Home courts, strategy and baskets
The only European player ever to win both the Euroleague and NCAA titles, Jiri "George" Zidek has been a collaborator with Euroleague.net and Euroleague.TV since the 2006 Final Four was held in his native Czech Republic. Big George, who won the Euroleague with Zalgiris Kaunas in 1999, continues as a color analyst of Euroleague games for Czech TV, not to mention for Euroleague.TV, where he has worked the last three Final Fours. As George returns for the 2011-12 Turkish Airlines Euroleague season, expect more great insights from an ex-champ's point of view!
It has almost become a pattern to have the Game of the Week and several other games decided in the closing minutes. I don’t think anybody could wish for a more suspenseful season than what we have witnessed so far. Going into Week 8, we have only six teams that have their ticket to the Top 16 guaranteed. No matter if you are a traditional team or a newcomer, so many teams are staying strong and tough to beat on their home courts. Just look at Benet Cantu, which is yet to lose at home this season or Bamberg, which once again almost lived up to its moniker of giant-killer when it took CSKA down to the last possession. With the groups being level more than ever, strategy and point difference are to have an important role for the remainder of the regular season. Week 7 was the farewell for the players that will move back to the NBA after agreement between players and owners was reached. It was interesting to witness the adjustment most of these players had to make to the Euroleague where almost each point counts from Week 1. When I watched Jordan Farmar leaving the floor of Pionir Arena in Belgrade, I had a feeling that he won’t experience an atmosphere like that anytime soon.
The most level and dramatic group in the history of Euroleague has been offering incredible dramas night in and out with all six teams still possibly finishing in any position in the group! Bilbao will surely look for another superb home crowd support in a pivotal game, while Benet Cantu has some of the pressure off after last week’s close victory over Caja Laboral. So far Cantu has hung in tough in all its road games. Its ability to stick to the game plan, lack of self-imposed pressure and a healthy amount of confidence together with hunger to prove itself on the highest level make it a difficult visiting team. Bilbao will have to cover all the bases defensively as Cantu can do it from outside and inside and has the luxury of one of the most even spread scoring columns in the whole Euroleague. It’s hard to believe and a pleasure to watch a couple of players that I faced myself - veterans Gianluca Basile and Denis Marconato – still having such an impact on the game. Bilbao must stay one step ahead of Cantu and control the tempo of the game. Last week Bilbao had five players in double figures in scoring – if they involve so many players, they will be tough to beat. Of course, the pressure will be on Bilbao, who just can’t afford to lose at home.
If guard play was somewhat being questioned for Fenerbahce Ulker so far in the season, last week the trio of Roko Ukic/ Curtis Jerrells/ Omar Onan took care of more than half of the points for the team as the Turkish champion played perhaps its best game of the season. Nancy is sure to miss Batum, but even without him they hung in very tough for almost three quarters of the game in Bilbao last week. Nancy’s physical talent, lack of pressure and home-court advantage will make it tough on Fenerbahce. I consider Fenerbahce to have a slight advantage even on the road should their guards come to play again. Their play, outside of scoring, needs to control unnecessary turnovers and prevent the French champs from an uptempo running game. James Gist and Oguz Savas need to have solid games on the boards as nancy likes to crash the offensive glass relentlessly. If Fenerbahce is serious about doing something special this season, it must try to win this one on the road.
Injuries could play a key role in Piraeus where Olympiacos meets Caja Laboral. Olympiacos has seen its roster depleted by injuries and must hope for an improved situation in this regard to score an essential home win. Caja Laboral also without Milko Bjelica due to injury, released Reggie Williams and has to operate with a smaller rotation. Both traditional Euroleague teams will be under pressure as nothing is sure in this group. Coach Dusko Ivanovic must design a plan to keep Olympiacos point guard Vasilis Spanoulis in check. Fenerbahce last week slowed down Spanoulis considerably and this turned out to be the key for the game outcome. Caja Laboral finds itself almost in a must position to win a game on the road. With Kevin Seraphin gone and new signing Vladimir Golubovic having just joined the team, Nemanja Bjelica should see extended action. He was crucial in the almost miraculous comeback in Cantu last week, but will have to add toughness to his talent should he become a needed defensive presence on the road for his team. Georgios Printezis and Kyle Hines will have to worry about defense first also as they take turns on scoring machine Mirza Teletovic. Both should attack him as well on offense to tire him out and keep him honest. Olympiacos must find a way to win at home; Laboral must hope for a consistent game on both sides of the floor in order to steal a victory.
