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!
This is a very special week for a couple of reasons. First, logically, it's a rematch of the very last game, which doesn't happen often, so that makes it interesting. Even though there has been two weeks between the games, it's still a little like the playoffs. The second big factor is the domestic cups that most, but not all, the Top 16 teams played last week. The cups play a big role in how teams arrive here. In some countries, teams have played three games in three days until Sunday against quality opponents. That kind of strong and concentrated competition can take a toll on teams, whether they won or lost on Sunday. For me, it will be interesting to see if any teams carry with them a burden, both physical and mental, from all their effort last week.
This group is the only one with no unbeaten and no winless teams, so the margin for error is very small. Panathinaikos is in a tough position after having lost to Caja Laboral in Vitoria by 7 points. The re-match is not an easy situation for the Greens, but perhaps they will benefit from not having played as heavy a schedule as Caja Laboral during the break, and from being at home, of course. Panathinaikos should be relatively rested and ready compared to the visitors, who played until the semifinals of the Spanish Cup. One thing to watch for is how much Panathinaikos depends on Dimitris Diamantidis this time. In that loss in Vitoria, the Greens had 14 assists and 11 of them were by Diamantidis. As great as he is, I think they need to see other guys involved in the playmaking, especially Drew Nicholas and Romain Sato. We know the Greens have great ball movement, but if almost every assist has to come from Diamantidis, that seems to me more than a little predictable for the opponents. If everything goes through the hands of Diamantidis, I would say that's not Panathinaikos at its best. The other danger for Panathinaikos is that Laboral is always capable of surprising a home team, even at OAKA, one of the toughest courts for any visitors. Laboral has exclusive scorers in players like Mirza Teletovic, Fernando San Emeterio and David Logan. Panathinaikos will need to keep them in check while trying to make the most of Mike Batiste inside on the offensive end.
After their game on Thursday in Vilnius, either Lietuvos Rytas or Unicaja is going to be 2-2 and tied for second place with just two games to go in the Top 16, so that says it all about how important this will be to them. It's the game of the season for them, really. L. Rytas is at home, but coming off a tough cup final loss to Zalgiris, so they have to do all they can to shake that off and get the fans behind them. The key player for L. Rytas is Khalid El-Amin at point guard. He has been hot for L. Rytas lately, winning their road game against Caja Laboral at the buzzer and being a big part of their 98-90 loss at Unicaja last week. So again he'll likely be a focal point for L. Rytas, surrounded by all the skilled Lithuanians on the team. Unicaja, meanwhile, has had the chance to get some quality practices in with new coach, Chus Mateo, probably for the first time since he arrived, so they will probably have more rhythm than before. It will be interesting to see how they filled the gap without any games, because sometimes it can be a benefit for teams, but sometimes it can get them out of their two-a-week game rhythm.
Well, I had expected Union Olimpija vs. Maccabi to be a huge game, considering what these teams have done this year and the atmosphere in Ljubljana for all home games. But Maccabi's 37-point win in Tel Aviv puts this game in a little different light. Maccabi, of course, wants to win as it keeps trying for first place, but it goes to Slovenia in a great situation thanks to that big difference. There's no pressure except to win. At the same time, however, it's a four-team group still and anything can happen. So Maccabi, as one of the hottest teams in the competition, doesn't want to leave anything up for grabs. They'll go to Ljubljana ready to elaborate on what they did in Tel Aviv, but they won't have it as easy this time. Those are great fans there who create a great atmosphere, and they all know that if Olimpija goes 2-2 now, anything can happen. I am sure the stands will be full. Olimpija is an unpredictable, even unorthodox team, with experienced players who hadn't played much recently on their previous teams. They bounced back after losing in Tel Aviv to win the Slovenian Cup, so I think that'll help them forget an embarrassing loss and start fresh in this game. It should be a great show for the fans.
If it were any other home team except Lottomatica Roma, I might say that Barcelona has a good chance to be surprised this week. That's because a team that has rested can take advantage of the extreme fatigue, both physically and emotional, that Barcelona is likely to be feeling this week. But if you look at Roma's performance lately, both in the Top 16 and domestically, you have to conclude that Barcelona will be OK - even on the road and even tired. The visitors have such a deep bench compared to Roma that regardless of the energy they had to spend this weekend, they should come back and win again. Anything else would be a huge surprise and I don't expect that to happen. There are too many hungry and high-quality players available to take care of business in this situation. I think Xavi Pascual will be totally on top of it, too. Before moving on, let's mention what a great addition Alan Anderson has been for Barcelona. Not only is he an immediate-impact scorer as we knew, but he has done so staying in the team concept, which someone like him who scores for a living might have had trouble with. Instead, he's clicking, making extra passes and thriving within the team. He makes Barcelona stronger.
