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Second thoughts: Playoffs Games 3 and 4 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.
Bunnies on the chess board
"There are no bunnies in the hat. It's not a zoo, it's basketball. If there are any bunnies there are very small ones," said Maccabi head coach David Blatt at the press conference on Wednesday before Game 4. Well, Blatt stood by his word. The bunny he pulled out of Maccabi's hat was indeed very small. Actually the smallest. Demond Mallet is the smallest guy on Maccabi, and the least expected tool Blatt could have used down the stretch in Game 4. Mallet had scored just a single basket since Week 4 of the Top 16. He didn't play at all in Game 3. He had been on the floor for only a few seconds in Game 4 before Blatt sent him out there with 6 minutes to go and his team down by 4. Mallet is a veteran and a great shooter. Maccabi was having an awful shooting day. Mallet has shot 37% on three-pointers during his Euroleague career, but on open looks his accuracy is much higher. The problem was that Blatt had to give up on Ohayon to give space to Mallet. In this great series, the battle between Coach Obradovic and Coach Blatt seems like a chess game. Another great coach, Ettore Messina, once wrote in his blog that when you reach a certain level of credibility people will credit you even for things you didn't do. Perhaps that's what Blatt earns in these next lines, but it seemed like what he tried to do by taking out Ohayon and playing Mallet was to "sacrifice his queen", as Ohayon was clearly a very important tool on Maccabi's board.
What did Blatt get in return? Panathinaikos was not ready for Mallet. So in 3 minutes, Mallet got no less than three wide open looks from the left wing and corner. Nothing more a coach can ask for. Mallet's first shot went in to make it a one-point game for the first time since the 13th minute. It looked like the most brilliant move. On the next play, Maccabi took the lead and Nokia Arena was shaking. Panathinaikos answered quickly, but then Mallet got another open look, down by 1. He missed. With a bit over 2 minutes to play, still down by a point, Mallet got another open look. He missed again. If one of theat last pair of three-point attempts had dropped, it might have been a totally different story, with Maccabi in a much better position to win. Blatt earned a lot of heat from fans and media for not playing Ohayon the last minutes, and going with Mallet. He deserves kudos at least for his bravery. The open looks Mallet got tell that in that specific segment on the chess board Blatt beat Obradovic, yet unlike on the chess board the masters don't depend on themselves.
"We prepare and talk before the game, but at the end it's the job of the players to execute," Coach Obradovic said after Game 4, talking about his own team, but actually foretelling the difference between Blatt's win on the chess board against his own win on the floor.
Romance in Bilbao
Gescrap BB was probably the most likely team to be swept. The fact that it won Game 3, in such a convincing way, and came so close to winning Game 4, was romantic in a way. It was a beautiful thing for the Euroleague, for a club in its first-ever Euroleague visit and its fans to show that they can match up with one of the greatest clubs in European history at such a stage against such a roster. To show that differences in competitive level aren't so wide in the Euroleague. It was an example for just how difficult it is to sweep a five-game Euroleague playoff series. CSKA earned a good lesson before the Final Four. If the Russian giant felt like it wasn't focused in Game 3, even after that wake-up call, it had to spit blood to win Game 4. Its Final Four opponent - the winner between Panathinaikos and Maccabi - will bring more experience, tradition and depth than the Gescrap team of head coach Fotis Katsikaris. It was a 3-1 CSKA win, but Bilbao's ability to keep the dream going into Game 4, almost to Game 5, achieved by playing the Bilbao basketball style we saw all season, was a great farewell gift by Bilbao to its fans and the Euroleague.
Threes and TOs
"Maccabi had a great first half and that's what earned them the win," concluded Panathinaikos head coach Zeljko Obradovic after Game 3. Here's what happened in details. Maccabi's 4 three-pointers in the first quarter of Game 3 created a double-digit margin. From day one of the season Maccabi was one of the Euroleague's worst three-point shooting teams, averaging just 5.2 per game all season. In 10 minutes, then, Maccabi almost "spent" all its ammunition. That was it. For the rest of the game Maccabi didn't add a single three-pointer in five attempts. And then in Game 4, Maccabi went 4 for 23 from long range. Together, that's 4 made threes in 28 attempts over the last seven quarters of the series. On the other side were the Panathinaikos turnovers. In the first half of Game 3, the Greens seemed lost on offense, with seven different players making 11 turnovers. Its season average is 12.5. Just like Maccabi, the Greens "spent" all that ammo in that first half. The next half and Game 4 aligned the figures. From half time of Game 3 till the final buzzer of Game 4, Panathinaikos turned the ball over just 14 more times. Enough to bring the series back to Athens.
