Born winner, born striver
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.
For the only time this season, tonight's Game of the Week has the Turkish Airlines Euroleague stage to itself, with no other games in progress, to culminate Week 2 of the Top 16. Considering the matchup, Maccabi Electra hosting F.C. Barcelona Regal before another capacity crowd of 10,000 at Nokia Arena in Tel Aviv, exclusivity is appropriate.
Whether you root for or against them, there's no denying that these are two of the most entertaining clubs in the history of basketball. Maccabi was the Euroleague's only back-to-back champion of the last two decades, in 2004 and 2005. More recently, Barcelona won the 2010 title, its second in eight years, with the best record and highest average winning margin this century.
Macccabi enters this game with a 14-1 home record over the last two seasons, since head coach David Blatt returned to the bench. Maccabi's only Euroleague defeat at Nokia Arena in that time? You guessed it: against Barcelona during last season's Top 16, although the visitors needed overtime to seal the deal.
Among all the potential twists and turns we could see tonight, two subplots stand out for me.
One is the return of Barcelona's undisputed leader, Juan Carlos Navarro, a born winner who is on his way to possibly lifting more trophies and wearing more medals than any player in basketball history. Whenever he's out, as he was for the last month, Barcelona fans worry. But when La Bomba returns, especially this time of year, opponents should worry.
Last year, Navarro missed four games late in the regular season; then he averaged a league-high 20 points as Barcelona went undefeated in the Top 16. In fact, over three seasons since he returned to Barcelona in 2008, Navarro has a Top 16 average of 16.5 points per game, second-best among all Euroleague players, as compared with 12.8 in those regular seasons. Against the pressure-cooking defenses of the playoffs, his average dips to 14 points, but that's higher than any other Euroleague player. More than a scorer, however, Navarro is a competitor. In those same last three seasons, Barcelona is 15-2 in Top 16 games that Navarro played, with its only losses coming by 1 point in overtime at Partizan and by 2 points on the road at archrival Real Madrid.
All of which is why our blogger C.J. Wallace joked last week that he and his Barcelona teammates were spending 5 minutes per day each massaging Navarro's injured feet. This week, Barcelona head coach Xavi Pascual went out of his way to say that Navarro is not 100-percent healthy yet. But this is Top 16 time, so if he's getting on the court, Navarro is certainly giving 100 percent.
The other subplot I like is the arriveal of littlest man on the court, Demond Mallet, the veteran point guard whom Maccabi signed prior to the Top 16. Mallet came in to shore up Maccabi's weak three-point shooting, just 4.3 on average during the regular season's first eight games. Mallet delivered with 4 triples himself in his Top 16 debut last week, a road win at Zalgiris.
But if Navarro leads Barcelona by an example he perfected over a career in his home city, Mallet needs to be as much of a leader for Maccabi despite arriving to Tel Aviv for the first time earlier this month. And guess what? Mallet has it in him to do just that.
Indeed, one of the telling facts about the 34-year-old Mallet is his habit of winning his way into the Euroleague. In his fifth Euroleague season, Mallet has led teams to qualify for the competition four times. First, he made it as German champion with Bamberg in 2005. Later, he and DKV Joventut Badalona of Spain won the Eurocup to qualify for the Top 16. Before joining Maccabi, he was the regular season's third-best scorer with almost 19 points per game for Belgacom Spirou, a team he led through qualifying rounds and into the Euroleague each of the last two seasons.
In the end, apart from signing with German champion RheinEnergie Koln before it joined the Euroleague in 2006, his arrival to Maccabi marks just the second time that Mallet has been handed a ball to play in the Euroleague. Every other time, he earned it the hard way. If Navarro is a born winner, then Mallet is a born striver. That will be evident to the great fans in Tel Aviv when Mallet makes his home Euroleague debut tonight at Nokia Arena in what should be a thrilling Game of the Week!
From Russia with devotion
From the start of European club competitions in 1958 until 1975, just three different teams from modern-day Russia competed abroad. They had considerable success, too. CSKA won the Euroleague-level continental crown four times, Spartak St. Petersburg (Leningrad at that time) won the equivalent of the Eurocup twice and Dynamo Moscow was a finalist in the same competition once. From 1976 until the turn of the century, however, no team from Russia reached any such final, and therefore none had the chance to lift another trophy. Since 2000, it has been another story, with CSKA winning two more Euroleague titles and playing in two more finals among eight consecutive Final Four appearances, a record. In addition, Dynamo and Unics Kazan claimed a Eurocup each, while Unics and Spartak St. Petersburg won a FIBA EuroChallenge trophy each.
At this moment, however, you would have to say that Russia is rocking at the top of European competition as much as ever before. CSKA is undefeated at 12-0 and on the Euroleague's longest win streak since the same club won its first won 17 in a row in the 2004-05 season. Nothing new there, you might say. But we also have Unics leading its Top 16 group at 2-0 after defeating Panathinaikos 83-89 on Wednesday night. That was the first time in more than eight years that a visitor has scored that many points and won against Panathinaikos. Unics has now won five of its six road games this season and eight of its last nine games overall. In other words, it's time to start thinking of another Final Four contender from Russia for the first time since CSKA and Dynamo both made the playoffs together in 2007, the same year that Russia won the European national championships with Blatt, Maccabi's current coach, on the bench. To round out the picture, just take a look at the Eurocup Last 16 standings. Three of the four group leaders, all undefeated with 2-0 records, are Khimki Moscow Region, Lokomotiv Kuban and Spartak.
In other words, there is no doubt about it: Russian basketball is not only back, but it's here to stay.
FRANK LAWLOR - EUROLEAGUE.NET
Thursday, January 26, 2012