Second thoughts: Top 16, Week 3 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.
No breathtaking finishes in the Turkish Airlines Euroleague this week, but enough action to start to paint the playoffs qualifiers in light colors. The strong colors could arrive next week as all the same opponents will face each other again. And when two Greek teams beat their Turkish opponents by double-digit margins, when Maccabi is losing on the road and gets in trouble, when Milano scores only 44 points, well, you know next week will be all about responding.
Week of wide gaps
In very unusual and unlikely fashion for the Top 16, this week produced almost nothing but one-sided games. Remember the close races in regular season Group A and the nights when one buzzer-beater followed another around the Euroleague? Not this week. The smallest margin in all eight games was the eight-point win of Cantu, and even there the winners had four chances in the last minute to make it double-digits. The second-smallest margin was 14 in Barcelona against visiting Zalgiris. Actually all the games but the first mentioned were decided in a span of nine points, between 14 and 23 points. Moreover, five of the games saw the eventual winners already enjoying a double-digit gap at the halftime break. That doesn't include the CSKA win, which was assumed to be the most likely result before tip-off, so with that one, we're at six out of eight games somewhat clear already at halftime. Only Olympiacos used a fourth-quarter run for its big win, while Cantu-Maccabi is last on the list. The beauty is that Week 4 is the mirror of this week. The pairs will be exactly the same, just on opposite courts. Such differences at such a high level usually hint that there's an obvious gap between the two sides. It will no great shock if we witness double-digit wins for the same sides again when Barcelona travels to Kaunas, Unicaja to Siena, CSKA to Istanbul and Unics to Milano. After all, three of those pairs are #1 seeds vs. #4 seeds. If on those and other courts next week we see similar displays as we saw this week, a pretty clear picture of the playoffs qualifiers will take shape.
The story of 44
The huge win in Belgrade in regular season Week 10 that saved EA7 Emporio Armani Milan the last ticket to the Top 16 was the sweetest moment for that team, which came back from the grave in the toughest arena possible. Milan showed an impressive mental toughness that was already discussed here. Yet in the Top 16, Milan has shown the opposite, breaking down easily or falling into passiveness for long stretches. Wednesday night was a low point. Unics already set a Euroleague defensive record earlier this season at home, and now it held Milan to just 44 points. The four big moves Milan made this summer – veterans Omar Cook and Ioannis Bourousis teaming up with two Euroleague champs, Antonio Fotsis and Drew Nicholas – failed to produce the big-game experience that was thought to be Milan's strength. In Kazan, that quartet combined for just 16 points and 21.7% shooting from the floor, with just 2 free throws made. Milan's entire starting line-up combined for 17 points total on 19.3% shooting from the floor. Its 44 total points and 32.3% two-point accuracy are Milan's all-time lows in the Euroleague. Its second- and third-worst scoring performances ever – 54 and 57 points – were recorded in this season, as well.
Siena's déjà vu in Spain
Locked in a group with three Spanish opponents – a first in this competition – Montepaschi Siena is making it look easy so far. Siena finished two of its trips to Spain with double-digit wins so far. Later in the Top 16, it will head to Bilbao in hopes of finishing a potentially huge road sweep over three Spanish teams. Its performances in Madrid and Malaga were accomplished in great – and pretty much similar – style, in the final score, the timing, the quickness and the reason behind it. Last week it was 69-88 and this week 68-91. In Madrid, the guests took a 15-31 lead in the first quarter. In Malaga it was "just" 19-27, but considering that Unicaja scored the game's first 7 points, Siena won the remaining 7 minutes of the first quarter by 12-27. And if in Madrid it was a Bo McCalebb's first-quarter show that lit the spark, so it was in Malaga, too, where he scored 11 points without a miss to ignite what was Siena's newest highest margin of victory in a Top 16 road win – 4 points more than its old highest margin, one week earlier.
If Unics head coach Evgeny Pashutin was praised here last week for his team's great performance in defeating Panathinaikos in Athens, this week it's time to pay the same respect to Bennet Cantu boss Andrea Trinchieri. Already in his debut Euroleague season, with one of the lowest budgets in the competition, Trinchieri is showing why he was Coach of the Year for two consecutive seasons in the Italian League. Cantu isn't the most skilled team around but surely one of the better coached, playing tough defense on one end and moving the ball by the book at the other. There's a system. There's a pattern. In basketball language, there are the fingerprints of a coach. But fingerprints are nice only when they are left on Ws, right? Well, what we see first might be teams beating teams and players outplaying players. But behind the scenes are basketball minds at work, and so far this season Trinchieri has defeated a trio of greats in former Euroleague champion Dusan Ivkovic of Olympiacos, multiple national league winner Dusko Ivanovic of Caja Laboral and now EuroBasket champion David Blatt. All three wins were at home. On the road, Cantu and Trinchieri lost by double digits to the teams of Ivanovic and Ivkovic. If that happens in Tel Aviv as well to Blatt, Maccabi will have the tie-breaker and Cantu, most probably, will conclude a great debut season in the Top 16. If Cantu and Trinchieri protect their eight-point win from this week, they will be in a great position to eliminate Maccabi and become a hot topic all over Europe. A great season could turn huge. Either way, the fingerprints are there.
