Second thoughts: Road warriors
Next year, maybe the teams that finish first in their Top 16 groups should get a homecourt disadvantage in the Playoffs. Three teams made it the Final Four already in exactly the same sequence. They all started their series on the road, all lost the first game, all stole homecourt advantage in Game 2 and all won back-to-back in front of their home fans to clinch a spot in the Final Four. In the only undecided series left, we already saw two road wins. With all due respect to that single series going to Game 5, this week the focus is on the other three. Too many thoughts and happenings took place on Euroleague courts this week, while next week is all about Real Madrid and Power Electronics Valencia. In the meantime here's how Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv, Montepaschi Siena and Panathinaikos Athens made their fans spend Thursday night partying.
From the shadows
The comeback of the box-and-one defense used to stop Juan Carlos Navarro by Panathinaikos head coach Zeljko Obradovic, a system we rarely see in modern basketball, will probably be a popular discussion topic for the upcoming students in the Mastermind Coaching Clinic - where both Xavi Pascual and Obradovic will share their thoughts with the students. Yes, Dimitris Diamantidis is written all over the big wins of Panathinaikos against the champs from Barcelona. But to give an angle on this battle of giants, allow me to focus on the actions of one player, for less than a minute in Game 3. Let's go back to the last minutes in OAKA on Tuesday night and give credits where it's due to one of the most underrated stars of the Euroleague: 33-year-old center Mike Batiste. Down 72-69 inside the last 90 seconds of Game 3, Barcelona started a possession and Navarro attacked the rim in a pick-and-roll situation. Batiste made the switch and not only had a big block on the layup attempt but also made sure not to allow Navarro to draw a foul. On the following play, it was Batiste again, once more making a switch to take Navarro, this time forcing a turnover on an inbounds play. Barca got the ball back still down by 3 and this time Batiste handled two in a pick-and-roll play by Ricky Rubio and Fran Vasquez. In perfect positioning he denied Rubio from finishing at the rim and was there in time to place his wide shoulders between Vasquez and the basket, enough to force a missed layup. Three huge defensive plays in a row by one player, not famous among fans for his defense, which made a huge difference and gave Panathinaikos an oh-so-precious 2-1 lead.
Until Game 3 in Siena, veteran Marko Jaric had collected only 23 points in 8 games for Montepaschi. It was just Olympiacos's luck to meet his old-school side. Jaric poured in 24 points in less than 24 minutes, missing just one shot in 11 attempts, to lead Montepaschi to that key victory. Then, he continued into Game 4 with another good display of 12 points. Head coach Simone Pianigiani looked for a joker to come out of nowhere and fill in the gaps in his offense following Bo McCalebb's injury. Jaric, together with Malik Hairston, the first player in history to win the nightly MVP honor in two playoff encounters during the same series, were Siena's two difference-makers. The first returned to Euroleague recently after seven seasons overseas; the latter, in his debut Euroleague season, finally started to see things click.
Missing person present
If there's justice in basketball, and there isn't, then Maccabi guard Doron Perkins will be selected by the 24 coaches who vote to win the Best Defender Trophy this season. Perkins, whose season was ended by a knee injury in Game 3, was more than just a very important player on this Maccabi team: he was its heart and soul. This Maccabi team made it to the Final Four with a great defensive effort played in a cat-like style, clawing and jumping on its opponents, running and fighting for every ball. Devoted and aggressive on every possession; underestimated and unexpected: you can describe Perkins by these words as well. And yes, he's also one of the worst nightmares of Euroleague scorers. Perkins was ranked ninth in performance index ranking, 11th in total rebounds ninth in assists, fifth in steals, and 29th in blocks. What's so special about ranking 29th? Perkins only player shorter than 1.90 meters among the best 48 rebounders and the best 50 shot-blockers. In the 11th minute of Game 3, with Maccabi up by one point, he slipped and tore two ligaments in his knee. Rehabilitation will last at least nine months. It happened right before his big jump to center stage, the Final Four, with the consequent jump in status and money due next. Yet his spirit was already part of Maccabi team. In the next seven quarters after his injury, Maccabi beat Caja Laboral by a 42-point difference. For some, that might mean that Maccabi wasn't so dependent on Perkins after all. But anyone who watched the last two games saw that even if Perkins wasn't at Nokia Arena for most of them, his presence certainly was. His appearance on the big screens right before the Game 4 tipoff, in a clip that was shot earlier in his hospital bed, lit up Nokia Arena and inspired the series-clinching win. The chants of his name by Maccabi fans before, during and after the game were another example that this Maccabi team is built in the mold of its missing leader, and strong enough to win convincingly without him.
The hottest team around
Perhaps not many people noticed but the hottest team in the Euroleague lately is Montepaschi Siena. That huge defeat might have stopped the momentum in the unofficial power rankings, but in the last eight games the club from Siena hasa 7-1 record - the best in the Euroleague over that time span. Yes, the single loss was very big, but those seven victories are the ones that count. And they all came without a real contribution from injured-and-still recovering star Bo McCalebb, by far the team's most important and best player in a great regular season. Montepaschi recovered from a 0-2 start without him in the Top 16 and then rebounded from its horrifying 48-point loss in Piraeus to beat Olympiacos in three games in a row. The last time the Reds lost three games consecutively was two-and-a-half years ago. Next, in the all-green semifinal against Panathinaikos, the Greek greens won't be able to rest knowing that Montepaschi has found a key ingredient this season: outstanding mental toughness.
