Heat rises through regular season's mid-point
Euroleague.net's editorial director, Frank Lawlor, has spent most of his career as a basketball journalist in Europe and his native United States, writing about and interviewing the top players in the world on both continents for more than two decades. In terms of practical basketball experience, he was a head coach in the Spanish second division for one fortuitous season in the late 1990s. Frank's new blog will draw on all that background to enhance the Turkish Airlines Euroleague experience for you, the fans.
That sound heard echoing around the Old Continent for a week or more is the collective excitement of fans jumping from their seats, announcers screaming into microphones and viewers cheering the latest twist of fate on their TV screens as the best team basketball on the planet gets more dramatic by the day.
Even before its halfway mark is reached tonight, the 10-game survival test otherwise known as the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Regular Season is heating up quite nicely.
If, in the first three weeks of the season, there were some unusually wide winning margins, some could be explained by a mixed bag a preseason problems. In many cases, stars arriving late and worn out from national team duty at EuroBasket 2011 needed both rest and time to know their new teams or new teammates. In others, injuries prevented teams from practicing fully until days before the Euroleague started. Still others lacked the kind of battle-testing games that sharpen chemistry, shooting accuracy and focus. Due to those circumstances, as many head coaches had been warning for weeks, some teams were readier than others.
"We wish someday to have everyone start working together, because we have many problems now," Zeljko Obradovic of champion Panathinaikos said exactly two weeks before his team's opener. "Our preparation has not been at the level we like it to be. Some players were with national teams, some got injured as soon as we started training camp, and until today we had not worked altogether ever."
In Week 1, there were just two games decided by 5 or fewer points and the average winning margin was 13.6 points. In Week 2, those numbers changed to three and 12.8, respectively. Week 3 saw the same three games under 5 points and the average jump back up to 13.3 thanks to blowout victories of 42, 28 and 26 points for three of the five undefeated teams until then.
Then, Week 4 arrived. Suddenly, seven of the 12 games were decided by 5 points or less. Three others fell between 7 and 11 points. The remaining two victories came by 14- and 17-point margins. Three of the five undefeated teams entering Week 4 suffered their first losses. The average difference was 6.6 points, less than half of the first three weeks combined.
And if there was any suspicion that Week 4 might be a fluke, Wednesday of Week 5 proved the trend. Three out of five games last night were decided by a total of 9 points. The results left Group A, the only one for which the first half of the regular season is complete, in a double knot. Three teams are tied with 3-2 records, with the other three are right behind them at 2-3. A single victory now separates first and last place in Group A with half the games played.
Of course, the story is not just the point differences. The dynamics that push games to close finishes is often as dramatic as how they are resolved. The amount of clutch and creative shot-making packed 40 minutes has been something to see. Last night's game between Spanish rivals Caja Laboral and Gescrap BB, played at breakneck speed with bodies flying from opening tip until final buzzer, was a good example. Players on both teams took turns wowing viewers with an array of spectacular shots. On the road against an archrival in the heat of a pitched battle that Gescrap needed desperately to end a three-game losing streak and get back in the Top 16 race, Alex Mumbru, Janis Blums, Milko Bjelica and, especially, Kostas Vasiliadis all buried big shots. The same can be said for Mirza Teletovic, Pablo Prigioni, Kevin Seraphin and Fernando San Emeterio as Caja Laboral climbed back from 11 behind to 5 in front with 2 minutes to play -- only to lose to Gescrap's admirable finish.
I have said it before and I'll say it again: a lot of the shot-making in the Euroleague is more spectacular than meets the eye. Although there are a certain amount of open shots and dunks, in general it takes a different kind of scoring mindset to attack the many different defenses thrown at players in the Euroleague. The result of all those changing defenses and the decisions they force offensive players to make on the fly result in what are often risky - and for the fans, spectacular - passes and shots. In games as close as most have been for a week, you have no idea what's coming next. That unpredictability and spontaneity squeezed into non-stop motion up and down the court, is exactly why we love this game.
Rookie road warriors
Incidentally, 41% of all games played so far, 22 out of 53, have been won by road teams. Perhaps the most interesting games to fall into that category belong to a pair of rookie teams in the same group. Both Unics Kazan of Russia and Galatasaray Medical Park of Turkey are sitting in the middle of Group D, tied for third place with 2-2 records. That is despite all the hurdles to overcome as clubs making their debuts in Europe's top competition after trying for many years, decades in the case of Galatasaray. What makes them extremely rare, however is that neither has won a home game yet. GS Medical Park got its victories in Poland against Asseco Prokom Gdynia and in Slovenia against Union Olimpija. In both cases, Galatasaray had never before faced the other team. Unics got its victories over GS Medical Park in Istanbul and over Prokom in Poland. In the case of Unics, it was expected they would be strongest at home, due to the long trips other teams must make to reach Kazan. The never-mentioned corollary of that, however, is that Unics must travel just as far for its road games. I don't know what the chances are of any team debuting with two road wins and no home victories, let alone two newcomers to this competition, and still more unbelievable, both in the same group. But the fact is that road wins are usually golden in the Euroleague, if a team can win at home. of course, which as we have seen is tougher than ever. Unics and Galatasaray will both get the chance tonight to give their home fans what they've been waiting for, and in the process, greatly improve their Top 16 chances.
Freak City gets ready
It will be more than a little interesting for fans tuning into tonight's Game of the Week between host Brose Baskets Bamberg and Panathinaikos Athens, for the basketball, of course, but also to see the fans with the biggest reputation in Germany. Bamberg has become known as Freak City on game nights in Stechert Arena for the fact that there's never a free seat, for the student section behind one basket, for the collective singing to the sounds of an in-house band, for the inventive ways that fans dress in the team colors, and for in-game rituals like no one sitting down until Brose scores its first basket. But most of all, the Freak City moniker comes from the dedication of the Bamberg crowd to its team, win or lose. As one former player, Kyle Hines, put it last season: "The fans have earned that name because of the support and atmosphere that they provide for every home game we play. The fans here are the best in the world and provide support like no others in Europe." Of course, all that support and more will be needed to beat Panathinaikos, in what would become a truly historic win if Bamberg can get it tonight.
FRANK LAWLOR - EUROLEAGUE.NET
Thursday, November 17, 2011