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.
Welcome to the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Playoffs! It psyches me just to write that greeting, because it means that all the anticipation is over and we are already enjoying a feast of real basketball for true fans of this sport. For the better part of three weeks, the top eight teams on the continent, with rosters full of fascinating players, are battling night-in and night-out for the privilege of reaching the Final Four. The anticipation was part of the fun, however; it has built up like rolling thunder over a long time. The Euroleague decade that started in 2000 proved to a world audience that this competition is where basketball lovers get what they want most: team basketball, five-on-five strategy and intensity from tipoff to buzzer. This decade has not only honored the trend of the last one, but given it a fascinating new twist.
Last season upended the cardinal rule of playoffs, that winning Game 1 was the biggest predictor of survival. When three teams that entered last year’s best-of-five playoffs without homecourt advantage lost their series openers on the road, the odds were against them. In fact, before last season, 21 of 24 first-game playoff winners had reached the Final Four. After Panathinaikos, Montepaschi Siena and Maccabi Electra rallied to win those series, however, the dynamic has changed.
No series announced that new reality last season better than Siena's against Olympiacos, a battle that is being revived in tonight's Game of the Week. A year ago, Olympiacos not only started with homecourt advantage, but had a star-studded roster that included five former Euroleague champions, including the head coach, and two former Final Four MVPs. Then, when the Reds set records with a 48-point win in Game 1 at home, nobody doubted that they were headed straight to their third consecutive Final Four.
"This was a nightmare," Siena coach Simone Pianigiani said that night. "We were not ready for such a crucial game."
Even in the immediate aftermath of a stunning defeat, however, the seeds of Siena's readiness to react could be heard.
"I have never been beaten that much in my life before. This was as bad as it gets," Shaun Stonerook said. "This is a five-game-series and the next game will start at 0-0; we won't be down by 49. This loss will hopefully wake us up; we have to be more physical and significantly better in every aspect of the game. Our goal hasn't changed. We will work hard to win the series."
Prophetic words, for sure, but even the blowout winners of Game 1 recognized that the series was far from over, because the playoffs are the first moment in the Euroleague season when margin of victory doesn't matter.
"Maybe the score looks impressive, but it is just a victory, nothing more," said young Kostas Papanikolaou. "We need three."
In fact, both teams needed three still, and the moment that changed everything came less than 48 hours later. Game 2 was the opposite of Game 1 in everything but the difference as Siena won by 17 points on the same floor where it had been embarrassed two days earlier.
It was a show of character that was being repeated elsewhere. In Barcelona, where every team wanted to get to last year's Final Four, it was Panathinaikos bouncing back to win Game 2. Perhaps no team had been a bigger underdog that Panathinaikos, as then-defending champion Barcelona was considered to be ultra-inspired to try for a repeat in its own city. Its one-point Game 1 defeat couldn't have been more different than Siena's blowout loss, however, Panathinaikos coach Zeljko Obradovic used it as a source of motivation, telling his players right afterword that it proved they could beat Barcelona. And they did.
Further north in Vitoria, Spain, it was Maccabi doing the same Game 2 turnaround against host Caja Laboral. "We need to be optimistic, and to believe in ourselves," head coach David Blatt said between those games.
They were three revolutionary series. Not only did Siena, Panathinaikos and Maccabi all make the Final Four, but they didn't even need Game 5 of the playoffs to survive. They won three in a row each after losing Game 1. That had never happened before in a five-game series. Only once before last season did any team without homecourt advantage coming into the playoffs lose Game 1 and still survive.
Whether last season was a historic shift or a parenthesis remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: losing Game 1 is no longer a death knell. The only thing that matters now is three victories. Not even a first victory by 48 is enough. The goal now for underdogs is simply to steal one of the first two games on the road. And stealing Game 2 is just as good as stealing Game 1.
And if that sounds like recognizing the obvious, something that was always true, then what last season also proved goes back to that thunder-roll of anticipation that has been building since 2000. When improvement year to year is evident, and competitive levels rise across the board, the chances for these kinds of surprises also improve. And when rosters are built deep to maximize intensity and make teams that are something more than a collection of talents, anything can happen.
FRANK LAWLOR - EUROLEAGUE.NET
Wednesday, March 21, 2012