Playoff time!

Jiri ZidekThe 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 love the Final Four, but the Playoffs are a close second among my favorite phases of this competition. I really appreciate seeing the best eight teams in Europe separated into four pairs and tested against each other over five games. Not only will it be great to watch, but whichever teams advance will do so fairly, after having to win three games. History has shown that home-court advantage is a huge factor in these series, but usually at least one team manages to change that dynamic by winning a road game, whether or not that means going on to win the series. Let's see if it happens again now. The long break after the last games of the Top 16 leads me to believe that all teams will be ultra-prepared for these series. For that reason, I think that small things will play a big role. Depth and fatigue can still be a factor, however, especially for some of the Spanish clubs that faced really tough domestic competition the last couple weeks and might not have been able to focus as much on the Playoffs as, for instance, Maccabi and Montepaschi. We will find out, soon enough, in what should be an electric first week of the Playoffs!

Olympiacos Piraeus vs. Montepaschi Siena

Theo Papaloukas - OlympiacosOlympiacos made some changes in the offseason that - in my opinion - have paid off, even though they lost big names since this time last year. I think the Reds are playing better together as a team than a year ago. They have another great backcourt leader in Vassilis Spanoulis, while in the frontcourt, Rasho Nesterovic has adapted to the point of becoming the Sportingbet MVP for February. This may be a lower-key team than last year's with Linas Kleiza and Josh Childress, but it has been able to deal with expectations. The Reds this year are just a high-quality basketball club on a mission with Theo Papaloukas and Spanoulis offering great experience and leadership. That is the great advantage in this series for Olympiacos, more than the home court. The Reds also have the good news that Ioannis Bourousis returns, and seemingly in good form after he scored 17 points in a Greek League game over the weekend.

Siena on the other hand came through the Top 16 despite being seriously limited by the injury to Bo McCalebb, who to me was the biggest-impact player on any Euroleague team during the regular season. McCalebb is apparently back and practicing, but has yet to play any minutes, so his potential impact on this playoff is an open question. The same goes for shooter Rimantas Kaukenas, although his knee surgery was said to be minor. Honestly, I don't know what minor knee surgery means. One of the players Siena picked up to help, Marko Jaric, saw good minutes in the Italian League recently and scored 16 points with 1 turnover in a recent game. If he's getting in a good rhythm, it could be a good sign for Montepaschi, because he's experienced and knows how to play. In my opinion, Siena won't feel any pressure in this series and for that reason poses the danger of surprise. They will go to Piraeus this week looking to survive with one win, and it's just the kind of team that knows how to survive. They have quality players who've spent a lot of time together and sacrifice their bodies for the team. One example is Shaun Stonerook, the heart and soul of the team, but there's also Milovan Rakovic, who plays tough and unselfishly at center. If McCalebb had played a couple game before the playoffs, I think that Siena would have better chances, but in general, I see Olympiacos as the solid favorite on paper, for a few reasons. One is the way they played so far this season. Another is how unselfish they have been as a team. And, as I already mentioned, the experience at guard should make a difference for the Reds.

Regal FC Barcelona vs. Panathinaikos Athens

Alan Anderson - Regal FC BarcelonaAs everyone knows, it's difficult to find a weak point in the defending champions from Barcelona. They lead the Spanish League, they warmed up for the Playoffs with a 20-point win over Asefa Estudiantes, which is a quarterfinalist in the Eurocup. After a tough regular season due to the injuries that stopped Pete Mickeal and Gianluca Basile from playing, Barcelona was back to its status in the Top 16 as the only undefeated team in that round. They solved the loss of Mickeal by signing Alan Anderson, and subsequently showed they are able to win under the toughest conditions, like when they went and beat Maccabi in Tel Aviv. They are the defending champions, and it's difficult to say something that would indicate that Barcelona is anything less than the favorite in this series. On the other side, Panathinaikos is the biggest superpower of the last decade or more in Europe, which makes this the most exclusive and most watched series of the Playoffs, for me. It's amazing to think that one of these teams is not going to be at the Final Four in Barcelona. About the only negative you can find about Barcelona comes from the fact that the Final Four is on its way to their city: there might be some self-imposed pressure from that. But until now, this team has withstood all kinds of pressure. It's a compact group in which one or more different players step up in every game. They show great poise and absolutely no nervousness at all during games. They have maturity and balance. Outside, as everyone knows, they have Juan Carlos Navarro and Anderson as their main options. But on the inside they are just as strong with Fran Vazquez and the technically-gifted Erazem Lorbek. If Terrence Morris is on, he can hurt teams inside as a shot-blocker and outside with his three-pointers. Running the show is Ricky Rubio, of course, but we've also seen Victor Sada play very valuable minutes of aggressive defense and unselfish offense. Barcelona, in other words, is deep and versatile, and that makes this the team to beat for the moment.

