Turkish Airlines Euroleague
May 22, 2013
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Tel Aviv 2004
Qualifying Rounds 2012
NIKE International Junior Tournament
The waiting game
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 this blog, he offers analysis from an ex-champ's point of view on what games and players are impressing him most!
Yes, those would be the right words for what's happening in all of our minds – be it players, coaches, managements, fans or media. I feel sure that all of us are counting down seconds for the games to start. After a great regular season and Top 16 we witnessed equally captivating playoffs that kept most of us glued to our Euroleague.TV accounts. Three teams managed to turn the tables and snatch away home court advantage from better-seeded clubs to earn their right to travel to Barcelona. It was a season of surprises, with many teams feeling their chance to lift the trophy; a season in which devotion feels to be the fitting motto for the battles that we have witnessed on the courts. The waiting game is approaching its end, so the final chapter can be played out this weekend in Barcelona with the crowning of a new champion on Sunday. Going back to Prague in 2006, when I first got the chance to work as analyst for Euroleague.net, Final Fours have featured superb basketball, the true cherry on the Euroleague cake. There is no reason to expect anything less this season!
Panathinaikos vs. Montepaschi Siena
Previewing the first semifinal, I must go back to the playoffs, because both teams surprised me. Panathinaikos dethroned a defending champion that had enjoyed until then another stellar season by manifesting along the way all their talent. Siena rose from the ashes after the worst defeat in playoff history in Game 1 of its series vs. Olympiacos, when the Reds looked beyond any doubt to be firmly in command. Both teams based their success on efficient and stifling defenses so a defensive physical battle is to be expected.
When I think of Panathinaikos, these qualities come to mind: discipline, execution and toughness. Zeljko Obradovic, the most experienced coach at the Final Four, always devises a strict game plan and uses every bit of each of his player's talent to get under the skin of his opponents. His players have been able to keep their focus and execute both on offense and defense. Obradovic works the sidelines from the tipoff, pushes his players to the limit and, most importantly, makes sure that any and all individual ambitions are left in the locker room.
Offensively, Panathinaikos is a textbook pick-and-roll team that uses this ever-repeating aspect of the game to set up either easy shots under the basket or wide open three-pointers for their shooters. An ability to space the court perfectly together with the unselfishness of its players makes it very difficult for opponents to defend Panathinaikos. Even when other teams use zone defenses, Panathinaikos sticks to the pick-and-roll throughout the game. Despite Panathinaikos being as unselfish as they get, the play of Dimitris Diamantidis during the season makes him a hot favorite in my MVP voting. Not only does Diamantidis exhibit great patience and an ability to set the tempo on offense, he also sets the tone on defense as well, with his long arns, strength and tireless work ethic. Needless to say, Diamantidis has been there for Panathinaikos when crucial baskets are needed to be made. Defensively, all the Panathinaikos players are expected to test the limits of committing fouls. Extreme on-the-ball pressure, overplaying the passing lanes and very organized weak-side help are three rules of Panathinaikos's defensive strategy.
If you speak about the defense and expectations Obradovic might have for his players, almost the same can be said for Montepaschi Siena head coach Simone Pianigiani. Siena made a defensive statement themselves in the playoffs, following the same path of extreme ball pressure, pass overplay and clogging up the paint with physical Milovan Rakovic and always-hustling Shaun Stonerook as quality last lines of defense. Because of the experience of his players and their knowledge of the game, Pianigiani has them switch defenses often. All this has resulted in Siena leading the Euroleague in turnovers forced on oppnents and ranking second in fewest points allowed. The team has been able to overcome a bad start in the Top 16 and playoffs, which shows me the there is a lot of character in this group of players. That's not to forget team's ability to overcome long-term loss of Bo McCalebb, whose current shape could well be the x-factor in the game. Siena's core has a lot of experience, while Malik Hairston stepped up his game considerably in the playoffs. Offensively, Siena relied heavily on the individual skills of McCalebb prior to his injury. With McCalebb sidelined, other players stepped up and performed, among them Hairston, MarkoJaric and Nikos Zizis. All that helped Siena exceed pre-season expectations and show new dimensions on offense.
Defensively, both teams will not present us with many surprises, as individual defensive performances will lay the groundwork for eventual team success. Siena must be ready to handle the physical contact of Panathinaikos, especially in on-the-ball situations, while Rakovic must do his best to keep Mke Batiste as far away from the basket as possible. When two teams of suc high defensive standards face each - remember, these guys had the Euroleague's second- and third-ranked defenses - tiny details always play a decisive role. I expect surgical precision on rotations and weak side help to be crucial.
