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!
Final duels will take place in the final week of an exciting regular season that has brought more thrilling games than any other that I can remember. For some teams, it will be the end of their European journey for the moment. Of these, some teams already know their fate heading into this last round, while others will fight until the sound of horn goes off at the end of this week's games. At the same time, those that have already advanced will try to grab the highest possible standing in their groups in order to hold advantage in upcoming Top 16 draw. With these scenarios in mind, I don't consider it interesting to go game by game in my preview this week, but rather to focus in more details of the games that matter most. I hope that you have enjoyed reading my previews this year as I sure took pleasure and pride in being asked to write them. I would like to wish you wonderful holidays and may 2012 bring you, besides endless portions of great Euroleague moments, all that you wish for!
With Cantu and Olympiacos already qualified for the Top 16, three other teams - Caja Laboral, Fenerbahce Ulker and Gescrap BB - must fight this week over the remaining two berths. One of them, however, will see their season end. In the most even group in Euroleague history, it's a daring exercise to predict anything, most especially when it comes to a derby in the Basque Country of Spain between Gescrap and Laboral in Bilbao. Gescrap saved its season with a huge road win in Istanbul last week. I like Gescrap, as they play inspirational, up-tempo basketball. Unfortunately, at times they have lacked precision and dropped couple of important home games. Against Caja Laboral, everything is different because these teams know each other so well. Gescrap has a chance if they control the tempo, don't rely solely on outside shooting and take care of the ball. Laboral has a tough ordeal to fulfill on the road as well. They will have the services of healthy Milko Bjelica at their disposal as he returned to lineup last week. Laboral will be led by Mirza Teletovic, no doubt about that, but needs others involved as well. Fernando San Emeterio should keep the Gescrap defense honest with his mix of drives and long-distance shots while Milko Bjelica has developed into a finesse, around-the-basket threat. When teams know each other well, handling the pressure of decisive games plays a big part in having success.
Bennet Cantu will try to forget last week's blowout loss to Olympiacos and try to crown its historic regular-season campaign with an unblemished home record. Cantu at home has fulfilled head coach Andrea Trinchieri's basketball philosophy to last details, even though it sounds easy enough: "Play as hard as you can on defense and share the ball on offense." With eight players averaging over 7 points per game, a scouting plan has been hard to devise for opponents. Cantu will try to keep inside-outside balance, as it has done all season, backed by a great home crowd. FB Ulker put itself into a tough position by passing on a chance to wrap things up at home last week. FB Ulker needs to come into Cantu with a sharp focus as the hosts are able to exploit opponents' mistakes to the maximum. James Gist and Oguz Savas will be crucial in protecting the basket while Omer Onan and Roko Ukic will have to key the defense on the perimeter. Expect a hard physical battle as FB Ulker has superior physical talent on their side, while Cantu has come into each contest fundamentally sound and fearless of any established Euroleague name.
There are many possibilities in this group. No sense running through all the scenarios, to simplify everything – winners advance, losers count the point differences.
All eyes will be on Zalgirio Arena in Kaunas, Lithuania, where the home team hosts KK Zagreb in fight for the last Top 16 ticket in this group. Zalgiris answered the emergency call and surprised many, including me, by downing feisty Brose Baskets on the road last week. Zagreb, on the other hand, lost to Unicaja, therby decreasing its chances of seeing the next stage. Zalgiris showed last week that it can play team basketball. Mantas Kalnietis, Tadas Klimavicius and Sonny Weems accumulated together 13 assists and set the tone of the game. If mistakes are kept to minimum and key players pass the ball instead of taking the game on themselves, Zalgiris will be in driver's seat. Zagreb saw its game rise since the beginning of competition. It has scoring talent in Krunoslav Simon, Josh Heytvelt and Mario Kasun, served by the experience of point guard Damir Mulamerovic. Zagreb remains competitive and, when it limits careless turnovers that lead into easy opponents' points, has caused trouble to other teams. Zaligiris has a unique opportunity to save its season, again at home in front of a great, basketball-crazy crowd. Playing the team game should see them through.
Bamberg has to hope for Zagreb upsetting Zalgiris and its own upset of reigning champs Panathinaikos in Athens. If there is a coach that will not allow his team's guard to go down its Zeljko Obradovic, which is bad luck for Bamberg. Even if Bamberg washes out the bitter taste of opportunity wasted from their minds, Panathinaikos is just too deep to allow surprises. Even if the starters leave their focus in locker room, there is a long queue of hungry backups waiting for their chance to prove themselves. Panathinaikos shouldn't allow any surprises.
Group C comes down to EA7 Emporio Armani Milan traveling to Belgrade to fight for the final spot in Top 16 in group C. The math is simple – Partizan, thanks to a miraculous comeback in Milan earlier in the regular season, has the luxury of a four-points buffer to its advantage. But as has been said many times before – the team that counts the points difference since the beginning will find itself the sore loser and out of the Top 16. Winning the game should be first in the minds of both teams and I believe that coaches and experienced veterans will do their best to assure that.
Factors in the game:
1. Pionir Arena factor. The home court advantage is probably not bigger for any team in the Euroleague than for Partizan. All of us who have seen Partizan play at home understand without need for further elaboration. Partizan thrives on the energy from the crowd that will most likely be at its most intense with the Top 16 directly at stake.
2. Point guards. Acie Law has been a leader and an essential part of Partizan's success in many games. He has been and will be called upon to handle a majority of the playmaking duties. Key to his effectiveness will be understanding that only a team effort will put Partizan into the next stage. His assist-less effort last week in Madrid will not get the job done. His match up against Omar Cook at point guard will be decisive for the outcome of the game. Cook, a pass-first point guard, will have to take scoring responsibility on his shoulders in tough moments of the game.
3. Shooters. It's a tough call whom to give an edge. Vladimir Lucic and Dragan Milosavljevic, streaky shooters, are playing on their home court. Drew Nicholas and Malik Hairston, while established and more accurate, have to deal with Partizan's all-out defense and the hostile surroundings. Partizan's snipers cannot allow their hands to shake from putting too much pressure on themselves while Milano's duo needs to be patient in their shot selection.
4. Big men. Milan Macvan stars in the home team's front court. He has shown great maturity for his age this season and I fully expect him to be sharp at his team's hour of need. Partizan's muscle around the basket – Miroslav Raduljica and Rasko Katic – can't commit unnecessary fouls and must finish close-range, high-percentage shots. The Greek twosome on Milano's side – Ioannis Bourusis and Antonis Fotsis – will have to match the toughness and intensity of Partizan. Pionir is a lion's den and without a fearless last line of defense, not many teams have been able to ride away victorious.
5. Team performance. Milano has slightly deeper bench. Partizan plays hardnosed, relentless 40-minute defense. Milano, if in sync, shares the ball better and has more experience.
All is set in this group, but I just can't pass on a chance to take a look back at the inspirational win of Siena at home against Barcelona. Without three pillars of the team's pyramid, the Italians, down twice with sizeable differences, never gave up and added extra meaning to words dedication and devotion. Their efforts proved once again that nothing can ever be granted in this season's Euroleague and that we should have a great Top 16!
JIRI ZIDEK, CZECH REPUBLIC
Monday, December 19, 2011