The end of the Top 16: enjoyable or bitter?
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!
Top 16, Week 6 represents crunch time for some, but an enjoyable or bitter farewell for others. The handful of games that will have no impact on the standings or on teams’ playoff destinies are played for protocol. What should and likely will materialize as the grand entre for the playoffs are the do-or-die games of elimination in which the winner or the team holding the point difference advantage takes the next step. For some teams this situation is nothing new as being on brink of elimination seems to have been part of their lives for some time now. It remains to be seen if facing such situations will provide some kind of an edge for these teams. Regardless, money-time players will have to step up to take destiny in their hands such as Raul Lopez did for Gescrap Bilbao this past week. Game-winning shots like his are what will make this time of the year special. Game endings, dramatic or not, will bring out boundless joy from the winners and a bitter sense of defeat for those holding the short end of the stick. It’s a safe bet that we will see emotions flying sky high on the court, benches and among the fans. And these emotions, I believe, are the essence of sports as no successful team has climbed the ladder without heart, dedication and sacrifice. At the end of Top 16, Week 6, the finality of all the teams’ destinies will be resolved, with no more question marks or loose ends to tie. It just never gets old for me to watch grown men jumping up and down in celebration as if out of their wits, whilst the opponent clears the court in a deflated state only to wait another year for his chance. However, if this week turns out to be similar to last week, you can throw out all the “on paper favorite” and “home-court favorite” type of predictions. Let’s focus on the groups and games that matter.
Olympiacos vs. Galatasaray Medical Park
Many expected to see Anadolou Efes in place of Galatasaray in direct competition for the second playoff place from this group. However, Galatasaray is on a roll with two wins in a row and has a chance to make history in Piraeus. In my opinion the best fitting description for Galatasaray is a team that plays together and is extremely hard to scout. How do you scout a team that has only one player averaging double figures in points and has five or even six players capable of passing the ball? Olympiacos is playing at home and can expect strong home crowd support. With Duda Ivkovic on the bench, you can rest assured that Olympiacos will try to assert physical dominance in the game from the get go. Vassilis Spanoulis will control the tempo of the game as he has all year long. His match up with former teammate Jaka Lakovic and the rest of the Galatasaray guards will be interesting to watch. Don’t expect any pretty basketball around the basket in a crucial game such as this. Sparks will fly and big men on both sides will be called upon to serve as the last lines of team defense with a heavy focus on rebounding. Olympiacos has muscle and force in Hines and Dorsey, while Galatasaray has more agility and quickness in Aldemir and Andric. Olympiacos is a favorite at home, but Galatasaray with its team basketball and lack of pressure travels to Greece with a fair chance.
Unicaja has the chance to play the role of spoiler for Bilbao, which has destiny in its hands on the road in Andalusia. No team likes to lose, especially not in front of its fans, but roster absences and heavy minutes to the reserves in last round tell me that perhaps the last Euroleague game is not atop Unicaja’s list of priorities. However, Bilbao will have to take care of business and not expect that things will just fall into place by themselves. Last week Bilbao proved that it wins not only in high-scoring affairs when its offense is going well, but that it can also survive through an ugly, defensive struggle. Mumbru, Banic and Lopez have plenty of experience to bring the team and know that steady nerves and dedication will be the key to potential success. If Bilbao doesn’t fall back or doesn’t completely succumb to the self-imposed pressure of a do-or-die game, their sheer dedication should give them an edge to make the playoffs.
For the second year in a row, Real Madrid has the task of pulling off a major victory on the road in Siena. Unfortunately for Los Blancos, this time around it’s not “only” about erasing the 19-point deficit in a head-to-head duel versus Montepaschi, but should Bilbao come into picture with a win against Unicaja, Madrid will face a 22-point hole in a three-way tie. Madrid has to first worry about any kind of win first should Bilbao fail to deliver. Real has picked up its game over the last two weeks with the shooting duo of Jaycee Carrol and Sergio Lull correcting their aim and great all-around play by Nikola Mirotic. Madrid’s offense has to expect a tough welcome from one of the best defensive teams in the Euroleague. Mental preparation and firming up in all situations is a necessity for Real’s success. Siena, even though enjoying the best situation in the group, will not want to leave anything up to a chance. And also I don’t see Coach Simone Pianigiani as indifferent to the fact that his team could enter the playoffs on either on a winning note or a two-game losing skid. If Siena shakes off the fatigue of the last couple of weeks’ tough schedule, I expect them to go for the win. Warriors of the caliber of Shaun Stonerook and Bo McCalebb just hate to lose. I believe that we will see an intense game as one team is in a must-win situation, while I don’t see the other as willing to be beaten.
Panathinaikos is in the playoffs, but will have to fight on the road in Kazan for first place in Group G. Unics was infinitely close to securing itself a playoff spot last week in Istanbul, but saw its game-long lead evaporate for good in closing minutes of regulation. Unics has made the most of its guards’ experience and scoring potential while assembling a versatile and agile frontline that makes up for its lack of size with athleticism. Henry Domercant and Lynn Greer are superb scorers who can never be left alone and can explode at any given moment in the game. Mike Wilkenson and Vladimir Veremeenko are undersized, but have shown the rest of the league that relentless play and dedication can make up for a lot of things. Panathinaikos is clearly missing the toughness and athleticism of the injured Steven Smith, though he could return this week. With Aleks Maric lost in the shuffle and David Logan too up and down, the minutes have to be distributed among a shorter rotation of players. Nonetheless, Panathinaikos is a defending champion that has the luxury of traveling to Russia with a sure playoff spot. The core of the club is one of the most experienced in the competition and that could play a role in a high-pressure situation for Unics that has nothing guaranteed at the moment. We should see an all-out battle as both teams are going for the win and for home-court advantage in the playoffs, though Kazan could also slip to third and miss the playoffs with a loss. The game will say a lot about each player’s character as individual defensive assignments and composure on offense will play crucial roles. I expect a low-scoring affair with defensive keys on pick-and-roll defense for Unics and off-the-ball screens and individual coverage on the home team’s shooters for Panathinaikos.
Hats off to Milan for what they have done in last two games of the Top16. Unfortunately for them, the saying “too little, too late” holds true as the team is heading into the final round without chances of qualifying. Fenerbahce, on the other hand, still has the chance to qualify, but doesn’t control its own destiny. In any case, only a win keeps the Turkish champs in contention, so expect nothing else but an all-out effort by Coach Neven Spahija’s group. Milan has a few components to its team in place that were missing in early going of Top 16 and put dampers on its Top 16 campaign – healthy leading scorer Malik Hairston, the dynamic new addition J.R. Bremer and fearless play from its young, energetic duo of Melli and Gentile. One can’t forget Omar Cook, who has also done a better job running the show for Coach Sergio Scariolo and should be targeted by Fenerbahce’s defense as the proverbial head of the team. For Fenerbahce to be successful on the road, it can’t allow an offensive shootout and needs to use its size advantage in post-up situations on offense and in rebounding. The matchup of scorers Malik Hairston and Bojan Bogdanovic should be an intriguing one to watch. Fenerbahce climbed the mountain last week at home against Unics after trailing most of the game therefore I expect them to come together one more time on the road to stay alive and hope for help of Panathinaikos. It will not be an easy mission to accomplish going against a much improved Milan, but I believe if Fenerbahce keeps it close, the fact that it has a chance to qualify will show in last quarter with the game on the line.
JIRI ZIDEK, CZECH REPUBLIC
Monday, February 27, 2012