It is not easy to find teams that can pose a real threat to CSKA these days on their home court. Most likely, still without injured star and team leader Andrei Kirilenko, the Russian champs will go for a lock on first place in the group. Zagreb even though showing a lot of improvement to its game, will find itself outmatched at every position. On top of that the Muscovites, knowing that self-satisfaction is their biggest enemy, will be looking to reset their dominance from the initial games of the regular season after they survived a scare last week in Bamberg. I believe that coach Kazlauskas is aware more than anybody else that his team can’t afford any letdowns and will look to spread the minutes as evenly as possible. CSKA doesn’t want another close game that could start other contenders believing….
With three games left to play and only two victories to show on the record so far, Zalgiris has to again hope for strong support from a full Zalgirio Arena, a good team performance and perhaps a bit of luck as well against defending champion Panathinaikos. Coach Trifunovic has tried his best to settle down the rotation and define the players’ roles, but still Zalgiris comes across more as a group of individuals with potential rather than a cohesive team. I believe that Marko Popovic and Mantas Kalnietis will have to step up their game and become the team leaders and floor generals at the same time. These two players have to take care of the ball for their team as the Lithuanian champion’s fragile self-confidence can take a sharp downturn quickly when things don’t go as planned. I would like to see Sonny Weems, albeit a talented scorer, use and understand the potential of his experienced big men and involve them more in the game. Panathinaikos will look to answer some questions of its own. It will be interesting to see if Mike Batiste, after a slow start, is back on track and his usual self. Batiste turned in a solid performance last week when he tallied 18 points and grabbed 9 rebounds. His match up against former teammate Robertas Javtokas should be fun to watch.
A lot of frustration must burden both Unicaja and Brose Baskets. Malaga has dropped three straight, including two not-so-well-managed endings, while Bamberg also lost couple of close ones. Unicaja got lucky in Bamberg in the teams last meeting when Berni Rodriguez spoiled the party with a buzzer-beating three-pointer. All this is history for Malaga, which can forget about it as it desperately needs to get on winning track again. Unfortunately for Malaga, injuries are haunting the team lately. EJ Rowland is joined by Tremell Darden on the injured list and coach Chus Mateo will have to hope for other players stepping up their game with a Top 16 spot on the line. It’s high time for Unicaja to stop the bleeding – look for Euroleague legend Berni Rodriguez to lead the way. Bamberg on the other hand can’t allow whatever shooters Unicaja has left to get going and should exploit its agile front court trio of Marcus Slaughter/ Predrag Suput/ PJ Tucker, both offensively and defensively. Two very agile frontcourts will meet in the south of Spain.
Perhaps the most physical basketball has been played in a group that was termed Group of Death prior to the season. It seems that Anadolou Efes is finally finding the consistency and balance that it was lacking in the opening stages. Milan on the other hand hasn’t been able to get over the hump in the important games and is seeing its chances for the Top 16 slowly evaporating. As Efes has so much talent, offensive balance and team play come to mind as crucial for their potential success. If Efes establishes the inside game with Stanko Barac and co. then the perimeter has a lot more room to launch their aerial assault. Don’t forget Dusko Savanovic, who has been an ace up the sleeve for coach Ufuk Sarica. When he gets involved and going, Efes is hard to beat. Milan has to think only of victory and will have to do without Danilo Gallinari. Omar Coook needs to do his best in controlling the game tempo, but needs to assert himself more in scoring in this do-or-die game. Efes has plans to make some noise this season with the Final Four in Istanbul this spring – it’s time to walk the talk for them.