The sweetest sweep
It's always interesting when a top scorer meets a top defensive team. That was the situation when Henry Domercant arrived to the series against FC Barcelona Regal. Coming into the playoffs, he averaged 16.3 points and 2.7 three-pointers with an amazing 51% accuracy rate from outside the arc and 40% inside it. It soon became clear, however, that Barcelona had prepared well for him, and it worked. Domercant averaged only 11 points over three games against Barcelona, including just 2 points in Game 2, when he didn't score a single field goal and for the first time all season didn't connect from the arc. For the series, his numbers dropped to just 1.6 threes made at a 38.4% rate and an even steeper drop to 23.5% on two-point shots. Unics, one of the Euroleague's five best three-point shooting teams this season in both quantity and efficiency fell to just 5 per game at 34.8% versus Barcelona. After a great debut season, Unics walks away with the bitter taste of six losses in a row to finish the competition, but still deserves tons of credit for a special season.
The new Nick
When Panathinaikos eliminated Barcelona last season, the x-factor was a young point guard who until that point played solid, but then stepped up at the right time and was a major reason Panathinaikos made it. Nick Calathes played a key part in stopping Juan Carlos Navarro last year while adding 7.8 points on 50% shooting from the floor. The x-factor in the current Panathinaikos-Maccabi series has sort of the same background story of Calathes. Maccabi guard Yogev Ohayon is in his debut season in the Euroleague. He did more than people expected before this series, but in the last three games displayed things that nobody expected of him - or surely not with consistency in the crucible of the playoffs. He did enough for the great Coach Obradovic to say after Game 3: "We need to see how to stop Ohayon." That is probably the biggest compliment a player can get. Ohayon scored 69 points in the first 16 games of the season and 39 in the first four of this playoff series. He scored 3 three-pointers at a 23% rate until the playoffs, and has hit 4 of 10 with the money was on the table. He dished 41 assists prior to the series and 13 during it. More than figures, Ohayon has been the floor manager of Maccabi. He's the main reason his team was two minutes from eliminating Panathinaikos.
Undersize and overtough
When Olympiacos won Game 3 by 20 points on a day Vasilis Spanoulis scored just 2, his Euroleague lowest scoring performance ever, it was clear that Olympiacos had huge momentum. All in all, Olympiacos won the series with Siena 3-1, but its only loss was by a single point despite having the ball to shoot for a last-second victory. It was no longer a team that depends so much on one superstar. The one who stepped up big time in the entire series, but mostly in the last two games in Piraeus, was Kyle Hynes. The best undersized inside player in the history of the Euroleague, who came from a small college and spent two seasons in the Italian second division, exploded against a team that failed to see his talent when he played in its country. Hines averaged 14.5 points on 53.5% shooting with 5.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in the series, but kept the show for the last two games: 15 points and 9 rebounds in Game 3 were the warm up for 19 points, 7 rebounds and 4 blocks in Game 4. The Charles Barkley of the Euroleague, if you're looking for a title. A 1.98-meter, at best, power forward with an unbelievable wingspan, mixed with great toughness and aggressiveness. Hines is going to the Final Four.
Upswing at the finish
Aaron Jackson of Gescrap is one of those players who has a big swing in his game. Some players have swings within the same 40 minutes. Jackson depends on the day, but when he's on an upswing, he goes higher than most of the point guards in the Euroleague. This season he had 7 games with performance index ratings of 5 or less, just 3 games between 6 and 12 ratings, and 10 with higher than 12. He was on fire in that huge win over Real Madrid that put Gescrap in the playoffs, with 15 points, 10 assists and a 28 index rating. In the series against CSKA, he showed up to all the games, but especially the last two. In Game 3 and 4 he averaged 16 points on 54% shooting from the floor, 8 assists, 1 turnover and a 21.5 index rating to leave a great memory from this season from him and from his team.
