Round 22 opened Thursday with four games and four home winners. The reasons Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv, Valencia Basket, Panathinaikos Superfoods Athens and Unicaja Malaga won varied, but in nearly every situation there was one player at the heart of the proceedings. The EuroLeague gurus reveal who and why.
Jackson serves as Maccabi's closer
In professional baseball, there is a concept of the relief pitcher who generally only comes in to play when his team is leading in the final inning. He is called the closer and his job is to close out the win by making sure the opposing team does not rally late. Because the closer is always pitching in high-leverage situations, it takes a certain type of person to thrive in that role. Of course such a position does not lend itself to basketball, but if it did, Maccabi’s closer would be Pierre Jackson.
The diminutive guard, who debuted in the EuroLeague a few seasons ago with Fenerbahce, reintroduced himself this season with an explosive fourth quarter on opening night in which he scored 14 points to seal a victory in Bamberg. Jackson has been delivering late for Maccabi all season and last night was no exception.
Jackson struggled over the first three quarters against Barcelona. Entering the fourth quarter, Jackson had made more turnovers (4) than scored points (3). And then, after a Pau Ribas three-pointer gave Barcelona a 67-68 edge, Jackson hit a three. And he remained hot the rest of the game. Jackson recorded 15 points on 4-of-6 three-point shooting in the fourth quarter. He added 2 assists and did not commit a turnover. After producing a performance index rating of negative-2 through three quarters, Jackson had 17 in the fourth.
After the game, Coach Neven Spahija was asked how come he turned to Jackson in the fourth, even though he had struggled until that points. “He is one of the most talented players I have [coached] in my career,” Spahija said. “You cannot give up on him. This year, we lost one game with a bad performance by him. It’s tough to keep that talent on the bench, even if he isn’t playing his best game. In the end, this time we had it right and he did what he usually does, just in a short amount of time.”
Close games, high-leverage spots, players are tired, the pressure is on. That is when Pierre Jackson, Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv’s closer, shines brightest.
Valencia celebrates De Colo's return
Valencia Basket fans welcomed back CSKA Moscow star guard Nando De Colo with a warm ovation, so long that it stopped his team's presentation - he was the first player to step on court off his team's bench. De Colo not only started his Turkish Airlines EuroLeague career with Valencia, but also has deep roots in this city. His wife, Vero Compañ, is from Valencia and the two first met in this city, before they got married and had their first daughter, Lola De Colo. Nando joined Valencia at the start of the 2008-09 season and played there for three years. He helped the club to its second EuroCup title in the 2009-10 season, for which he was chosen to the All-EuroCup First Team after averaging 13.6 points in 14 games. The following season, De Colo took Valencia to the EuroLeague playoffs and they came within one win of making it to the Final Four. It took De Colo 2,078 days to get back to Pabellon Fuente de San Luis, but he made it back last night surrounded by family and friends - he requested 30 tickets for this game to have everyone covered.
"She will be in the game and my parents will be in the game, too, all my family will be there. We asked for 30 tickets and they will come to support me. This is good. It is the first time I am going back to Valencia and it will be a special moment," De Colo said before the game. "It was my first professional experience as a foreigner. We tried to fight every year to be the best team in Spain. It is not an easy championship. I remember, at this moment, Barcelona and Madrid were the best two teams by far and it was not easy to beat them. We won the EuroCup and had a pretty good season in the EuroLeague," he added. De Colo arrived as a shy kid from France and returned as a EuroLeague superstar, champion and former MVP.
De Colo started the game and hit his first shot - a three-pointer from the right wing. He soon connected again from downtown and added another one before the end of the first quarter. With Valencia leading 39-30, De Colo rescued CSKA with r unanswered points and scored again seconds before the break. De Colo led all scorers at halftime with 15 points, but the first half belonged to Valencia and Alberto Abalde, as his team led 49-42 behind his 14 points. With the game on the line and Valencia leading 82-68, De Colo had 10 points in crunch time to bring his team back to life, 91-89, with three minutes left. He finished the game with 30 points, matching his career-high, but in the end, Valencia prevailed 103-99 and remains undefeated at home against CSKA - two games, two wins.
Gabriel brings the energy to fire Panathinaikos
One man made the difference when Panathinaikos Superfoods Athens overcame Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz on Thursday night: Kenny Gabriel. The home team struggled in the first quarter, especially on offense as Baskonia moved into an 11-18 lead. But then Gabriel entered the fray, and the complexion of the game changed very quickly indeed. His first meaningful piece of action, with 1:57 remaining in the first, was to grab a defensive rebound. Then he hit a triple. Then another. Then he made a steal, before finishing the period by drawing a foul. And he was only just started.
Naturally, after starting like that Gabriel was left on the floor by Coach Xavi Pascual for the second quarter, and his fireworks continued as he sank another pair of three-pointers, grabbed a rebound, drew a foul, scored a two-pointer, drew a foul, made a steal, drew another foul and scored a free throw. By this stage Panathinaikos had turned a 7-point deficit into a 4-point lead, and Gabriel’s frenetic burst of activity over the course of eight minutes (15 points, 2 rebounds, 2 steals and 4 fouls drawn) was undoubtedly the main reason why. Gabriel did not score again, but that didn’t matter as his teammates stepped up their collective efforts – especially on defense – to suck the life out of Baskonia until the final four minutes, by which stage it was too late to change the outcome.
Afterwards, Gabriel noted that he had been sent onto the floor by Coach Pascual with one specific objective: “I’ve really been in the gym working hard, coming in early and shooting the ball, and today was about bringing energy off the bench. We didn’t make a great start, so when the coach called me I just wanted to bring energy and help the team.” Energy he certainly did provide, and a lot more besides, acting as the catalyst that gave its team an important victory in the race for home-court advantage.
Depleted Unicaja finds a way
Unicaja got itself a nice win on Thursday night against Anadolu Efes Istanbul. It not only kept it alive in the playoff race, but it snapped Unicaja’s streak of five losses in the last six games, and it was particularly important because Unicaja was without Nemanja Nedovic and Jeff Brooks. “We are happy other guys are stepping up when we miss guys like we missed Nedovic and Brooks tonight,” Coach Joan Plaza said in his post-game interview, and the guy that delivered with game on the line on Thursday night was the team’s sharpshooter Adam Waczynski who was clutch, scoring 8 of his game-high 20 points in a 14-3 game-ending run.
Unicaja was up by 15 points in the third quarter, and led by double digits early in the fourth, however Efes guard Errick McCollum caught his rhythm and Unicaja’s win was as in jeopardy as any team’s win is in jeopardy when McCollum catches fire. However, in the final three and a half minutes, Unicaja found a way to step it up on both sides of the ball.
Unicaja scored on its final six possessions after scoring only 4 points in the first six and half minutes of the final quarter. The first basket, a tip-in in a crowd by Augustine, was a pure hustle play before a pair of triples from Waczynski, who was clearly feeling it. He finished 2 of 2 for two pointers and 3 for 4 from downtown on the night, and made all 7 free throws. He even hit one triple in the third quarter that was erased because he stepped with his heel on the sideline. And while giving its hot shooter great looks when it mattered, Unicaja did an equally impressive job on the defensive end. After making it a 65-65 affair, Efes actually got only one point on its next four trips down the floor, as Unicaja’s defense made pure effort plays, forcing two turnovers, and James Augustine coming up with a big blocked shot. It was a truly strong finish to the game by Unicaja to pull out this win.