In looking at Panathinaikos, it's an odd situation to me. This time last year, the Greens had three dominant guards in Dimitris Diamantidis, Vassilis Spanoulis and Sarunas Jasikevicius. This year, they stuck with just one of them, Diamantidis, who has been phenomenal. But it's difficult in games when the team doesn't play so well for Diamantidis to shoulder all the point guard responsibilities. For instance, in a recent game against Caja Laboral, Panathinaikos had 14 assists total and Diamantidis had 11 of them. Guys like Drew Nicholas and Romain Sato didn't have any assists. I don't think that all the responsibility to handle all the pressure and distribute the ball can fall on Diamantidis, as good as he is. I think he needs help from Sato and Nicholas to bear some of that responsibility, to play pick-and-roll and to make the final passes before a basket. Right now, I find the Greens just a little thinner than in the past in that regard. In the frontcourt, they got back Aleks Maric after four months and he played 3 minutes in a Greek League game to get ready for this series. Yes, he was All-Euroleague First Team last year, but after four months out of action, it's hard to expect him to be a factor. Ian Vougioukas has been playing minutes at the five position, but still I think that Panathinaikos is not as deep a team as it used to be in recent seasons. Of course, with Zeljko Obradovic, they have a legendary and experienced coach who will do everything in his power to prepare the best game plan. He has built a club in which players feel a tremendous amount of pride pulling the Panathinaikos jersey on, and the value of that cannot be underestimated. They will make it as hard as possible on Barcelona and that will make this series a true clash of titans.

Real Madrid vs. Power Electronics Valencia

Sergio Llull - Real MadridAs the news has shown us in the last couple weeks, this is the playoff series that could be the most influenced by injuries, and therefore the most unpredictable, in my opinion. The latest bad news was Sergio Rodriguez being lost to Madrid for a month, so he'll miss the series, at the same time that Clay Tucker was carried off on a stretcher in their last domestic game. After seeing that, you have to think that if he plays Game 1 and Game 2 this week, he will be limited. At the same time, Valencia lost two forwards, their star Victor Claver late in the Top 16, and then rebounder James Augustine. So both teams are missing important players. At the same time, we must speak about the situation at the head of both benches. A lot has been said about Svetislav Pesic taking over Valencia in a tough situation and turning the season around for that team. He's done a phenomenal job already, and knowing that he's a defensive strategist and a demanding coach, you know his team will be prepared for Real Madrid. Of course, it was a shock to find out he's not going to be coaching against Ettore Messina, who resigned after the last Top 16 game, a huge surprise to everyone. I watched the video of the press conference and it was clear that Messina was deeply embarrassed to see his team blown away at home by Siena. Now, with his long-time assistant, Lele Molin, on the bench in Messina's place, it will be a huge test for Real Madrid. They went 3-0 in the Spanish League before they lost a wild game and two players against Unicaja on Saturday, so it's hard to tell exactly how the team has changed, if at all. Coach Molin is unlikely to make drastic changes for a lot of reasons, so we are back to judging this series on the players and who's available to both coaches.

