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 blog will draw on all that background to enhance the Turkish Airlines Euroleague experience for you, the fans.
We go from one countdown to another. On Thursday in the Game of the Week, veteran Pablo Prigioni of Caja Laboral will have a shot at tying or breaking the Euroleague's all-time steals record, just one week after Juan Carlos Navarro of F.C. Barcelona Regal became the top scorer ever. Steals might not be as glamorous as points, but they are quite a lot harder to get, and likely will be for Prigioni on Thursday when Caja Laboral visits Bennet Cantu, which has the fourth-lowest turnover rate in the Turkish Airlines Euroleague this season. Another obstacle for Prigioni's is the current steals leader, Theo Papaloukas of Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv, who is still adding to his total, too. Papaloukas currently has 317, four more than Prigioni at 313. But if anyone can overcome obstacles, it's Prigioni.
Precisely because steals are so hard to find, they represent a telling facet in Prigioni's impressive career. The point guard from Argentina was already 26 years old by the time he played his first Euroleague game with Caja Laboral – then known as Tau Ceramica – back on November 6, 2003. He debuted that night by making 6 steals against Efes Pilsen, a rare enough total that it has been surpassed only 29 times this century. Prigioni repeated that feat three more times since, giving him the most games with 6 or more steals of any player since 2000. His career high of 9, which came against Strasbourg on February 9, 2006, ties for the third-highest single-game total ever.
Most remarkable of all, perhaps, is that Prigioni is still going strong as ever at age 34. His most recent six-steal game came in this year's first week, in his Euroleague return to Caja Laboral after a two-year stint with Madrid. Right now, he has the highest steals average this season among all Euroleague players, 2.5 per game, well above his career average of 1.75. That rate gives him the momentum to pass Papaloukas soon, while both watch another robber, Dimitris Diamantidis of Panathinaikos, pursue them from behind , with 286 steals headed into this week. It might be assumed that with a three-year age difference in his favor, Diamantidis will eventually pass Prigioni. But then again...
Consider this: Prigioni this season is averaging 7.2 points, 2.8 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.5 steals. When added together, the total is Prigioni's best since the 2005-06 season, the first of two in a row when he earned All-Euroleague honors. Not coincidentally, Caja Laboral heads into the Game of the Week on top of the tightest group in the regular season. Although his numbers have been consistent through eight previous Euroleague seasons, it's not too much of a stretch to say that Pablo Prigioni, despite playing in that hot pink Caja Laboral uniform – or maybe because of it! – is having a re-birth in right now in the place where he made his name, Vitoria.
Closest group ever
How tight is Group A? Well, it can be said already that no group this century has been so competitive heading into the seventh game of the regular season. Right now, a pair of victories separate first place Caja Laboral, 4-2, and last-place Gescrap BB, 2-4. The other four teams – Cantu, Fenerbahce Ulker, Olympiacos and SLUC Nancy – are tied at 3-3.
The closest group before this one came last season, when Group B had a pair of 4-2 co-leaders, Olympiacos and Real Madrid, also separated by two victories from a last-place duo, Brose Baskets and Spirou Charleroi, both 2-4. A week later, however, the spread between first and last place was three victories. In its first 18 games, last season's Group B had five winning margins of 7 points or less. Out of 18 games played in Group A so far this season, 12 have been decided by 7 or less.
This week, if Gescrap and Cantu both win their home games, Group A will be the first in Euroleague history to be as close as mathematically possible after seven games. Three teams would have 4-3 records and the others 3-4. If, on the other hand, Gescrap and Caja Laboral win, the two wins between them still will mark the shortest distance between first and last place at this late stage of the regular season. Bottom line: if Gescrap wins tonight, this is statistically the closest regular season group ever. By the way, Gescrap beat Caja Laboral on the road already and those regional rivals meet again in Week 10.
Group A is running the board in this blog because it's also impossible to ignore what Vassilis Spanoulis of Olympiacos is doing. After a nine-point effort to open the season, the veteran guard and former Final Four MVP has simply taken over for the Reds. In the last five games he is putting up 23.8 points per game with remarkable shooting percentages: 23 for 35 (66%) on two-pointers, 11 for 24 (46%) on three-pointers, and 42 for 46 (91%) on free throws. What's even more amazing is that he is also averaging 5.8 assists over those five games. Spanoulis has been just as remarkable in the past – for instance, scoring in double digits for last season's first 19 games. Last year, however, there was less pressure on him because Olympiacos had more proven stars. What's different this time is that Spanoulis must produce for Olympiacos to compete, and he's doing so despite all the defensive efforts of opponents being directed at him. Spanoulis is handling that responsibility with impressive calm, too. The Reds, with only five players back from last season, could have taken very hard their defeats in two road games by a total of three points to start November. Instead, they bounced back with solid home wins and enter the stretch run of this amazing group with a lot more confidence. Spanoulis, who outdid himself with 18 points in the last 8 minutes of last week's win over Nancy, is the source of that team confidence.
FRANK LAWLOR - EUROLEAGUE.NET
Wednesday, November 30, 2011