Any offense must be at its sharpest against a disciplined defense. The crispness of passes, setting up the offense with enough time on the shot clock, not committing unnecessary turnovers and thorough execution of offensive sets will be a must for both teams. Panathinaikos will play the pick-and-roll, even multiple ones during one possession, looking for Batiste on the rolls inside and shooters on the perimeter. Panathinaikos has the experience and discipline to stay patient as its players have no problem making an extra pass to find a better-positioned teammate. Knocking down open shots will be important for the Greens. Siena's offense will start with its perimeter players, who will use screens to get open. Kistof Lavrinovic's ability to shoot three-pointers should open up the court. If at full health, McCaleb's matchup against Diamantidis could be a highlight of the Final Four. Siena will have to rely more on the individual play of its perimeter players, who have lots of experience - Jaric, Zizis and Rimantas Kaukenas - or on Hairston, who is playing well lately. Details in offensive execution will be decisive.
Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv vs. Real Madrid
The number one question to answer before this game is can Maccabi make up for their fallen leader and best all-around player, Doron Perkins. Surely, head coach David Blatt would love to use Perkins's absence as a motivating factor for his troops. Unfortunately, this is not Game 4 of the playoffs vs. Caja Laboral, when his injury was 48 hours old and it brought rest of Maccabi squad together and forced Caja to their knees and out of the playoffs. Now the reality has set in and it is difficult to argue that all that Perkins gave this team - defense, rebounding or athleticism - can be replaced by another player. One aspect of his game maybe, but not all, with all the respect I have for Tal Burstein and Guy Pnini.
Offensively there have been 2 Maccabi teams this season – with and without Sofoklis Schortsanitis. With Sofo in the games, there has been a concentrated effort to work the ball inside to the center to use his superior size and strength before his energy tanks get depleted. No doubt Sofo has answered Blatt's calls this season better than some of us might have expected, but furthermore he has shown huge progress in being under control, reading the game and, most importantly, finding his teammates after getting double-teamed. With Sofo on the bench, Maccabi shifts to motion offense with five interchangeable, experienced players on the court. All Maccabi players are dangerous scorers from anywhere on the court and they do not pass up too many open looks. Fastbreak, penetration-and-kick and pick-and-pop situations are frequent and effective with this line up. Defensively, Blatt's squad has benefited immensely from full-court, aggressive defense with the duo of Pargo and Perkins tirelessly choking opposing playmakers.
Madrid comes to the Final Four as a team that has experienced a lot of adversity this season; the departure of a coaching legend right before the playoffs, injuries and a very difficult, physical playoff series between teams that knew each other's every play. Madrid has pulled through so far and feels its chances after a long 15 years of waiting. Its guards are the focal point of Madrid's offense; creativity and self confidence from Sergio Lull, experience and leadership from Pablo Prigioni and reliable, hard-nosed play from Sergio Rodriguez. Guards control the offense, run the plays and put themselves into position to make final passes. All of them have the skills to run the pick-and-roll very well and they use this situation frequently in their offense to put high-percentage finishers such as Ante Tomic and D'or Fischer into good scoring positions close to the basket. When in trouble, Madrid has players that can create shots for themselves and the luxury of quality interior passing among their bigs. The Euroleague's best rebounding team, Madrid has been dominant physically this season and adds an ability to change opponents' shots to the defensive mix.
During the semifinal on Friday, there is no reason to expect anything else from both sides but what got them here so far. Blatt will look for Sofo on the inside early. Sofo will see resistance, as Madrid's players are long and can afford to spend their fouls with six big men on the roster. Without Sofo, Maccabi will have to turn to rookie Jeremy Pargo to be the creative part of offense. He can't be left alone in this role, however, and will have to find a lot of backing and help from Chuck Eidson and even David Blu. It is only logical to expect a heavy focus on Pargo from Madrid. Pargo has been flashy, unstoppable and has provided his share of highlights, but this time he will have to do so under the pressure of a do-or-die Final Four format, all in his rookie Euroleague season. To win, Maccabi will have to find ways to get some easy baskets, as I do favor them in a basket-for-basket possession battle. Sofo will be sorely needed - as will its long-range sharpshooters - if Maccabi wants the victory.
Madrid must forget about Perkins's absence and control the tempo of the game. The Spanish side should make Sofo be the defender on as many pick-and-roll situations as possible to put him in foul trouble or get him tired. Patience will be crucial for Madrid on both sides of the court. The guards should look for an extra pass, limit unnecessary turnovers and avoid getting caught up in individual one-on-one duels. Madrid's big men must not forget to bring their hard hats for the interior battles, attack the boards and finish the high-percentage shots that come off feeds from the guards. As a team, defensively, Madrid must spend their fouls wisely and keep pressure on Pargo for all his time on the court.
Jiri Zidek - Barcelona
Thursday, May 05, 2011
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