 5-5 regular season from them, and I think this roster is capable of playing better than it has shown. Maybe this is the moment that they will break out. It's true that Igor Rakocevic is stepping up in a major way, not shying away from any difficult shots, taking the scoring responsiblity on his shoulders. I think the division of minutes between Andrew Wisniewski and Kerem Tunceri is working well. I also think another key will be Lawrence Roberts and the toughness he brings to Efes. He's a tireless worker making sacrifices around the basket, then stepping out for threes. He never loses his composure, he's always cool-headed, and I think that can be an inspiration for his teammates. This is a solid and experienced team, and as a blogger, I want to put pressure on Efes Pilsen to perform up to my expectations. It could come down to a point difference in this group, so I am sure Efes head coach Velimir Perasovic will have that in the back of his mind, as part of a tactical battle with Ettore Messina of Madrid. But Efes has to be first focused on trying to win no matter where and whom it plays.
The Game of the Week between Partizan and Montepaschi in crazy Belgrade Arena is nothing less than a fight to stay alive. Neither one of these 0-2 teams is giving up after just two games. After it's over, the winner will be one victory out of second place, so the motivation is clear. Partizan is a young team, and even though they play at home with 20,000 or more fans behind them, they haven't won easily in Belgrade this season. Siena knows what beating Partizan on the road would mean, considering they only lost by a 2 points away against Efes and Madrid still has to play in Belgrade. A victory could get either of these teams back in the race. Even though they are 0-2, it could get a lot more interesting soon in this group. Nothing is lost yet.
You would have to say that Fenerbahce are favorites in this game, since they are 2-0 and Zalgiris is 0-2. In that sense, it's a first test of Fenerbahce's mentality as a favorite to win their group. On the other hand, Zalgiris has proven to be a tough team all season long. Just ask Caja Laboral, who lost to Zalgiris in the regular season before losing to the other Lithuanian team, Lietuvos Rytas, last week. Both teams play that all-our Baltic style and there is no reason to expect that Zalgiris won't bring it to Istanbul this week. Fenerbahce, howevver, has the answers it needs. Roko Ukic and Sarunas Jasikevicius must take care of the ball, first. And Onan continues to be one of the most versatile scorers in the Euroleague now. But the pressure here is on Fenerbahce trying to uphold the role of favorite. I would almost say it's a must-win game for them. They want to get to the halfway point of the Top 16 undefeated at 3-0 and with some of the pressure off their shoulders.
The Olympiacos-Valencia game I would put on the same level as Real Madrid-Efes Pilsen. Olympiacos still finds itself in a very difficult spot. The Reds travelled to Lithuania last week and pulled out a win against Zalgiris that cost a lot more nerves and effort than expected. Now, they are home and have to face the well-coached Valencia team that won in Athens against Panathinaikos at the beginning of December. The clear turnaround of Valencia under Pesic is undeniable, especially since there were no roster changes. A new system, with organization and discipline, turned a mediocre team into a strong one, a team almost out of the Top 16 into a contender for the Playoffs. In other words, Valencia found a way to win, or at least have a shot at it, like they did last week against Fenerbahce until Preldzic's big blocks. Valencia went home to Spain and got a solid domestic win, so the loss didn't bother them psychologically. I expect this to be a real tough game. Olympiacos needs to show they still belong among the Final Four favorites, where everyone has had them this season. They deserve that status, but they still need to show it. Another home loss, after the one to open the Top 16 against Fenerbahce, would seriously endanger their chances of reaching the Playoffs. They have the players to get the job done, especially Theo Papaloukas and Vassilis Spanoulis, who have all the experience necessary. Today's game, as I keep saying, has a lot to do with point guards, and those are two of the best, most competitive in European basketball. They and their teammates will want to show how that experience means something, that this team is something special. But Valencia, you can be sure, is not going down without a fight. Olympiacos is not in its best shape, but must win nonetheless.
Jiri Zidek - Czech Republic
Monday, January 31, 2011