View from the Bench: Week 2
Not many coaches make the Top 16 almost every season they are in the Turkish Airlines Euroleague. But that's true of 44-year-old Aleskandar Trifunovic, who did so twice with Lietuvos Rytas, in 2007-08 and 2010-11. Last season, his was the last Euroleague team to beat champion Panathinaikos, in Athens, during the Top 16. Altogether, including a season with Panionios, Trifunovic has a 23-23 record in the Euroleague, 5-7 in the Top 16. This season, he will put all that experience to work for Euroleague fans by analyzing games from a coach's point of view.
Group A: Caja Laboral 81-69 Bennet Cantu
The game that caught my eye on Wednesday was the one in Vitoria, a team that has written its own strong Euroleague story, Caja Laboral, vs. a team that has come back after almost two decades to the elite, Bennet Cantu. Both teams entered the game with victories in their pockets. Caja Laboral used a big road performance to beat Fenerbahce Ulker in Week 1, while Cantu won at home against Nancy, just as big an accomplishment considering the team's long-time absence from the Euroleague. Caja Laboral had some bad luck going into the game due to injuries to perimeter players Richard Dorsey and Reggie Williams. Cantu arrived with a full squad full of confidence from having gone undefeated so far in the Euroleague and the Italian League. The visitors also had the advantage of a pretty solid roster leftover from last season, while Caja Laboral's lineup is newer and still in search of chemistry.
Caja Laboral started well in front of its fans, and at 15-8, Cantu coach Andrea Trinchieri was forced to call his first timeout. Two of Caja Laboral's newcomers, Thomas Huertel and Kevin Seraphin, worked the two-man game well to establish an inside threat, knowing it would help free up shooters for long-range shots later. The effect was to chase Cantu big man Giorgi Shermadini to the bench early. Huertel, by the way, looks like he's going to be a great addition for Caja Laboral.
Cantu did not alter its approach to the game, which is to depend on the entire team, instead of any particular player. In my opinion, however, that approach didn't work precisely because Cantu was perhaps giving Caja Laboral too much respect. Coach Trinchieri changed that quickly, however, by motivating his players to rely on strong defense. The response from his team was fast. Very shortly after that, with the inspired play of their great all-around wing player, Vladimir Micov, who is the team's biggest creator, the score was tied. Now, the Cantu players realized that they can change the momentum against big Euroleague opponents on the road, too.
Until the fourth quarter, more or less, we saw the same picture. The start of each quarter went in Caja Laboral's direction, while the ends of each were reserved for Cantu. After each timeout, the strategies offered by the coach whose team was behind worked. Caja Laboral, however, started to bring out its strongest weapon, the three-point shot. Their main go-to guy, Mirza Teletovic, was slowly getting into the game, but now he definitely looked like he was ready to show everybody that he can score in multiple ways. The three-pointer is still his trademark, but like never before he showed now that his low-post game and short baseline jumpers and drives are just as dangerous. The ability of his coach, Dusko Ivanovic, to rely on Teletovic in so many ways will bring a lot of benefit to the team, in my opinion.
In a great decision by Ivkovic, Caja Laboral played the key part of the finish with a really interesting quintet on court: three big guys - Teletovic and the two Bjelicas, Milko and Nemanja - a fresh Pablo Prigioni at point and the always-dangerous Fernando San Emeterio. Defensively, they looked very comfortable together since they could switch and stay aggressive enough at positions three, four and five. They were able to control the boards and run well, while at the same time their inside-outside options were there. Smart choices in the set offense by Coach Ivanovic were executed by Prigioni and the rest on the court. In the middle of the fourth quarter, Teletovic erupted almost on cue. The whole audience was waiting for their main man, and he came through one more time, deciding the game.
It seemed that despite fighting well for 35 minutes, Cantu then didn't have the ultimate trust in its ability to win. Why? That question remains unanswered, because this is a really good team, in every sense of that word, with a good strategy. The final score of 12 points' difference was not an indication of how close the game was. Caja Laboral walked away with a 2-0 record, which I was afraid wasn't possible when I saw their new pink uniforms (which, by the way, I like)! Cantu left Vitoria with a 1-1 record but a good show for their future. Personally, although it's too early to say for sure, I expect to see both teams in the Top 16.
Group D: Galatasaray Medical Park 64-68 Unics
No need to emphasize the fact that both these teams are newcomers to the Euroleague, because even last season, with the same coaching staffs, they performed on the highest level, announcing in advance their top quality. They came out with different results from Week 1, a road win for Galatasaray and a home loss for Unics. I mention this because it's proof that both teams are deep and experienced enough to play great basketball anywhere and against any opponent.
There were more or less no surprises in the starting lineups, save perhaps for Petr Samoylenko instead of Lynn Greer or Terrell Lyday for Unics, but he is definitely a player with big heart and energy who is always ready to do what his team needs. The game began with good rhythm, a lot of pick-and-rolls and generally very solid defense. Just the same, Galatasaray took over the scoreboard at 7-2 and Unics coach Evgeny Pashutin needed to call an early timeout. His team started looking more fluid offensively, but Galatasaray moved really well off the ball and stayed ahead 21-12 on the wings of Darius Songalia's mid-range jumpers and the scoring of Joshua Shipp. Although Unics had a much more simple concept of the game, based on the virtuoso individual abilities of players like Greer, Lyday, Henry Domercant and Kelly McCarthy, the visitors couldn't catch the rhythm.
Even being down 9 points, however, Unics had a couple of important things going for it: good offensive rebounding and good execution of the double-high pick-and-roll set known as "horn". Those two things let Unics prevent Galatasaray getting a bigger lead, and forced the home coach, Oktay Mahmuti, to change his pick-and-roll defense. Galatasaray went from help-and-recover mode to a not-so-deep drop defense, staying in line with the screener. That change produced results at the beginning of the second quarter, and soon Unics responded with offensive adjustments to what Galatasaray was doing. Both the second and third quarters saw momentum switch to Unics, as the visitors slowly closed the gap. Big man Aleksey Savrasenko and Greer were obviously on their games, both of them coming off the bench. As the Unics offense got better, the impression from the defense was one of increasing confidence: the team was focused and ready to fight for its first Euroleague win. Galatasaray, meanwhile, lost some of its patience on offense and defensively did a poor job of boxing out for rebounds.
All this created a situation in which Unics was able to steal a win, the club's first ever in the Euroleague, in the closing minutes of the game. Credit the Unics defenders, who raised their level of aggressiveness. The crucial moment came with 35 seconds left, after a timeout, as Galatasaray went to a 2-3 zone as a surprise factor - and it almost worked. Domercant was too good for it, however, scoring a long three-pointer, one of the reasons he has been getting respect for a long time. As I said before, though, Unics owed its life and its victory to a 17-10 advantage in offensive rebounding. The visitors also had 5 fewer turnovers than Galatasaray, a crucial number in a low-scoring game like this. Their confidence grew on those figures and put them in a position to get 3 great three-point shots from three different players down the stretch.
Galatasaray did not get a win in its first home game, but this is the Euroleague, so nothing is guaranteed. Galatasaray is a good team that started this season great, making it to the Euroleague through qualifying and then winning the President's Cup in Turkey. On this night, they didn't have enough, but they are going to be OK.
Friday, October 28, 2011