Turkish Airlines Euroleague
May 22, 2013
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Second thoughts: Playoffs Games 1 and 2 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.
The first two games of the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Playoffs delivered as promised, but one game, the second in Athens, stood out. Hence, with all due respect to two wins by CSKA, Barcelona's success limiting Henry Domercant to zero three-pointers and Olympiacos getting the first road win, for the first time this season, most of the upcoming text will revolve around one of the best games the Euroleague has seen in years - and that is saying a lot!
Road wins in playoffs
Last season the playoffs started with four home wins in Game 1 and four road wins in Game 2. Maccabi's win in Athens and the near upset by Unics in Barcelona were enough to dig deeper into that. Since the Euroleague moved to a best-of-five playoff system in the playoffs in 2009, the home teams have prevailed 13 times against 3 road winners in Game 1, an 81% success rate. In Game 2 is a totally different story, however, as home teams won only 9 times alongside 7 defeats (56%). Since only one five-game series was ever swept 3-0 (CSKA-Partizan in 2008-09) Game 3 and 4 actually show us just how difficult it is to win back-to-back games, no matter who you are. In Game 3, home teams have now won 8 in 12 games so far (75%), while in Game 4 the split is 6-6 (50%). Yet that's not the final conclusion. Of the teams that lost their homecourt advantage in a playoff series, two managed to recover and four were eliminated eventually. The ones who recovered were Barcelona in 2010 and...Panathinaikos in 2009, when the Greens came back from dropping Game 2 at home to win the next two on the road and qualify. Both went on to become champions in those respective years. After a first best-of-five season in which all four teams with homecourt advantage won, the last two years saw an even split: four teams used to home court advantage to make the Final Four and four others who didn't need it. Only two series have reached Game 5, in both cases in matchups between Spanish teams, and in both cases the home team prevailed.
Olympiacos became only the third team to win Game 1 on the road, and it was one of the most impressive wins in the history of the playoffs. After its shocking elimination by Montepaschi Siena last season, despite holding the homecourt advantage and a mental on after a 48 point victory in Game 1, it was clear that Olympiacos had something to prove heading to Siena for the rematch. For three quarters, Siena was on top, but not too far in front, and it was very easy to see why Olympiacos was still in the game. The Reds were as aggressive as can be. Jumping on every loose ball, fighting for every possession. David Andersen, in a huge game with 28 points on 10-for-14 shooting from the field and 7 rebounds, seemed frustrated by the treatment from the very physical Reds. But that's how anyone who wants to win a playoff game in Siena must play. Surprisingly, in a way, the players who stood out in that great Olympiacos comeback effort were two who joined Olympiacos only a few weeks ago from other Euroleague teams eliminated in the regular season: Acie Law (previously with Partizan) and Joey Dorsey (Caja Laboral). They combined for 14 points, 12 rebounds and 6 assists but stood out with their style. Dorsey delivered several great plays on defense in the closing minutes. As a result, Montepaschi dropped a 70-63 lead and the game by losing 5-19 over the last 5 minutes.
The big blow
With 3 minutes to go in the first quarter of Game 1 in Athens, Maccabi point guard Keith Langford hit a three-pointer after a mix-up in the Panathinaikos defense. Dimitris Diamantidis spread his very-long wingspan to the sides in a typical Greek gesture of dissatisfaction. After Maccabi's next basket, which tied the score at 16-16, head coach Zeljko Obradovic called timeout and was half-way inside the court screaming at his players in a typical Serbian expression of dissatisfaction. At that time, Panathinaikos had made 6 of 6 two-point shots on layups or dunks. Coming back from the timeout, another dunk ignited a 22-0 run all the way to 40-18 that finished the story of Game 1. In the 13th minute, by which time they already had 40 points, the Greens had made 16 of 18 shot attempts. By the 25th minute, it was already a 33-point gap, and as Maccabi head coach David Blatt said after the game, his team could have lost by 50 points. "You know, basketball is a funny game," Blatt said. "You see something and after 20 days you cannot see it anymore." He was preparing the field for Thursday's Game 2.