Saras bounces back
Game 3 was the first Euroleague game for Sarunas Jasikevicius in Nokia Arena not wearing the yellow jersey of Maccabi. Lately, he had been on fire, starting with a great performance in Kazan that gave Panathinaikos homecourt advantage in the playoffs. He continued with two good games in Athens against Maccabi. When he arrived to Tel Aviv, it was a story to keep media and fans happy. While Maccabi fans are known for paying respect to the greatest players in European basketball, even playing on opposing teams, some fans gave Saras a different treatment. They chose, for some reason, to boo him each time he went on and off the floor, a treatment very few players ever received at Nokia Arena. It got to him. In Game 3 he spent 11:48 minutes on the floor and went scoreless with 2 assists. Yet Jasikevicius had 48 hours to prepare for his little payback. In Game 4, he silenced the booing fans with 13 points, shooting 5 for 8 from the field with 3 assists in 21 minutes. Eight of those points he scored in the last quarter, when the season was on the line, just like he had done almost everywhere he played unti. now. That was surely true when he was in Tel Aviv, where his only two seasons also were also the only back-to-back title years of any Euroleague team since 1991.
The revolution is complete
It was mentioned here before but now, once done, it's worth mentioning again. The huge changes in Olympiacos in the last summer, that made some people consider the Reds as a Top 16 team at best, prove that money isn't everything in the Euroleague. After cutting its budget by more than a half and disassembling a roster of superstars, Olympiacos actually made better results. And it did so against the same team, Siena, that stopped the "Big Olympiacos" dream a year ago. It did that by keeping one local hero and surrounding him with aggressive and physical players. It did that by building a team.
The old Nick
If you were looking for a face to attach to Panathinaikos's bad first half in Game 3, it was the one of Nick Calathes. The figures weren't so bad but it looked bad on the floor. His game was on the passive and insecure side. In the last quarter, he added 2 turnovers and missed twice from the arc down with his team down by three, including the shot on the buzzer that would have forced overtime. Yet Game 4 was a totally new story. Calathes started the game with 5 points and 2 assists in the first 8 minutes, and took over the game for three quarters. There are clutch players that make the key plays down the stretch, but there's another type of clutch player. Those who make the momentum plays early in the biggest games. Or make the timely play to break a run by the opponent. Or push the gap from 5 to 8. That's what Calathes did on Thursday night. That's one of the main reasons that a Panathinaikos repeat dream is still alive.
Enforcing the speed limit
There's no question. The one who put Montepaschi in the playoffs with the home court advantage was speed demon Bo McCabebb, in one of the best seasons a point guard has ever had in the Euroleague. He entered the playoffs averaging 17.3 points with an unbelievable 67.6% of his two-point shotas and 58.3% of three-pointers going in the basket. Against Olympiacos in Game 2, the only one that Montepaschi won in the series, with Bo stealing the last ball from the hands of Olympiacos, he scored as he did the rest of the season: 21 points on 8-for-11 shooting. Yet in Siena's three losses it was a much different story. McCalebb had no games with more than 15 points and no game shooting better than 50% from the floor. His averaged on the three losses 13.3 points on 42.3% inside the arc and 40% from the perimeter. In Game 4, he wrote his season low with 10 points, making only 4 of 11 shots. Add some crucial mistakes in the fourth quarter of Game 1, and the fact that in the last minutes in Game 4 the ball was in the hands of Nikos Zisis, not McCalebb, and you get an idea of how Olympiacos won, by limiting the Euroleague's top scorer this season.
Keep this in mind: the only two losses of CSKA this season were on the road to teams making their Euroleague debuts, Galatasaray and Bilbao. Both teams have no star players, a great coach, a functioning system and were crystal clear underdogs against the Russian powerhouse. That's why the Game 3 loss and the very close Game 4 clincher were the best wakeup call CSKA could get before the Final Four in Istanbul. The last time CSKA dominated the Euroleague this way was in the 2004-05 season, when it got upset in the semifinals in Moscow.
Rebounds are often a great sign to how much effort and energy a team has on the floor. The offensive rebound celebration of Olympiacos in the second half of Game 4 portrayed that. In the last 17 minutes of its most crucial game of the season, Siena grabbed 11 defensive rebounds under its rim while giving up 10 offensive boards to Olympiacos. For 7 minutes of the third quarter, Siena didn't grab even a single defensive rebound. A bad shooting day of Olympiacos is all that kept the game open until the last minutes, but if Siena had rebounded the ball better, it might be playing Game 5 next week in Siena.
Yarone Arbel, Euroleague.net
Monday, April 02, 2012
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