If there is a team that could have eyed the Top 16 better from another group, it is Spirou Charleroi. The Belgian champs, with the exception of the opener, played even games with all other opponents. Demond Mallet is experiencing a breakthrough Euroleague campaign as he is clicking well with all his other teammates, who look comfortable with him in charge. Without a realistic chance to advance, Charleroi can play a role of spoiler in a major way for Partizan. The Serbian powerhouse has to hope for Acie Law to get healthy and back to the lineup. Miroslav Radulica is likely to see his minutes rise with departure of Nikola Pekovic. However, I can’t wait to see what Milan Macvan will have in store now as he is my huge favorite for the most improved player of the year. Partizan will have to readjust without Pekovic as he was the main target early on in the games in the post. Partizan is deep in the center position, but guards who must turn in smart performances will be the key to their success.
The Game of the Week should be another great Euroleague battle of the giants and a fight for the first position Group C. Madrid just cemented its Top 16 berth on the road in Milan and should rightly feel its confidence riding high. Maccabi could not capitalize on Acie Law’s absence in Belgrade and is in need of a win should it want to stay atop the standings. Both teams will be influenced by players finishing their European stint with Farmar, Serge Ibaka and Rudy Fernandez out. Madrid is in better rhythm than Maccabi at the moment. The Whites’ main objective is to keep playing up-tempo team basketball on offense and to keep its aggressiveness and right degree of gamble defensively. The major question to answer in David Blatts camp is the point guard situation. Theo Papaloukas, a Euroleague legend, is sitting on the bench and I don’t think it is realistic to have Yogev Ohayon carry the team as the starter. Papaloukas is a special player that can give many things to his teams, but he is miles away from being an in-your-face, full-court pressuring defensive maniac of the Perkins or Pargo caliber, or Farmar’s lightning speed. A solution will have to be found in this matter sooner rather than later.
The Turkish newcomer to the Euroleague is very close to reaching its goal of making the Top 16. The team is quite capable when it gets hot, especially from perimeter. Jaka Lakovic, Preston Shumpert and even Josh Shipp can score in bunches. The team shouldn’t play under pressure and if it holds its own under the basket, we could have an interesting game – especially in light of the series of injuries to visiting Montepaschi. A team that looked like a sure lock for the Final Four, Siena, has seen its marquee passing game slow down considerably as of late. Of course, it's not so hard to see the reason. Two cornerstones of coach Pianigiani’s successful scheme are out long-term – the Lithuanian duo of Kaukenas and Lavrinovic. Also, superstar Bo McCalebb won't fly to Istanbul for this game with his own injury. Shaun Stonerook needs to be more productive offensively. I believe that the Italian champs have the skills, but the team is going through a tough period marked by injuries. This is a rebuilding period for Montepaschi within the season, which is not an easy task to accomplish...
Barcelona is the group leader and has a comfortable buffer of two victories over the competition. Barca will try do its best to keep it just that way till the end of the regular season. Unics must have earned a lot of respect from every team in the Euroleague after an inspirational win in Siena. Henry Domercant will surely be looked on to lead his troops once again just as Barcelona will focus its defense on him. Domercant’s teammates have done a good job of spacing the court well and creating enough space for him to be able to create one-on-one situations. The head-to-head duel between Juan Carlos Navarro, the competition’s all-time leading scorer, and Domercant – both are without a doubt among the most crafty and seasoned scorers – should be a highlight of this game. Barcelona should benefit the most from its advantage under the basket. Size, athleticism and length tilt the scales in their favor. Vladimir Veremeenko, Mike Wilkinson and Nathan Jawai will have to stay out of foul trouble and play a big game for Unics to have a chance.
The fate of Group D’s bottom feeders has pretty much been sealed. There is nothing harder than playing without a realistic chance of advancing regardless of the competition. Therefore motivation and focus will be crucial factors in the outcome of this game. That’s why I see the role of coaches in this game as dominant. Watching Tomas Pacesas during the timeouts, there is little doubt in my mind that only a victory will be on his mind. Just the same could be said for Saso Filipovski, who stays very active in working the sidelines during every game. Who motivates his troops better will win.
JIRI ZIDEK - CZECH REPUBLIC
Monday, December 05, 2011