And speaking of Game 2.... After it was over, around 3 a.m., a Facebook message arrived from a friend: "I'm watching the re-run of Panathinaikos-Maccabi and this is probably the best game I've seen over the last few years." When you watch a game live and feel involved, it's always good to outsource for opinions such as the one above. In case you missed it, be quick to catch-up. If you followed it, you probably felt the same way: this was clearly the best game of the season. Surely one of the best in recent years. A best-of-five series between two gigantic powerhouses such as Maccabi and Panathinaikos - two of the standard-bearers of European basketball in the 21st century - was promising from the start. The one-sided Game 1 victory by Panathinaikos set the stage for a Game 2 dripping with dramatic possibilities. And it delivered on that promise. No matter how this series develops, Game 2 will go down in Euroleague history books as one of the best games ever. This was European basketball at its highest capacity. The atmosphere, the rivalry, the tradition, the level, the history, the big stakes, the tension, the great execution and an underdog coming back from the grave with big pride were the big things. Big plays, under-the-radar players stepping up, clutch plays, even a crazy shot to win the game that was 0.3 seconds too late and forced overtime... All of it mixed to create a big drama to go down in history books. It was pure pleasure.
After the huge defeat in Game 1, many in Greece and Israel had big doubts about whether Maccabi could still make a sound in this series, yet the major theme heard from Maccabi people was the story of Montepaschi last season. Just a reminder, Olympiacos smashed and demolished Montepaschi Siena 89-41 in Game 1 but lost 65-82 in Game 2 and dropped the next two in Siena. That optimism turned into reality and in 48 hours we saw another amazing recovery. Maccabi is still far from winning this series, but after two years in a row of the 48-hour turnaround story, both in packed, strong home arenas in Greece, next time it happens we'll hear a different tone. Another spooky re-happening involving Maccabi came at the very last seconds of Game 2. Last season, Maccabi was down 1-0 and had the last ball in Vitoria in the closing ticks with the game tied. This season in Athens, the exact same scenario in Game 2 down 1-0 with the score tied and the last ball. Back then Jeremy Pargo hit the big shot. This season it took an overtime. As for Panathinaikos, the champs already dropped a Game 2 at home in the 2008-09 playoffs versus Montepaschi, they went on to win the next two games in Siena and the title in Berlin. But the Greens have never returned to a Final Four as defending champion. History sometimes repeats itself, but the present and future still hold a lot of surprises.
The secret of success - I
So how on earth did Maccabi win? How did it make the turn from an awful humiliation to one of its biggest wins in its history? Panathinaikos hit twice as many three-pointers and dished almost twice as many assists than Maccabi in Game 2. But Maccabi managed to screw up the Panathinaikos system. No team in Europe has a more clear system than the one of Panathinaikos and Coach Obradovic. But Maccabi filled the paint, even when its strongest big men, Sofoklis Schortsanitis and Richard Hendrix, fouled out in 9 and 14 minutes, respectively, and forced the Greens to play different than they are used to. During the season, Panathinaikos attempted 755 two-point shots and 362 three-pointers - more than twice as many shots inside the arc. On Thursday night, Panathinaikos took 29 shots inside the arc and 32 outside it. Coach Blatt won because he managed to sabotage the famously consistent system of Coach Obradovic. Maccabi won because it made Panathinaikos play outside its tendencies. When it comes to game planning, nothing is more important than to take a player or a team out of its comfort zone. Especially when you play against a team with as steady a system as the Euroleague champs have. "You want to beat us? Fine, do it outside your system!" On Thursday, Panathinaikos didn't...
The unofficial record
Just how much Panathinaikos was out of its system was demonstrated by its "unofficial" new Euroleague team high in three-point attempts. OK, its official record is 35 and this game went to overtime, but here's a breakdown to show why there was a record on Thursday night, at least as far as games that really count. The 35 three-point tries that are the team's official high was registered in the closing game of the regular season of 2009 against Asseco Prokom. A game that had no meaning for the future of Panathinaikos that season, as everything was decided by then. The next two highs are two games that went to overtime - the one from Thursday and last season's game in Ljubljana. So it's overtime, there are five extra minutes, of course they'll have more attempts! Well, wrong. Against Maccabi Panathinaikos took only two shots from the arc in the extra time, much less than in Ljubljana last year, so it reached the 40-minute mark with 30 attempts from three-point land. The table of records shows that Panathinaikos also made 31 three-point attempts in a road win over SLUC Nancy and 30 more in a Top 16 game with Benetton Basket that went to overtime. In fact, the 32 attempts by Panathinaikos broke a record for the current playoffs format, whether best-of-three or -five, since it started in 2005. Alas, CSKA was just as trigger-happy on Friday night and promptly tied Panathinaikos with 32 triple tries of its own.
