Second thoughts: Week 8 insights
Basketball junkie Yarone Arbel has been traveling the globe to watch games for almost a decade. He works as an analyst for official websites of the top competitions and events in European basketball. He also uses his experience and broad network of connections to provide consulting and scouting services for clubs at all levels.
Week 8 provided some scenes and some moments – from the first half of Nikola Mirotic to the last shot of Gianluca Basile - that will be remembered the rest of the season and beyond. But most of the action laid the groundwork for battles all over the Turkish Airlines Euroleague that will decide a lot in the regular season's last two weeks.
All three of the previous games between Unicaja Malaga and Brose Baskets in the Euroleague had been decided in favor of the visiting team by a very small margin. That rule is still standing after this week - with one small adjustment. The German champs won by 11 points in Malaga on Thursday in what was one impressive performance by head coach Chris Fleming's team. It wasn't pure basketball that won the game. The squad from Bamberg was just 20 times tougher, and leading that toughness charge was P.J. Tucker. The 1.98-meter small forward of Brose not only hit 11 points and collected 13 rebounds, one week after a great performance against CSKA Moscow, but powered his way to every ball and exemplified the always-tough style of his club. Apart from his Week 1 performance, until now Tucker wasn't bringing his full game to the floor. New team, new coach, new country and the Euroleague's playing level are things that need adjusting to, and those adjustments take time. In the last two games, however, Tucker announced that he is here to stay, and that's one reason that Brose has a chance to reach the Top 16 with a home win over Zalgiris next week. One year after getting left at the door, Brose Baskets is proving it belongs.
Angel from Madrid
The final numbers say that Nikola Mirotic scored 26 points when his team beat Maccabi by roughly the same difference. Mirotic was even rewarded with the bwin MVP of the Week honor as the player with the highest performance index rating on a winning team. But if his whole game was great, Mirotic's first half was incredible times four. He took four shots from the arc and hit all four of them, drew four fouls, pulled four rebounds and hit four free throws for 22 points. All before the game's 15th minute! All in all it was a show of great versatility. He scored from long and close range. Hit made set shots and carried the ball to the rim. He moved without the ball right where he should be and punished Maccabi's defensive lapses time after time. Mirotic pawned his wings and returned to Earth for the second half, as very often happens after an unbelievable start, but more than anything else he put on a show that fun to watch for any basketball fan.
Not the best day to celebrate
What stood out for the losers as Madrid won that game going away, 88-64, was that they didn't look like Maccabi. Or, in the words of head coach David Blatt after the game: "We can't look like that." Apart from the team's 2010-11 season opener on the road against Caja Laboral, this week's was the time since Blatt returned to Tel Aviv that Maccabi wasn't even in the game. It was also the first time in 25 years, since the 1985-86 season, that Madrid beat Maccabi by more than 20 points. In the second half, there was only one team on the floor. Maccabi is last in the Euroleague in three-pointers made, and this week wasn't any different. Only 3 of 14 shots from the arc (21.4%) fell for the visitors, and those came after the game was long decided. The bigger issue for Maccabi was that nobody stepped up to fill the hole of Jordan Farmar's departure. It was beyond figures, things just didn't look good, but let's put it in historical view. Maccabi finished the game with only 5 assists. The last time it had so few assists was in a 2007 playoffs loss to CSKA Moscow. The only two times it had fewer assists (4) was in 2004 and 2001. This game marked Maccabi's 700th performance in Euroleague competition dating back to April of 1958. Probably it wasn't the best way to celebrate.
The fact that F.C. Barcelona Regal has yet to lose a game is not the most impressive thing about this team so far. Neither is the fact that Barcelona has only one victory by fewer than 13 points. Overshadowing both of those facts is the defense that head coach Xavi Pascual and his players bring to the floor: it's is scary to watch if you're not a Barcelona fan. Montepaschi's 75 points in Week 4 is the only time this season a team scored more than 66 points against Barcelona. In the last three weeks, no team got more than 50 points versus the most demanding defense in Europe. This week things went well for Unics Kazan for three quarters, when the scoreboard showed 44-43 lead for the home team with 11 minutes to play. That, however, is when Barcelona's defense pushed into a higher gear. For the next 7 minutes, Unics didn't score a single point while Barcelona let rip a decisive 13-0 run. Unics head coach Evgeniy Pashutin made 14 substitutions in the first 30 minutes, then in the next 6 minutes made seven more in hopes of finding an answer to Barcelona's smothering defense. It didn't help. No less than 6 turnovers and 5 misses shots, most of them by perimeter players, led to the first road loss of the season by Unics.
