Road teams laid low for most of Round 22, but as Friday drew to a close they ambushed their hosts with a pair of monumental victories that could reverberate for the rest of the season. Check out all that happened with the EuroLeague Gurus as your guide.
Vesely's no one-trick pony
We are used to seeing him make one spectacular dunk after another, often in the same game. Jan Vesely's combination of length, athleticism and aggressiveness often mean that he's as likely to be seen swinging from the rim as anywhere on the basketball court. And true enough, when Brose Bamberg got so close to Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul with 5 minutes left on Friday that Zeljko Obradovic had to call a timeout, Vesely returned to form. He rammed his team's next miss with two-handed ferocity, then sprinted behind Brad Wanamaker on a fastbreak to flush a Statue of Liberty dunk.
But this time those slams were deceiving. Until then, Vesely's only grab of the rim came on a one-handed put-back dunk early in the game. In between, he was busy showing an assortment of offensive talent he doesn't usually get credit for: a spin and bank shot, a jump hook, a tip-in that required great touch, a driving layup, a sweet jumper just inside the three-point line. Before his late dunks, Vesely made 7 of 10 two-point shots , and each was different from the previous one.
What's more, he went to the free throw line and hit 8 of 10 attempts. And the news there is that it's no longer news when Vesely makes free throws. His tough night at the Final Four two years ago is history. His free throw accuracy has risen 25% in the two years to its current 69.4%, which is more than respectable for a center.
We forget that Vesely was once a three-point threat, hitting 40% and 35.7% from downtown, respectively, in his second and third EuroLeague seasons with Partizan Belgrade. He's in no danger of becoming a pick-and-pop specialist at Fenerbahce, where his has tried just 7 triples in four seasons. But to think of Vesely as a one-trick dunker on offense is short-sighted.
His 26 points on Friday were the second most of his 161-game EuroLeague career, as were his 8 offensive rebounds, and his performance index rating of 36 was his career high. He couldn't have timed his great game better as Fenerbahce otherwise struggled to find any rhythm against Bamberg. That Vesely could turn into a go-to scorer is not a total surprise. But that he did it as a move-maker and free throw shooter, with just three dunks, is worth remembering when the biggest games of the season roll around.
Zvezda rules boards, and Milan
Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade registered a no-doubt-about-it win over the visiting AX Milan on Friday night, keeping alive its playoff chances. It was Zvezda's fourth win in as many tries against Milan over the last two season, and this one at the Aleksandar Nikolic Hall in the Serbian capital was an offensive fest. Zvezda made more than 60% of its two-point shots last night and connected on half of its three-point attempts (9-for-18). Milan had even better percentages, 62.2% for two, and 52.9% for three, but Zvezda attempted 11 more and made 6 more two-point shots than Milan. The hosts scored 50 points in each half, and did so mainly thanks to a 31-21 rebounding advantage and dominance on the offensive glass.
Throughout the 40 minutes, Zvezda has missed only 28 field goal attempts, but still managed to pull down 14 offensive rebounds – a 50% rate. Moreover, Zvezda had 9 offensive boards that led to 13 second-chance points in the first half. For the night, Zvezda finished with a massive 17 second-chance points. Even more impressively was its efficiency, because every single time Zvezda grabbed an offensive board in the first two quarters, it led to a basket.
The leader of Zvezda's effort was big man Mathias Lessort, an invaluable source of energy, who pulled down 6 offensive rebound and a total of 10 boards in only 20 minutes on the floor. It was the first double-digit rebounding night of his debut EuroLeague season and Lessort's first double-double in the competition. His performance assures that Lessort is the only EuroLeague player who averages more than 3 offensive rebounds per game, and it helped Zvezda climb atop of the leaderboard in that department, too. Such numbers speak as a whole lot about this team. Zvezda might end up on the outside looking in as far as the playoffs race goes, but this much-improved squad with its never-give-up attitude is not an opponent anyone wants to face on the final stretch of the regular season.
Shved outshone by switching defense
For once, league leading scorer Alexey Shved was not the key factor as his Khimki Moscow Region team kept alive its hopes of climbing into the top four of the standings with a 74-84 road victory over Zalgiris Kaunas. Shved certainly played his part, scoring a joint game-high 20 points, including 13 during a spectacular 1-20 second-quarter run which turned the game firmly in his team’s direction after a slow start. But there was still plenty of work to be done at that stage, with Zalgiris heading into the locker room with a one-point lead despite that second-period pummelling. Ultimately, though, the truly decisive factor in the outcome was the superb defensive effort produced by Khimki in the second half, restricting Zalgiris to just 30 points after the break – 15 in each quarter. Even more significantly, a big chunk of those points came from the free throw line, with the home team managing to make just 8 field goals in the whole of the second half.
After the game, Khimki coach Georgios Bartzokas explained that his team's outstanding defensive work was based on a specific strategy: "We focused on using a switching defense to stop the creation of [Kevin] Pangos, who usually has a lot of assists but today only had two. We also didn't want to give [Arturas] Milaknis open threes."
And that plan certainly worked, because Pangos only scored 1 free throw in the second half while long-range scoring ace Milaknis – who came into the game averaging 2.4 three-pointers per game – was held scoreless for the first time since Round 9. Pangos, indeed, was the man who had the best opportunities to drag Zalgiris towards victory, taking on three-point attempts on three separate occasions in the final 4:05, all of which would have either tied the game or sent his team ahead. But by that time the Canadian playmaker had been buffeted so badly out of rhythm by Khimki's excellent defense that he missed all three, and a late flurry of points from Tyler Honeycutt allowed the Russian team to take back its third road win in four.
Olympiacos finds new go-to guys in close games
Olympiacos Piraeus arrived to Madrid after three consecutive road losses against Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz, Khimki Moscow Region and Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade by a combined margin of 71 points. A convincing home win against Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul got Olympiacos back on the right track, but Madrid entered this game with the opposite momentum, boasting a five-game winning streak at WiZink Center.
For years, Olympiacos has relied on Vassilis Spanoulis to make the difference in close games, but the three-time Final Four MVP finished the game scoreless and had a performance index rating of -6, his worse since Game 1 of the 2014-15 EuroLeague playoffs. Great on-the-ball defense by Fabien Causeur, Facu Campazzo and especially Jeffery Taylor managed to deactivate Spanoulis with a very accurate game plan. But Olympiacos proved to be more than a one-man show. All-EuroLeague forward Georgios Printezis stepped up with 21 points, Janis Strelnieks took over the point guard duties, finishing the game with 11 points, 7 assists and a couple of clutch plays down the stretch. In general, everyone contributed – even Spanoulis, who had 5 assists and drew 4 fouls.
The game went down to small details, three in particular. With Madrid up 73-70, Felipe Reyes drew an unsportsmanlike foul, but missed both free throws and kicked the ball right after his second attempt, which cost him a technical foul. Strelnieks hit that foul shot and Printezis buried a triple on the possession that came with it. From a potential seven-point lead, Madrid was now down by one against a team that makes the most out of every opportunity. Second, Madrid had the game's final possession but Olympiacos's suffocating defense made the difference in crunch time. The hosts could not even get a shot up in time. Third, Madrid missed as many as 10 free throws, which is always a problem when you lose by one.
In the end, Olympiacos walked away with a win and things look good for the Reds. They are in second place at 14-7 and have 2-0 records against Madrid and Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul, two of its direct opponents not only to lock up a playoffs spot, but to get the home-court advantage in those best-of-five series.