The change in Diamantidis
The rain of three-point attempts by Panathinaikos called for a check on how it got there, and the nine attempts of Dimitris Diamantidis stood out, enough to call for a quick check of whether that's his career high. Well, no. Diamantidis already had 11 attempts from the arc, earlier this season when he made 2 triples in the last 11 seconds to beat Unicaja in Malaga. Now take a look at DD's
career-high three-point attempts, by game
. Perhaps it's not a huge shock. When guards get older they tend to rely more on outside shots. Plus, in the last two seasons, since the departure of Vasilis Spanoulis, Diamantidis role is to score more than in previous years. Still, this list stands out because of his top 10 games in terms of three-point attempts, no less than nine of them come from this season and last.
The secret of success - II
So, yes, Panathinaikos was out of its system, but Maccabi also played much, much better in Game 2 than in Game 1. And with all the respect, that is not because Maccabi is as good a team as Panathinaikos, but because of mental toughness and some players stepping up big. Yogev Ohayon, a Euroleague rookie, used the occasion to score 15 points, his first game in double-digits all season. Those 15 points included 2 three-pointers, one from seven meters at the end of the shot clock that touched nothing but net and another with the Euroleague's top defender shadowing him during the last 5 minutes of regulation time. Just for the record, Ohayon made just 3 of 15 three-point tries (20%) the whole season until Game 2. Next was another Euroleague rookie, Shawn James, who also had his season-high of 7 points to go with 5 rebounds in 17 minutes. He got similar playing time in just three previous games this season, all in the regular season. Even Theo Papaloukas, who got very limited credit during the season and was sent on the floor late in the fourth quarter when Ohayon got in foul trouble, stepped up with 5 points of intelligence, leadership and experience to stop Panathinaikos's momentum after it had closed a 10-point gap.
This is David Blu's third stint in Maccabi and his third season of the current one. Nobody and nothing is a better barometer of Maccabi's success in playoff games than Blu. In his first season back in Tel Aviv this stint, in 2009-10, Maccabi lost to underdog Partizan 1-3 and won only Game 2. That was the only game among the four in which Blu scored in double-digits. Last season, Maccabi beat Caja Laboral 3-1 after dropping Game 1. Take a wild guess in which game of that series Blu didn't score in double-digits. This season the same story. Only five points in Game 1 and 16 points in Game 2. To magnify it, look how at Thursday's game finished. Blu scored the last points for Maccabi in regulation time, on what could have been the winning shot, but overtime didn't confuse him. His 2 consecutive huge three-pointers in the last minute of the extra period moved Maccabi from being down 90-87 to up 92-93. He finished with 16 points, 8 of them after the game's 39th minute. Now guess who might get special attention in the Panathinaikos game plan for Game 3.
It would be hard to say that Maccabi got lucky when Langford's crazy-lucky game-winning attempt on the 40-minute mark was ruled to be 0.3 seconds late. Then again, in overtime, there 3 key free throws missed by two of Europe's all-time best clutch players, Sarunas Jasikevicius and Dimitris Diamantidis. But Maccabi didn't win because of luck. No way. What gave Maccabi the extra push to go over the top were intangibles, things that probably weren't in the game plan nor worked on repeatedly in practice. It takes nothing from Maccabi's win. Rather, it shows how much strength and power flows in the tradition and legacy of such clubs. Maccabi won this game with things that were beyond basketball. The same intangibles that created "the shot" of Derrick Sharp's back in the 2003-04 season won Game 2 in Athens.
Yarone Arbel, Euroleague.net
Saturday, March 24, 2012
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