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To the Top 16, with Ashes in mind
Jan 07, 2011
by Brad Newley - Vilnius
Well, I started this blog a few months ago not knowing how long it would last, but here we are - my team, Lietuvos Rytas, and I - headed into the Top 16, and there is plenty to talk about. Just reaching the Top 16 is a source of pride, especially considering how we had to rally to make it. Unfortunately, we had set ourselves up in a situation where we needed to win our last three regular season games or be eliminated. The way we treated it is that we had nothing to lose. The team pulled together for the challenge. Everyone filled their roles, stepped up and did the job, and that's how we got through, with everyone contributing and sacrificing.
Although all three victories were necessary, the middle one by a point against Barcelona here in Vilnius was the big one, of course. We treated that as the biggest game for us, building up to the moment, and our performance that night was our best yet. It was a question of keeping our destiny in our hands, and it was not easy. We found out the night before that Juan Carlos Navarro had flown to Vilnius with them, coming back from an injury, and when you have one of the best players in Euroleague history to face, it's exciting. Fortunately for us, he didn't get a lot of minutes, and unfortunately for me, when he was on court, I wasn't. But it was a treat to see him on the floor in person. We had, like I said, great contributions from everyone that night. Kenan Barjamovic the whole last month has been fantastic, coming off the bench for big minutes and big baskets. His ability to play down low or step out and hit the three makes him very valuable. The combination of Cemal Nalga and Milko Bjelica inside with Kenan has been really effective, all of them complementing each other and our amazing young guy, Jonas Valanciunas. And, of course, we had Sarunas Jasikevicius and Khalid El-Amin helping them a lot, getting the ball to them in the right places. That victory has also been a key in boosting us as a team. Now, we know can do special things against even the best teams when we work together.
Not only was the victory nice, but I finally got to play against one of my fellow Australians, Joe Ingles of Barcelona. We play together on Australia's national team, but the last time we played against each other was in 2006, him for Melbourne South Dragons, me for Townsville Crocodiles. We had a chance to catch up and have a coffee together the night before the game at their team hotel. We talked about what it's like in Vilnius and Barcelona, and how we are both enjoying ourselves. For two Aussies, it's just a treat to be part of the Euroleague and playing for such great teams. Then, we smashed up against each other on the court the next night. We went at it good a couple times. My game, personally, wasn't that great, but I had a couple of moments. Joe played well, just as he has been since joining Barcelona. It's funny coming up against each other after all those years, and here in the Euroleague. I know there were a couple of stories about it back home in Australia and people followed it there. I expect now that attention will only get bigger. All four of the Australians in the Euroleague - including Nathan Jawai of Partizan and Aleks Maric of Panathinaikos - are now in the Top 16. That's another achievement for Australia that puts our basketball on another level.
As I mentioned, Saras was vital for us in that big victory against Barcelona. He had 11 assists that night against his old team, which his Euroleague career best, so you know he was key to us making the Top 16. Everyone knows that we won't have Saras with us now going into the Top 16 - he left to play for Fenerbahce Ulker - and of course we'll miss him. He was great at getting everyone involved on the court and was a leader off it, too, pulling people together. As I said, we'll miss him, but it's up to us to take that leadership he brought to the team and learn from what he did here. It was only a few weeks he played for us, but I am sure some of what he showed us rubbed off and will help us in the Top 16. Nonetheless, we have Jerry Johnson - who was to have been our starting point guard before he was injured late in the preseason - back in the rotation. He's playing well and ready to step up. We also brought back Simas Jasaitis, who everyone knows is a very good three-point shooter and will help open up the game for our inside guys. Jasaitis can also rebound and attack. I played against him a few times in the Olympics and the World Championships, as well as last year in the Turkish League, and it'll be great to have a versatile forward like him during the Top 16.
As for our Top 16 opponents, I said back in my early blogs that I haven't seen a summer since coming to Europe, but I will get to see some sunshine at least with Unicaja and Panathinaikos on the schedule. We open at home with Panathinaikos, and that will be a good test for us: I can't wait to see our arena packed with fans, our sixth man. I don't need to tell anyone that Panathinaikos are just giants of European basketball. If you look at the last 15 years, they are probably the best team overall. They’ve kept a similar squad and the same coach for a long time, but the main thing is to expect a fight from them. They have no secrets. They pressure, trap, defend and move the ball well: That's my experience playing against them for two years in Greece. By the time we play Panathinaikos in Athens, it could be a crucial game. Besides the sun, I am hoping to see some friends there, including their Australian player, Aleks Maric. But mostly, I want to do some good things on the basketball court against them.
Then we have the two Spanish teams, which by itself makes ours a difficult group. Caja Laboral won the Spanish League last year, but I haven't had a chance to see them except on TV yet. I am familiar with most of their players from international competition, and I hear they have good fans and a nice arena to play at. I've noticed, too, that their team likes to score. They put up a lot of points with an attacking style, and I like to play that way, too. So it'll be a good test, another chance to come up against another giant of the Euroleague.
As for Unicaja, well, they've got a Scottish guy in Robert Archibald and an English guy in Joel Freeland, and even though I am not sure I have ever played against them, this will be a bit a revenge match for me. You see, I am huge into cricket, like everyone where I am from. I played as a kid and still follow it a lot. So if I say that England took The Ashes from us, a lot of you Europeans won't know what I am talking about, but it means a lot Down Under. England and Australia have been playing for a cricket cup called The Ashes since the 1800s. When they have possession of it, we want it, and vice-versa. England has The Ashes right now and that hurts. That's a rivalry all its own, but I will be thinking of it when I play against them, that's for sure, as if the wickets were set up behind the basket! For me, the games against Unicaja will be like a Mini-Ashes. Now that's what I call motivation!