Even with the injuries, there are some great matchups. Pablo Prigioni against Omar Cook is a great one at point guard. Sergio Llull against Rafa Martinez is a showdown at shooting guard. You've got Nikola Mirotic against Dusko Savanovic at forward, Ante Tomic against Robertas Javtokas at center. Younger guys, older guys, versatile talents: all these individual battles are going to be great to watch. Real Madrid is very dominant under the basket as the best rebounding team in the competition, and that won't change due to the injuries. For that reason, I expect this to be a very physical series. Madrid will need Sergio Llull for points, so he'll need to be on in this series, and not off like he was in the Spanish King's Cup. This will be a test of his maturity. Valencia's has been an inspirational story, but the basis of it is how Pesic brought out the best in this team. Each player at each position shows self-confidence, and with the support they are getting at home, they'll be tough to stop in Valencia. This is the Playoffs, a fight for the Final Four, and all the small details will really matter. Valencia will come tough, come prepared and give nothing to Madrid. It's tough for me to admit it as a former Real Madrid player, but Valencia is a team that could make an upset. But even though many people might be waiting for Madrid to take a tumble, that is sometimes when teams play angry and play its best. This series will come down to the team that wants it more. As I said, it will be a physical fight. The players know each other well. There's not much travel to influence either team. This will be decided, in my mind, for the team that wants to dig down deeper and play a tougher game.

Caja Laboral vs. Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv

Tal Burstein - Maccabi ElectraCaja Laboral at this moment is a team in a good rhythm. It was a bit of a surprise to find them at the top of their group at the end of the Top 16, holding home-court advantage in the Playoffs, because Panathinaikos had looked a couple games earlier like a lock to finish first. Now, they also have the advantage of being one of the few teams that already beat Maccabi this season, and did so handily, although it was the opening game for both teams. I have said all along that a key factor for Caja Laboral is David Logan, and I think that if he looks good and plays well, they will be tougher to beat. He had 25 points when they beat Maccabi, but only 1 in Caja Laboral's later loss in Tel Aviv. Of course, the big guns on Caja Laboral are Fernando San Emeterio, Marcelinho Huertas, Mirza Teletovic and Stanko Barac. Logan, however, gives them a dimension that makes the team more dynamic, and that's something that is almost necessary against Maccabi. Caja Laboral with all its options working is a dangerous, mobile and unpredictable team that doesn't hesitate to take - and make - open shots. If Caja Laboral is in in that way, Maccabi will have its hands full despite all the talent it brings to the table.

We have been talking about Maccabi all year as one of the hottest teams in the competition. It is as surprising as it is to see Caja Laboral with home-court advantage as it is to see Maccabi without it. They won nine straight games in the regular season, in impressive style, but finished the Top 16 with a 3-3 record, losing a game that didn't matter to Lottomatica Roma, but it was nonetheless not a good way to end. Caja Laboral will have to deal first with the size of Sofo Schortsanitis, especially at the start of each game. All teams that Sofo has played on go to him early, before he gets tired. It will be tough for Stanko Barac to stay in front of and use his height to stop Sofo. When Sofo is out, Maccabi has its small, mobile lineup with Doron Perkins, Jeremy Pargo, Chuck Eidson, Lior Eliyahu and David Blu, but that is not such a bad situation for Caja Laboral. The Spanish champs are mobile, too, and Barcelona proved in the Top 16 that another team that is mobile enough can neutralize Maccabi. Of course, that starts with handling Maccabi's pressure on the ball, but I think that both Huertas and San Emeterio can do that. A more important factor, with four games in the first two weeks, might be fatigue, since those two and Teletovic play much bigger minutes than anyone on Maccabi. In a Tuesday-Thursday situation, the fatigue factor could favor Maccabi. This is another reason that Logan is very important, because he's versatile, even if he's been hot and cold this season. If Caja Laboral wants to make it to the Final Four, his consistency might be crucial to join forces with the other four stars on that team.

Maccabi has enough experience and has shown enough confidence during the season that I doubt their 3-3 finish in the Top 16 has hurt their psyche much, although I am sure that head coach David Blatt is making sure of that. This is very much a 50-50 series. Both teams have a very good chance to advance playing well. I wouldn't give a major advantage to Caja Laboral for playing at home. Maccabi has been aiming high from the beginning of the season, and had the bad luck to face Barcelona in the Top 16. This unorthodox situation makes this an interesting series to follow. Maccabi will go with a take-no-prisoners mentality to Vitoria and try to get one of those first two games. They show no fear in defending the perimeter, overplaying lanes and attacking the ball. They are so aggressive defensively, that I think they have the tools and skills to get an early win on the road. Whether that decides the series, however, is an entirely different question.