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.
It will be interesting to see the dynamics at work in tonight's Game of the Week between host Montepaschi Siena and undefeated F.C. Barcelona Regal. Mathematically speaking, first place is at stake between them, although it would take a Siena victory of at least 17 points to make that happen. Since Barcelona is threatening a defensive record by holding opponents to just 59 points per game so far, Siena would simply have to explode offensively. Of course, that might be possible under normal circumstances, but Siena will be playing without three of its top four performers in the game, due to injury. Rimantas Kaukenas and Ksistof Lavrinovic underwent surgery to start the month and will be out long-term, robbing Siena of its two steadiest performers over the last few years. Then, the team's top scorer, point guard Bo McCalebb, missed the last Euroleague game with his own injury, which all signs indicate will keep him from playing another one until the Top 16.
What has not been injured, decidedly, is Siena's pride. Despite those injuries, the team has won its last two games, including last week on the road against Galatasaray Medical Park, a team that has since qualified for the Top 16, but couldn't that night against the visitors from Siena. The reason was that after five seasons under head coach Simone Pianigiani, this Siena team is a well-oiled machine in which all players know the system and their roles in it. When the fundamentals of that system are executed well, Siena has solid defense, good shot opportunities and a fighting chance in any game no matter who plays.
The recent history between these teams has been heated, with 11 games over the last seven seasons, and Barcelona leading that series by 6 wins to 5. Siena survived their Top 16 group in 2004 to reach the Final Four. In the last three years, whoever won their two-game regular-season series – even by point difference, when they split the victories – ended up in the Final Four the following spring. In other words, this has become a rivalry of ambitious teams taking each other's measure early in the season. Barcelona already won by 17 points when they met last month, so with the injuries, Siena has an uphill battle just to win tonight, let alone eclipse the first-game difference.
But you get the feeling that uphill battles suit Coach Pianigiani and his longer-term players like Shaun Stonerook, Nikos Zisis, David Andersen and Igor Rakocevic. What's more, Siena has signed and registered an old friend, Bootsy Thornton, for tonight's game, and you know he would relish playing the underdog role against his former team, Barcelona. Remember that this Siena team suffered a 47-point loss in Game 1 of last season's playoffs and proceeded to roar into the Final Four with three consecutive victories over Olympiacos, with McCalebb sidelined. That is the definition of pride that won't be denied.
Jaka Laka's excellent adventure
Hats off to Euroleague classic Jaka Lakovic as he moved into third place on the competition's all-time scoring list at the same time as he led GS Medical Park into the Top 16 on Wednesday. It marked another great moment in Lakovic's fascinating career. In just his second Euroleague game, 10 years ago this autumn, he recorded the second-best performance index rating on record, 55, in a road game against Real Madrid when he was basically an unknown 23-year-old playing for Krka Novo Mesto of his native Slovenia. Since then, he has been voted to the All-Euroleague team, in 2005 with Panathinaikos, and become a Euroleague champion, in 2010 with Barcelona, a much-deserved crowning moment.
Now, Lakovic has taken over third place on the scoring list - behind only Juan Carlos Navarro and Marcus Brown - with 2,460 points, an average of 11.7 for every one of his 211 games, the second-most played this century. In addition to his second-best single-game index rating, Lakovic also owns the fifth-best performance in a Euroleague game. He recorded a 51 index rating on March 24, 2004 as Panathinaikos lost 111-100 in overtime to Benetton Treviso. His game that night was simply the single best performance in any game played after the regular season.
The list goes on. In fact, Lakovic is moving up the charts in several other categories. With 373 career three-pointers, he should pass recently-retired J.R. Holden (377) for third place soon, even as he chases Navarro (380) and all-time leader Gianluca Basile (397). With 645 free throws, he could challenge the record of 688 held by Brown, who also retired before this season. He ranks sixth all time in assists (561) and eighth in steals (194).
At 33 years old, Lakovic shows no signs of slowing down, either. His breakthrough game on Wednesday proved that, as he didn't miss a shot all night and went 4 for 4 from downtown for 16 points. In his last three games, Lakovic has averaged 14.3 points while making 5 of 5 two-pointers, 9 of 14 threes and 6 of 8 free throws. You especially have to appreciate what Lakovic did this season, after having been among the top Euroleague performers for a decade. He risked dropping in all those rankings by joining GS Medical Park and having to qualify to play in the Euroleague.
His accomplishments say it all about what Lakovic means to his competition. All that's left to add is a warning: Don't underestimate GS Medical Park in the Top 16, not with Jaka Lakovic as its leader.
Despite all the close games we've seen in the ongoing Turkish Airlines Euroleague Regular Season – 45 of 96 games decided by 7 points or less until now – two teams are threatening to make a little history by becoming the first duo this century to go undefeated in the first phase of the competition. CSKA Moscow did its part on Wednesday when it stopped defending champion Panathinaikos to go 9-0 and sew up first place in Group B. Tonight, Barcelona has the chance to stay on course for a perfect regular season.
Although the Euroleague's first phase was compacted from 14 games to 10 games before the 2008-09 season, this year is the first sign that going undefeated has become any easier. In fact, CSKA and Barcelona are the only previous teams to have completed an undefeated regular season. Barcelona did it two seasons ago, in 2009-10, finishing the first phase 10-0 on its way to the title in Paris that spring. In 2004-05, CSKA went 14-0 in the regular season and 3-0 to start the Top 16 for the longest win streak of the century, 17 games. After reaching its own Final Four in Moscow with a 21-1 record, however, CSKA got ambushed in the semifinals by Tau Ceramica. The only other team to reach 10-0 when the regular season lasted 14 games was Panathinaikos in 2006-07, when the Greens ended up champions, too.
Nice meeting you, too
Let's hear it again for the tightest regular season group in Euroleague history. Group A is so close that it took until Week 8 to qualify a team, Bennet Cantu, for the Top 16, and until Week 9 to eliminate one, SLUC Nancy. It remains a possibility that on Thursday, if host Fenerbahce Ulker defeats Gescrap BB and Olympiacos tops visiting Cantu, that the group will be fully resolved a week in advance, with those two winners joining Cantu and Caja Laboral in the next round. Or we could wait until next week to find the last three qualifiers from this group. You would think that familiarity would breed such competitiveness, but the fact is most Group A teams were strangers until now. In fact, this week's matchups – Laboral vs. Nancy, Olympiacos vs. Cantu and FB Ulker vs. Gescrap – were all between teams that never played each other officially prior to this season.
Frank Lawlor - Euroleague.net
Thursday, December 15, 2011