After having beaten Partizan on the road in Belgrade in their last game, Montepaschi wants now to finish the job. Anything less than a victory won't do. Siena took home the Italian Cup again, so their attention now is on making sure it gets back in the Top 16 race. Head coach Simone Pianigiani reacted to the team's Week 2 home loss to Madrid by taking some pressure off his team, saying they were likely out of the race, so now he probably just wants to stay low-key, get the win this week and see what happens in this group's other game, between Efes Pilsen and Real Madrid. Montepaschi is the clear favorite at home against Partizan, which is not the same tam on the road. Partizan had its own cup victory in Serbia, too, so will not be so fresh yet, either. Expect the hosts to take care of this game one way or another.
Efes Pilsen lost a game they had basically won in Madrid, and the rematch in Istanbul will center around how they handled that. As we know, the immediate negative carry-over effect for Efes was a loss in the first Turkish Cup game last week. At the same time, Real Madrid will not be in great shape after losing the Spanish Cup final at home as Barcelona ran away from them on their own floor. That had to be frustrating. It will be really interesting to see how both of these teams react, how much each is hurting from recent losses or how able they are to erase those memories and move forward. They might not be two teams that are happy in the short run, but only in the short run. Both should be happy in the Euroleague, but of course Real Madrid more so for having escaped the first game still undefeated in the group, which is huge right now. Still, as I know from having played for Madrid way back when, for that club it's all about trophies, and that makes their cup loss hard to swallow, especially coming against their archrival, Barcelona, in one of the best rivalries in the world. On the Efes side, I'll be watching Kerem Tunceri, who is key for them, and came up with zero points in the Turkish Cup loss. They will need him to bounce back against Madrid.
Meanwhile, the Turkish Cup champion, Fenerbahce Ulker, continues its good momentum. They are undefeated in the Top 16, can count on great attendance at all their games and now have the first trophy of their season to show for it. Just to mention that Emir Preldzic scored 35 points in that Turkish Cup final, which is a remarkable total for someone who played only 25 minutes in a final. That usually doesn't happen in Europe. Preldzic is on a roll since the Top 16 started and that's great news for FB Ulker. As far as Zalgiris is concerned, this is a last chance for a team with history and tradition. They've been trying to play without Mirza Begic, who moved to Real Madrid before the Top 16, and in his place is Boban Marjanovic, who has to step it up now. If he's not on his game, it'll be very tough to stop Fenerbahce. With him, however, Zalgiris has good chances, because their other players are not easy to guard, play hard all around the court and don't give up. So Fenerbahce has to come focused to turn that 3-0 record in to first place in this group, which could later mean the difference in going to the Final Four. One important guy for them this week will be Sarunas Jasikevicius, who can play the role of leader in the locker room, keeping everyone focused. If they win this game, they could well get that homecourt advantage in the playoffs, which could be huge in the long run, considering their fans. Experienced players like Jasikevicius and Omer Onan will have to keep their troops in line to stay undefeated in Group H.
Finally, in the Game of the Week, we have Valencia vs. Olympiacos, which won their first match by 15 points and will certainly be trying to steal a victory on the road to make up for its earlier home loss to FB Ulker. This is a very important game for the Reds, beyond the fact that a win could put them in the playoffs and eliminate Valencia. Olympiacos wants homecourt advantage in the playoffs, which might be impossible without winning this game. For Valencia, the key is going to be limiting turnovers: 21 in the last game with Olympiacos, more in their cup semifinal loss over the weekend. And Olympiacos, in theory, is more rested and can play comfortably with the 15-point buffer from the first game. A big factor in the first game was Rasho Nesterovic, so watch whether he can have the same impact again. Valencia has defend him and Ioannis Bourousis inside, limit turnovers and shoot the ball better, especially Omar Cook and Rafa Martinez, who were 0-for-7 on three-pointers. If they are shooting well, Valencia is playing a different game, and the team will have to do just that to stop the Reds.
Jiri Zidek - Prague
Monday, February 14, 2011