Turkish Airlines Euroleague
May 24, 2013
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Maybe the most difficult
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.
One of the questions sent this week for our Fan Mail segment on players from the Turkish Airlines Final Four teams made me stop and think. A Panathinaikos fan asked Nick Calathes if he and the team were ready for the "this difficult - maybe the most difficult - Final Four." Of course, it's always risky comparing one Final Four to the next, let alone this one to others held five, 10 or 20 years ago. So many factors converge at a Final Four between talent, emotion, tactics, inspiration, preparation and luck - both bad and good - that I, for one, can't say that one year's champ would have prevailed over another's. And I or anyone else saying so would never prove it anyway. That's why the games are played, to decide a champion, and that's what makes it so compelling, that you never know until the players and coaches do. This particular sporting opera, the Euroleague, truly is never over until the fat lady sings Devotion.
But apart from the obvious strength of all the teams heading to Istanbul this week, there are several factors that argue for this Final Four as being yet another one that raises the bar of reaching ultimate success even higher. Among those arguments, consider the following:
- This is the first Final Four to feature the last four MVPs of the competition: Ramunas Siskauskas of CSKA (2008), Juan Carlos Navarro of Barcelona (2009), Milos Teodosic of CSKA (2010) and Dimitris Diamantidis of Panathinaikos (2011). Three wear the same uniforms as when they became MVP; Teodosic won his with the other team coming to Istanbul, Olympiacos.
- This Final Four features the only three Best Defender Trophy winners in the eight-year history of that award: Andrei Kirilenko of CSKA, this year's honoree; his teammate Viktor Khryapa, who won in 2010; and Diamantidis, who won the other six times. Interestingly, none plays or ever has for the club with the best team defense this century, allowing just 61.5 points per game this season: Barcelona.
- And last, but certainly not least, while other Final Fours had a mix of head coaches who had already won the title either from the bench or as players, not until now have all four experienced liftig the trophy as head coaches.
Indeed, the excellence in coaching we will see in Istanbul makes this Final Four fascinating to anticipate.
Although I had covered plenty of Olympic and club basketball in Europe, I didn't attend my first Final Four until 1999, when Jonas Kazlauskas marched Zalgiris to a title that few people expected them to win. I remember being surprised at that sentiment among the media experts in attendance, because Zalgiris had been doing very well all season long. One of the color commentators I work with now on Euroleague.TV, Johnny Rogers, remembers well how Zalgiris, with our EBTV partner Jiri Zidek at center, blew Olympiacos off the floor in the semifinals in Munich. But still people thought that defending champ Kinder would prevail in the title game. Zalgiris stormed Kinder in that one, too, and took the title rather more easily than almost any team I have seen since. All of which makes Kazlauskas, who makes his return this time with CSKA, the only coach going to Istanbul who is undefeated at the Final Four. No one should underestimate Kazlauskas this time.
If any team has won as dominantly since Zalgiris in 1999, it must be the 2010 Barcelona team that Xavi Pascual team coached to the title with the century's highest winning percentage, its highest average margin of victory and its only case of double-digit wins in both the semifinal and the title game. Barcelona went 20-2 in the 2009-10 season. Pascual has them 18-1 on the way to Istanbul with a defense that ranks first all-time, having given up just 61.5 points per game. Pascual doesn't need Barcelona's recent troubles in football or the memory of missing the Final Four last year in their city for extra motivation. You had only to see him interviewed on Thursday night, right after Barcelona clinched the Spanish League regular season's best record, to know that Pascual was already putting laser-beam focus on winning back the Euroleague trophy. He dismissed the notion that his team's just-completed comeback home win over archrival Real Madrid was a good sign for Istanbul. He was not counting on the big win for momentum at all. Or as Pascual put it: "There's nothing like the Final Four."
The dean of coaches at the Final Four is the man whose team the fewest people expected to be there: Dusan Ivkovic of Olympiacos. After having made the Final Four six times with three different teams between 1993 and 2005 - and winning the 1997 title with Olympiacos - the grand master is back. Ivkovic knows so much about winning finals, that he is the only coach to have lifted each of the four major European trophies available during his career. This season on our Game of the Week, we produced a story about Ivkovic's second vocation, after coaching, which is raising and racing pigeons. Hundreds per year, in fact, some of which he keeps wherever he happens to coach, in either Greece or Russia, for the last 20 years. Ivkovic inherited his love of pigeons from his family in Belgrade and considers them an ideal way to disconnect from a stressful job. In fact, Ivkovic has a clause in all his contracts that calls for his house to be equipped with a rooftop pigeon coop, so that he can tend to his birds. Much like the underrated Olympiacos team he brings to Istanbul this week, maybe the only man on earth with his own pigeon contract clause is probably capable of stirring up some trouble for the experts at this Final Four.
Finally, there is the coach who, by any objective measure, is the best in the business. Zeljko Obradovic of Panathinaikos needs no introduction here in Europe, but to be clear: with his amazing record of eight titles in 12 Final Four appearances, when I say best in the business, that no active coach in basketball can match his list of accomplishments. And that's even before he attempts his first back-to-back titles with the same team. Obradovic already had a personal repeat with Spanish teams Joventut Badalona in 1994 and Real Madrid in 1995. Repeating with the same, however, would mean a lot to Obradovic, not because he has anything to prove, but because he has been frustrated several times trying to do the same: in the 1996 Final Four with Real Madrid, in the 2001 SuproLeague final with Panathinaikos, and then missing the Final Four entirely in the years after his 2002, 2007 and 2009 titles with Panathinaikos. Now, an opportunity is here again, and not only for a repeat. Last year, Obradovic expressed the hope that Panathinaikos, with six Euroleague titles, would sooner rather than later catch the all-time leader, Real Madrid, with eight. CSKA also has six, so after they meet in the semis next Friday, one of them will play for a seventh trophy on Sunday. Opportunity has knocked a lot for Obradovic, and he has proven to be the best answer man ever, but he also knows that it seldom knocks twice in a row. He'll be ready, as always.
If all that adds up to the most difficult Final Four ever, I don't know. But it's already safe to say that these four coaches certainly plan to make it that way for each other.
Frank Lawlor - Euroleague.net
Saturday, May 05, 2012
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