Money time is always at the end
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-champs point of view!
Just when it looked like Week 4 was going to be the deciding step towards the playoffs for as many as seven teams, once again this season’s Euroleague proved to be an unpredictable beast. Instead no teams brought home the ticket to next round and the seven that had the chance will have to sharpen up their elbows and wits before heading to the next-to-last round of competition. Therefore instead of “let’s just get it over with” games, you can look forward to another dose of intense battles. With only 2 rounds to play, only the strong and fit are likely to survive. The fans will surely feel that this is their time to prove their worth and be at their most frenetic. Just ask CSKA, which was the last team to succumb a perfect record how difficult it got in front of the sell-out crowd in Abdi Akpeci against Galatasaray. With Istanbul hosting this spring’s Final Four, I will be eyeing the three Turkish representatives, all in precarious situation at the moment, to see f they will find inner strength and an adequate stroke of good luck to rise from the ashes. Let’s get back into swing of things after a week’s pause to see if the heavyweights will finish on top and who will knock out who in the cut throat race for the other playoff places!
The big shocker in Top 16, Week 4 was CSKA’s first loss of the season. I don’t, however, look at it as necessarily such a bad omen for coach Kazlauskas and his troops. CSKA can finally forget the talk about its perfect record and learn from its first loss, which could later on prove to be the best remedy against any unnecessary feeling of self-satisfaction that can turn fatal. CSKA will have to do without a Viktor of its own for some time more as Khryapa’s relentless and unselfish play is clearly missing. This will be time for other players to step up defensively and do the small things that the stat sheets don’t show, but that make a huge difference. Olympiacos should not feel inappropriate pressure heading to the Russian capital as it can only surprise there. The Greeks showed a serious warrior’s mentality in last round when they pulled out a crucial 2-point victory on the road against Anadolou Efes and as result put its fate in its own hands. Spanoulis’s leadership combined with other player’s talent and potential like Printezis, Papanikolau and Hines together with the hard-nosed approach of coach Ivkovic make Olympiakos a dangerous, hard to read adversary. I expect the Muscovites to feel the need to take care of business and 1st place in the group at home, but at the same time for Olympiacos not to give up its skin easy.
Galatasaray, a team that has risen to the occasion during the Top 16, will try to stay in playoff contention by disposing of its cross town rival, Anadolou Efes. Josh Shipp has been very effective as of late and I expect him to lead the charge again this week. Shipp has elevated his accuracy and concentration in the Top16 to another level by shooting 63% from two-point range, while using his toughness, size and knack for slashing to his advantage. If Galatasaray is riding the highs of an inspirational win, Anadalou must be tasting the lows of the season. Theoretically still in the hunt for a playoff spot, but in need of help from others, things turned out a lot different than planned. Nonetheless, Efes must rally as only a win will keep its hopes alive till the last round. Sharing the ball and playing the team game should be the mantra to preach within the Anadolou camp. Both teams need the win, but perhaps more pressure ison Galatasaray as it doesn’t want to waste a chance at home in a heated rivalry between Turkish clubs.
It has been fun watching Gescrap BB play as I consider this club to be one of the most offensively potent teams in the competition when it gets in rhythm. Already holding a point-difference advantage over Real Madrid, a win over Montepaschi Siena can put the finishing touches on an unexpected advance to the elite eight of Euroleague clubs in Bilbao’s rookie season. Bilbao will have to bring out all of its skills, dedication and energy to gain the right to play on against one of the hottest teams in the competition. The Italian champs are due a lot of respect among their peers because despite serious injuries, the team has only gotten stronger and found new heroes in its ranks. If you face Siena, first and foremost you must worry about slowing down Bo McCalebb, who is a never-ending source of highlights. McCalebb is the heart of a very strong team-oriented squad. Top 16 Week 4 MVP Aaron Jackson and Raul Lopez will be the ones to take turns on him. On the other hand, if you are Siena you must worry about Kostas Vasiliadis, who can score in bunches, or the reliable duo of Alex Mumbru and Marko Banic. Siena has plenty of defensive stoppers with David Moss and Shaun Stonerook anchoring the defensive line. Siena has been impressive, but if Bilbao catches fire and handles a must-win situation cool headedly, it will be hard to beat.