Out of touch, out of time
By far the biggest, and surely loudest, transfer of the summer was the road-crossing of Vassilis Spanoulis from Panathinaikos to Olympiacos. These types of transfers are eventually weighed in crunch time, and for good or ill, crunch time in this case is the downfall of Olympiacos from the 48-point win to three straight losses. Already last week, we mentioned here the great defensive job Montepaschi did on Spanoulis, but the last two games only sharpened that observation. He finished the series with 11.3 points per game (3.5 below his season average before the Playoffs) and hit just 3 of 19 three-pointers (15.8%) while turned the ball over 4.8 times on average. If that's not enough, Game 4, when things could still be fixed, ended his status as the only Euroleague player to have scored in double-figures in every game this season. And that was despite it being the most minutes he played, 37, in his five season Euroleague career. Amazingly, he joined what is probably a very, very short list of players in the history of basketball who drew double-digit fouls, 10 on Thursday, but didn't shoot any free throws at all.
So Regal FC Barcelona won't repeat, and actually is just the second team in Euroleague history not to reach a Final Four being hosted in its city. If it's any comfort, the first team was…Real Madrid. The team that seemed most likely to repeat since Maccabi in 2005 didn't even make it to Game 5 and lost its homecourt advantage despite being clear favorites, as much as one can be a clear favorite against Panathinaikos. Basically, not a lot of things changed in Barcelona since last year, when the team dominated the Euroleague like few before it. Yeah, Gianluca Basile missed the season due to injury, Ricky Rubio had a bad stretch for the first time in his short/long career, but a team that lost two of three playoff games in the final minute actually needed something else - a winner. You see, one of the most impressive things about this Barcelona team was the fact it never lost its head, always played inside its system, even when things didn't look good. Xavi Pasqual's team always kept its head in the game, even in tough times when the heat was on. Last season, Barcelona had a big-time winner in the person of Pete Mickeal, who has the unique quality to step up in the last moments of the game time after time after time. Following Mickeal's injury this season, Alan Anderson stepped into his shoes very well. Anderson is one of the best players in the Euroleague, and will likely beat Mickeal, or just about 99% of the starters in the Euroleague, 8 or 9 times out of 10 in one-on-one games. But that one aspect, the one that wins games, wins close races and eventually wins big titles, was missing. Anderson's decision in Game 3 to go for a layup, down by 3, with 4 seconds to go, despite Pao's defense, was questionable at best. In the Top 16, his foul a long way from the basket with 1.4 seconds left sent a road game against Maccabi to overtime, and though Barcelona won that anyway, the two illustrate a key difference between Mickeal and Anderson. Barcelona didn't repeat not because Anderson isn't good enough – he's great – but when things get tough and close, it takes more than that.
Home and away
David Logan probably holds the most extreme home-road swing against a specific team this season. In the regular season, when Caja Laboral hosted Maccabi he nailed 25 points at a rate of over 50% from the floor while in the visit to Tel Aviv, he finished with 1 point and missed all 6 of his shots. In the quarterfinals, we saw the exact same story: Logan excelled in the first two games in Vitoria, but disappeared in the last two in Tel Aviv. All in all, against Maccabi in Vitoria he averaged 17 points on 50% shooting, including 10 three-pointers. In Tel Aviv, he averaged 5.3 points shooting 27.2% from the floor and making just 2 shots from the arc.
Luck ran out
It wasn't Caja Laboral's best season in its Euroleague history. In the regular season, it came close to elimination after suffering its longest losing streak ever, five losses in a row. The impression was fixed in the Top 16, then Laboral needed a sixth-game road win to survived, then followed with a 3-1 defeat to Maccabi despite holding the homecourt advantage in the playoffs. But what made Maccabi's win so clear were the gaps. Caja Laboral lost seven games before the quarterfinal playoffs. Its second-biggest loss was by just 6 points. Its biggest loss was by 11 points in...Tel Aviv. And then came Games 3 and 4 this week. Not only did Maccabi beat Laboral, but it did so by more than 20 points, back-to-back. Keep in mind that in both games the gap was even bigger and the visitors narrowed it in the last minutes. Baskonia lost by a combined of 22 points in their six games all season, but lost the three games in Tel Aviv by 54.
Not even a shooting team
The main reason behind the two big wins by Maccabi was actually one of its least efficient weapons during the season - the outside shoots. In the two games in Vitoria, Maccabi hardly shot and struggled big-time to make three pointers. David Blu making 4 three-pointers in the second half of Game 2 changed the picture and put Maccabi in the position to steal the win. Yet in Nokia Arena, we had a shootout that we're used to seeing this season from...Caja Laboral. Maccabi hit 11 shots from long range at a 44% rate in Game 3. The highlight was three strikes, once again by Blu, in a span of 3 minutes - one from the left corner, the next in front of the rim and the last from the left corner. Keep in mind the hosts had missed their previous 6 attempts before that. Game 4 wasn't much different. By halftime, Maccabi had collected 7 triples at 70%, but the real deal-dreaker came after the break. Between the 26th and 35th minutes, Blatt's team scored 7 more three-pointers in 8 attempts. Kudos to Guy Pnini, who stepped in with perfect timing to deliver his best game ever in Maccabi jersey, setting career-highs in index rating (22), points (22), three-pointers made (5) and assists (4). By the way, his previous records (18 points, 16 index rating and 4 three-pointers) were done against Caja Laboral as well, last season.
Words are very unnecessary: Part II
Same trick as with Dimitris Diamantidis last week: words will be insufficient for what Jeremy Pargo of Maccabi did this week, especially considering the absence of Perkins. Go watch.
Yarone Arbel - Tel Aviv
Friday, April 01, 2011