Second Thoughts: Close enough?
The past week was one of the most exciting of an already-wild Turkish Airlines Euroleague season. No less than 66% of the games - 8 out of 12 - were decided by 6 points or fewer. Five of those close decisions were resolved in favor of the home teams, while three teams won on the road in games decided by 4 or fewer points. Group D, as has been the norm lately, maintained the highest drama until the end, as all three of its games were decided only in the last 60 seconds. There is now a three-way tie for first place in that group, to go along with two-way ties in Group C and Group B. The latter is going to be fun to watch until the very finish, as with just four games to go, only two victories stand between the teams in first and last place.
Is it personal, Mr. Smith?
If you missed the play of the week, make sure you don't finish wait to watch Lottomatica Roma's Charlie Smith hitting an off balance corner three-pointer with good defense in his face, his team down by 2 points and less than 2 seconds to play. Although he's one of the top three-point shooters in Euroleague history, a look at Smith's season so far shows that he probably holds some sort of grudge against Brose Baskets. In a way, that crazy buzzer-beater makes more sense after you see his numbers against the German champs. So far this season, Smith hasn't hit a single free throw and has a low 33.3% accuracy rate on two-pointers. Agreed, he's 35 years old and he was always a great long-range shooter first, so let's allow him to focus on what he does best, right? Well, if you leave out his two games versus Bamberg, Smith has made just 3 of 16 attempts from downtown so far this season. But when he meets the German champs, it's a different story. Against Bamberg, Smith has had his only double-digit scoring nights of the season, and in each of those, he made 4 of 8 three-pointers. With a 50% rate from the arc in those games, it's no wonder he got the call to launch what could be the season-changing shot for both teams - and left the fans in Bamberg feeling the pain.
A Russian rarity
Two rare happenings took place this week around CSKA Moscow's loss. The big win of Armani Jeans Milano made a key statement not only about the Italian team but also about the situation faced by the Russian champs. Coupled with its upset win in Moscow to open the season, Milano becomes just the third team in the last nine Euroleague seasons to sweep CSKA in a series. It happened only twice before, by the same opponent and in two extreme cases. The first instance came in the 2001-02 season, when Panathinaikos beat CSKA twice. That was also the last time that CSKA didn't make the Final Four. The second time came in 2005-06 when, just like this season, CSKA had a new coach, Ettore Messina, and Panathinaikos took both their meetings. That season finished, however, with the Euroleague title flying back to Moscow for the first time in 35 years. Other than those two cases, any other team that faced CSKA during the past decade lost at least once, and often more than that. Since the 1-5 record with only four games to play recalls the 2001-02 situation rather than the more optimistic one, head coach Dule Vujosevic was relieved of his duties upon returning to Moscow on Thursday. When was the last time a CSKA Moscow coach didn't finish the season? Not in more than a decade, at least, although even Russian basketball people don't have a clear memory of when.
More triples = more problems?
The new, further three-point arc is changing the game. If we were used to witnessing some teams finish games with more three-pointers than two-pointers made, that era for now is history. Well, almost. Rare cases still take place, and such was the one in Bamberg this week. The hosts hit 11 times from the arc, including a Brian Roberts bomb with a few ticks on the clock that almost won the game for his team, against only 10 two-pointers made. The only other team to reach such figures this season was CSKA in what turned out to be its worst defeat of the season, against Power Electronics Valencia in Week 3. The vast majority of teams that are relying on two-point shots - either scoring lots of them or doing so at very high percentages - are the teams with the best records so far. The only team in the entire competition that still has not scored 100 two-point shot in six games, and ranks fourth-to-last in two-point accuracy, is CSKA - if you still wonder what went wrong there.
Real Madrid bounced back well from its unpleasant defeat last week by not only winning, but doing so against last season's Euroleague finalists and the current leaders of their group, Olympiacos. The 14-point win, in a game Madrid dominated almost from the tipoff, re-opened the Group B race, but more importantly won back some credit and pride for the Spanish giants. The intensity of Madrid's game showed that it was about pride, and it seemed like the club's jersey logo was a key element in this win. The boxscore tells a similar story, as you see the Spanish players were the ones who set the tone. Sergio Rodriguez, Felipe Reyes, Sergio Llull and Carlos Suarez combined for 53 of the team's 82 points, over 60%. It stood out, too, that during the initial run when Madrid grabbed a 19-10 lead after 8 minutes, 15 of those points were scored by the locals.
Greener than Green
The big story from Maccabi Electra's fifth consecutive win Thursday was probably Lior Eliyahu's performance, with 18 points and his first three-point make after four-plus seasons and 77 Euroleague games, all against his former team, Caja Laboral. But another great story for Maccabi was Yaniv Green. The Israeli backup center probably hasn't made as much noise since his very first Euroleague game in the 2004-05 season opener, when his 24 points against on the road at Zalgiris anchored a performance index rating of 32, good enough for the weekly MVP honor in his debut! Despite that, Green didn't get a lot of room in Maccabi's rotations over the years. Even this season, between the second and the fourth week, he played less than 2 minutes total. Then came Thursday. Green stepped up with 9 points and 6 rebounds delivered with the best timing. Even though Maccabi held the lead throughout most of the game, it often felt fragile, as though Caja Laboral could come from behind at any moment. So when Green came on court with 6 minutes to play and Maccabi up by 9 points, it seemed far from a done deal - until Green entered. In the last 6 minutes he scored 7 points, grabbed 5 rebounds, drew 3 fouls and blocked a shot. His big three-point play over Stanko Barac was a back-breaker for the guests. If this victory eventually means that Maccabi is group champion, one of the last players off the bench had a big role in making it happen.
The big defeat of Real Madrid last week in Charleroi took some attention off the great win of the locals, but now that they've also beateno Unicaja - two Spanish victims in one week - it would be unfair not to give Spirou the respect and attention it deserves. What stood out in this week's win was the great discipline in their game. Not only did Charleroi control the tempo well, it also managed to cut its turnovers in half. Walking on court on Thursday night, Charleroi was standing at about 14 turnovers per game, and against Unicaja that figure was cut in half, to 7. And there are two types of turnovers: one that results in the other team getting an easy fastbreak, and another that goes out of bounds and therefore lets the team that lost he ball get its defense set. Charleroi's turnovers were the positive kind, as it allowed Unicaja only 3 steals the whole game, just 1 after halftime. And without easy points on the road, nowadays, you will have a tough time winning anywhere in the Euroleague.
Yarone Arbel - Tel Aviv
Friday, November 26, 2010