Pianigiani's most impressive win
Very, very few teams at any level can lose their top three players in less than two weeks and still perform. Montepaschi Siena achieved that this week. On November 28, it was announced Rimas Kaukenas is out of service for several months with a knee injury and on December 4 the same announcement was made regarding Ksystof Lavrinovic's back injury. This week, Bo McCalebb couldn't travel to Istanbul due to a lesser injury. As such, Montepaschi arrived for a tough road game versus Galatasaray Medical Park without its three top scorers. In fact, that trio had registered 52.8% of the Siena's points, 33% of its rebounds, 50% of the assists, 57% of the steals and 45% of the team's three-pointers before this week. Nonetheless, Montepaschi still managed to win 63-67 in Turkey and with great style. What was left of head coach Simone Pianigiani's roster controlled the game from the start, even though their lead was never big. Even when GS Medical Park managed to take a fourth-quarter lead and feel the momentum its 11,300 fans, Montepaschi stayed in charge. David Andersen and Igor Rakocevic stepped into the scoring breach for Montepaschi, with 18 and 17 points, respectively. Despite the injuries, however, Montepaschi used a wide rotation of nine players. "I had to change completely everything inside my team in two or three days," Pianigiani said after the buzzer, but it felt the exact opposite. It was still Montepaschi basketball. In fact, it seemed like a victory for commitment to a system, one that can be efficient and win games even when "half the team" is gone in a matter of one week. Whatever the reason - a Montepaschi system that's bigger than its main players or a complete adjustment in a matter of days - this is one of the most impressive wins of many that Pianigiani has had in his six seasons on the Montepaschi bench.
Another Basile special
Nobody in the Euroleague has scored more three-pointers than Gianluca Basile. Coming into this week's road game at Gescrap BB in Bilbao, Spain, he had collected 395 of them. Some of them were huge. Some of them were crazy. Some were crucial. One sent Fortitudo Bologna to the 2004 Final Four. Seven of them came in a single game and led Barcelona to a huge win in the quarterfinal playoffs over Maccabi. Two of them fell through the net in the 2010 Euroleague final when Basile got to lift his first trophy with Barcelona. Yet he still found the way this week to make another three-pointer truly special. With the score tied at 64-64 in Bilbao and after going 1 out of 7 from the field the entire night he got the ball for the last 2.9 seconds. With pressure by the defense, from 9 meters away, without time to set his feet, it was a classic example of what Basile calls his "tiro ignorante", one that he throws up like a prayer when short on time. And, once again, Basile connected with this wildest of shots at the most perfect moment. This one put Bennet Cantu in the Top 16 before any other team from Group A. Since this is also Cantu's first Euroleague season after decades away, add another very special three-pointer to Basile's incredibly long list of them.
The battle in Charleroi between the local Belgacom Spirou and Partizan was a tough one. A win by Partizan would have secured the visitors a Top 16 ticket and eliminated Spirou with two regular season games left. Nervousness played a role as a fight between Miroslav Raduljica and Andre Riddick, resulting their ejections, showed. Yet inside all this tension was a third-quarter performance by Spirou that made the difference. After scoring 37 points in the first half, Spirou exploded with 32 points in the next 10 minutes, led by two forwards. Veteran Jiri Welsch scored 8 points without a miss and youngster Tornike Shengelia had 10 with just 2 misses. That was enough to create a nine-point gap that Spirou preserved for its second win, the first before its fans in Charleroi. It was bittersweet, however, because the final five-point difference was not enough for Spirou to stay in the Group C race. Spirou would have to win both of its last games while Partizan loses both, forcing a 5-5 tie, which Partizan would then break in its favor thanks to a 10-point win when they first met this season in Belgrade.
Final stretch ahead
The majority of the Top 16 spots - nine - are already spoken for, but the upcoming two weeks will provide great drama. The likely scenarios of a Partizan loss in Madrid and a win of EA7-Emporio Armani over Spirou in Milan would set up huge Week 10 fight in Belgrade between the locals and Milano for the last Top 16 ticket in Group C. Meanwhile, Group A continues to be tight as ever and any game can be decisive. A possible scenario can see Gescrap Bilbao host Caja Laboral in Week 10 for a Basque derby that will decide which of the two will advance to the Top 16. Group B is all mixed up, too, with just one victory separating four teams between third and sixth place. In Week 9, things can be solved or totally mixed again as Unicaja will try to end its four-game losing streak in Zagreb and Zalgiris will travel to Bamberg. So many tough and exciting battles all over Europe ahead of us before the end line of the regular season.
YARONE ARBEL - TEL AVIV, ISRAEL
Friday, December 09, 2011