A team that finished first in regular season and looked impressive by all means at that stage of competition, but now has all the pressure to win; that’s Real Madrid. Playing without confidence and energy on both sides of the floor, Madrid has to hope for a strong wakeup call that would set the pace for two more Top 16 wins. It has a perfect chance to gain some momentum at home against a winless and practically out of playoff contention Unicaja. Madrid’s woes are documented by their team stats that have dropped in most of their categories from the regular season to the Top 16. Jaycee Carroll needs to find his mark and aggressive style of play again, while having a healthy Tomic back on court would help the frontcourt. Unicaja can only play for its pride, but since this is a Spanish derby, don’t just expect Malaga to fold before tipoff. Madrid is the favorite.
Defense wins championships but it also holds true that the team that scores the most points wins. That’s how one could describe Fenerbahce Ulker’s offensive misery that has given the team only 1 victory at the moment. It’s not the low shooting percentages that must cause wrinkles on Coach Spahija’s forehead, but the very low number of assists that shows heavy dependence on individual play that at this level is easier to defend than a higher assist game that involves all players. The game of truth for the Turks will have to start from each player individually as road savvy Kazan will try to earn its first playoff berth. The Russians have managed so far with a short rotation, plentiful experience at guard and accurate outside shooting. Fenerbahce therefore needs to play a smart game defensively, by applying just the right pressure on the all experienced Unics frontcourt. In its first Top 16 loss, Unics had trouble with a switching defense and a smaller Milan lineup. Let’s see if Fenerbahce will implement any of this into its game plan. This is a game with major playoff implications, so you can expect a hard-nosed battle from beginning till end.
As the Top 16 progresses, Panathinaikos seems to be tightening the screws in its performance. The Greens have been deadly effective in their pick-and-roll offense, while defensively each player seems to take great pride and puts maximum effort in his individual defense. Panathinaikos, winner of three titles in the last five years, is clearly not permitting a down year after a title year that had been a case in the past. I expect Panathinaikos to stay strong and go for its fourth win en route to the all-important first position in the group. Led by Diamantidis, Panathinaikos will lead the charge and dictate the tempo. The players’ understanding of the game, experience and respect for Coach Obradovic’s standards make them the foundation of the team’s success. Milan has bounced back and recorded a win that didn’t yet put Milan into playoff contention, but could have serious say on what team qualifies. Milan has to play a perfect game to be competitive in the Top 16. It might be an extra motivational push for the two Greek players in Milan uniforms – Fotsis and Bourousis – for whom this game will have another meaning.
Maccabi will play host to a winless Zalgiris team that has played some good basketball in the Top 16, but has failed to record anything in the win column so far. Maccabi finds itself in a good position as it controls its own playoff destiny. Coach David Blatt has found a way to make Keith Langford a factor for the team, while Richard Hendrix is playing the best basketball of his career. The only lingering question mark in the Maccabi camp has been hanging over Sofoklis Schortsanitis, or rather his sore knee, which has his production sharply down after a spectacular regular season. Zalgiris has been in all its games so far, but hasn’t been able to put opponents away for good. This game is too important for Maccabi to lose, especially with a sold-out Nokia Arena, so I think you can circle Maccabi for a win.
Will the Catalan giant put an end to a small town’s Cinderella story or not? That’s what this Game of the Week will tell us on Thursday. With their backs against the wall, only a win, against a team as great as FC Barcelona Regal, can keep Cantu´s inspirational season alive. In these teams’ first meeting, there was a very tough first three quarters of the game. Cantu has the experience of former Barca players Basile and Marconato, who will have a chance to “pay back in earnest” their former club. Basile has been deadly accurate from downtown lately, while Mt. Shermadini maintains an incredibly high shooting percentage around the basket. Cantu players will have to play a perfect game against Barcelona, starting on defense. In that aspect Cantu needs to be very alert on pick-and-roll situations and off the ball screens for the shooters. Down low Cantu has to decide whether to gamble or not in double teaming the post. Whether they double or not, Cantu’s big men have to play conservative, albeit solid, defensive. The list of stars is on Barcelona’s side, which is deep at each and every position. With a full house of dedicated fans ready to jump on the favorite, this should be a remarkable game to watch.
JIRI ZIDEK - PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC
Monday, February 20, 2012