Last week, Sergio Rodriguez had his worst performance of the season when he scored 3 points, missed all 6 shots from the field and dished no assists at all as Real Madrid lost at home to Siena. In this week's 16-point win over Gescrap BB, he recovered big-time, with a season-high 20 points, making 6 of 6 shots and distributing 7 dishes. Now that's bouncing back! Looking deeper into his performance shows how Rodriguez split his contribution. He had 5 points and 3 assists for a hand in 11 points of Madrid's 21-12 first-quarter lead. When Gescrap, whose roster has five former Madrid players, rallied to cut the difference from 16 points to 69-65. That's when Sergio stepped up again, leading his team with 7 points and 2 assists – another combination of 11 points – out of Madrid's last 17, enough to make the difference in a bounce-back victory for his team.
Big-time big man
Rodriguez wasn't the only reason Madrid won it big. If he had his big contribution in the first and last quarter, in between it was big man Mirza Begic who created Madrid's big cushion. In a span of 8 minutes in the second quarter, Begic was everywhere. Two offensive rebounds and one on the defensive end were the appetizer for 12 points without a miss, most of them around the rim, his natural surroundings. Interestingly, none of those points came off an assist. When he took the floor, Madrid was up by 7 points. When he returned to the bench, the difference had more than doubled, to 18.
Cantu's big win was the result of a great 7-0 run early in the last quarter that with a bit more focus and experience could have been bigger. In those minutes, Maccabi saw the great Sofoklis Schortsanitis jammed inside the paint by the defense of Cantu, whose offense was hitting hard on the other end. But missing four chances in the last minute to win by double digits could haunt Cantu next week in Tel Aviv. The difference between a three-possession and a four-possession game can be very big sometimes. Psychology has room here as well, since a double-digit difference always seems more intimidating than a single-digit one. Still, if someone had offered Cantu an eight-point victory before Thursday's game with Maccabi, they would have taken it with a big smile. One of the things that helped Cantu most was Maccabi's softness on defense. Cantu had the worst two-point accuracy in the Top 16 – below 48% – and ranked in the bottom third in points per game. Nonetheless, Cantu scored a season high of 49 points in the first half. What's more, that scoring came with 66% accuracy inside the arc. Cantu's off-ball movement, passing game and smarts abused that Maccabi softness and converted points of every kind, from its big men, wing players and guards. It was a beautiful team effort that took advantage of the type of softness that never wins in the Top 16 and isn't typical of this Maccabi team.
Panathinaikos's reaction to its uncomfortable home loss to Unics last week was quick. So quick, in fact, that by next week, in their home rematch with Fenerbache Ulker, the champs can decide the qualifiers from Group G. In a potentially tough situation on Thursday in Istanbul, the Greens took care of business quickly and efficiently, holding the hosts from FB Ulker to one basket in the game's first 8 minutes, a long jump shot by Kaya Peker. Whoever tried to enter the paint of Panathinaikos, however, was met by aggression. Lots of aggression. The result was bad shots that made FB Ulker miss 8 of its first 9 attempts. That was the defensive side. On the other end of the floor, the plan was clear and simple; push the ball to Mike Batiste and bomb outside with Kostas Kaimakoglou. The 34-year-old center was on fire from the start. Panathinaikos had a 2-15 lead after 7 minutes during which Batiste scored 10 points with just one miss. Kaimakoglou hit 3 three-pointers without a miss, twice on assists by Batiste, and had 11 first-quarter points. Together, they combined for 22 points of their team's 24 points in the opening quarter. Enough for a 15-point gap. Enough to decide the game.
Remember the name
Last week, Kostas Sloukas hit the shot of the season, forcing overtime in Istanbul, where his Olympiacos team eventually lost to Galatasaray Medical Park. Every Euroleague fan will remember his name for that shot. This week, as the Reds downed Anadolu Efes by 18 points, he made things happen with "real basketball". Right after Efes forced a 53-53 tie to start of the fourth quarter, Sloukas took over and scored 8 points without a miss by using the four basic ways to score: a layup, the freee throw that came with it, a two-point jumper and a three-pointer. Olympiacos used his points for an 11-0 run that Efes never came back from. With CSKA undefeated for the season, Olympiacos is likely battling with Efes and GS Medical Park for the other playoffs berth from their group. If the Reds are able to survive, remember his miraculous shot, yes, but also remember how Sloukas didn't need luck to spark an 18-point Olympiacos win against Efes from what was a tie game with 10 minutes left.
Yarone Arbel - Euroleague.net
Friday, February 03, 2012