‘El baloncesto de formación’: The Big Barça Re-Boot

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The fallout from Barcelona’s defeat in the ACB finals to Real Madrid has been significant and far-reaching. No ACB championship, on top failure to reach the Euroleague Final Four for the second time in a row. This campaign’s bum note was a drawn-out, discordant coda rather than a brief calamity. This time, for the club’s top brass, the potential benefits of continuity had ceased to outweigh the downside of uncertainty.

Prior to the series, observers in Spain rued the predictability of it all. Barcelona versus Madrid. Again. Ultimately it seems that the likelihood of Barca’s season playing out in pretty much the same way this time next year was not something the club could contemplate, so something had to change.

Speaking this week, club president Josep Maria Bartomeu bemoaned how the basketball section has fallen behind. If my Spanish is correct, he said “we are one of the best clubs in the world in football, and handball. But in basketball, no.” Then, “it is difficult to put in as many resources as clubs from other countries” with a straight face – as supporters of every other club in Spain but one spat out their drinks.

It seems like a recognition, if taken at face value, that if Barça really can’t compete with the Russian and Turkish new money, that they will need to develop their own stars of the future? Or, rather that the club is not going to continue to pour millions of euros more into the basketball project that it generates in revenue, if not to win trophies? I suspect probably the latter.

Regime change

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Rodrigo De La Fuente has been installed as General Manager, after only eight months in his first ever front office role. He only retired as a player in 2013, and was a Barcelona legend on the court, donning the blue and red from 1998 to 2007. The lithe, powerful wing blazed a trail to the NCAA at Washington State in the 1990s, became Barça captain, and won the Triple Crown of ACB, Copa del Rey and Euroleague in 2003. He’s a household name – despite being, whisper it, from Madrid – and his appointment will give fans a boost that one of the family is taking over.

It’s also worth pointing out that he may only have been in the front office since October, but he’s been a consistent presence at events like the D-League Showcase and Eurocamp, and will be at NBA Summer League this year. If that sounds basic, it’s not something his predecessor ever did. These occasions aren’t just about watching players – in fact its arguable that they’re not really about that at all – they’re a crucial networking and knowledge-sharing opportunity. It’s more than symbolic that this is part of the new approach in Barcelona.

With all of that said, Creus has left a tough gig for his successor, and Pascual’s. Locked into a series of long-term deals, it is probably going to take more than a year to dispel the stagnation. Bartomeu announced a return to youth development and bringing through home-grown stars – something that began last year when youth scouting heavyweight Pere Capdevila joined alongside De La Fuente, in order to reopen the pipeline of talent heading to Catalunya.

The last frontline rotation player to be developed in-house was Victor Sada and the only remaining one is Juan Carlos Navarro, who came through the system a full twenty years ago.

Rough translation: “We must continue to bet on a basketball of development. It is our mistake to have not a single ‘canterano’ (club academy product) in the first team.” 

Barcelona has been a fixture at the Euroleague under-18 invitation tournament in its different incarnations, but look at their recent squads and only Mario Hezonja had any kind of impact, however fleeting, on the first team. Lude Hakansson, Marcus Eriksson and Marc Garcia have all merely dipped their toe in ACB play, mostly on loan to other teams. The only prospects to get a look in under Pascual – Ricky Rubio, Xavi Rabaseda, Marko Todorovic, Hezonja, Alex Abrines, Aleksandar Vezenkov – were all developed elsewhere.

The cupboard is stocked with talent, most notably Latvian lottery-pick talent Rodions Kurucs and promising Spanish wing Eric Vila – both Capdevila acquisitions, although Vila is going to play college ball at Texas A&M – and they won the 2016 Adidas Next Generation Tournament at the Final Four in Berlin as well as the Spanish U18 championship. They have also added Luka Samanic, one of the highest rated 2000-born prospects who starred at the Eurocamp Futures Game.

They have the resources to comb the Balkans and beyond for the top players, but one of the big problems facing a team trying to develop youngsters as well as compete at the elite level every season is that Europe’s most precocious prospects are jumping from mid-level teams (see: Mega Leks is more of an NBA minor league team than any in the D-League), jumping right over the Barcelona-level without stopping. Vila has an offer from Texas A&M but it’s currently unclear whether he’ll take it.  (Note: see above, Vila took the offer)

So if the priority will now shift to bringing through talent, maybe it makes a certain amount of sense to bring in a coach who is adept at working with and improving young players. As our friend Austin Green has been lobbying for weeks, Bilbao coach Sito Alonso is young, bright, energetic and has a great track record over the past few years of shaping raw building blocks into something special.  Fotis Katsikaris helped Bilbao punch above their weight in the recent past and has brought along young talent in Murcia.

Bringing in their own former coach and the doyenne of youth development in his autumn years, Aito Garcia Reneses, to help De La Fuente, as has been rumoured, would be a masterstroke. In fact sign me the hell up for whatever brand of rapid-fire spread pick and roll action an Aito-assembled team coached by Alonso could bring to the party. The Satoransky / Willy Hernangomez / Porzingis Sevilla playoff team was only two years ago.

Fizzled out

Whilst the Pascual era fizzled out slowly, over the past two, arguably three seasons, there was no firm foundation for a rebuild. In perpetual win-now mode, but unable to convince the absolute best talent to join up, whilst their own superstar atrophied, they fell between two stools. The political pressure to keep up with Madrid, to bring back the biggest silverware, ultimately led to short-term thinking and a lack of strategic direction.

Bartomeu may talk about refocussing on youth development, but how long can Barça’s basketball section wait before it re-joins the kind of lofty company it’s football – and even handball – cousins currently enjoy?

The weakness that ultimately did for Pascual, which should be rectified, was that he could no longer build his team on its defense. The Catalan is maniacally committed to teaching defensive positioning and technique, and demands his players to learn complex schemes – not just to, say, hedge, or switch but to execute either depending on the shot clock or between middle and side actions. He was always able to put average defenders in a position to succeed, but there were just too many minuses at that end to work with. Navarro, Oleson, Arroyo, Doellman, Samuels… you can’t build an elite defensive structure with these pieces.

There also never seemed to be a reliable system on offense, where Pascual also has a playbook the size of a phone directory. Make no mistake, the Catalan coach is a basketball genius in the true sense of the word, but little by little his aversion to playing new signings – perhaps they struggled with the playbook? – grew tiresome. Marcelinho Huertas kicked his heels on the bench in crunch time during his first season, and Ribas got the same treatment in his.

Of the current roster, only Carlos Arroyo, Joey Dorsey and Justin Doellman are free agents. Arroyo will be allowed to walk, with no hard feelings. Dorsey was a mid-season replacement and would crowd the centre position even further, while duplicating much of the role of Shane Lawal.

Lawal and Samardo Samuels both have one year left on their two-year deals. It’s hard to say Samuels has been ‘disappointing’ when he’s played at or around most people’s rational expectations – there have been times when his physicality has been useful, and there’s no way anyone can criticise how hard he works, but his defensive reactions and rotations aren’t quite up to speed. Nobody likes having to break a promise but if they could find a taker for Samuels and make up any difference in salary it could be best for everyone.

The club tipped their hand on Doellman with the Kosovar passport farce, ready to offer a contract extension that didn’t take up one of the two ‘EXT’ roster spots for non-European/Cotonou players.

By some estimation, that mishap might have done them a favour. Doellman was perhaps emblematic of the entire problem with the late-Pascual era: Looks fantastic when everything else is going well; lost when it isn’t. Game one of the ACB finals and game two of the Euroleague playoffs against Lokomotiv Kuban were two of the most efficient, stylish offensive displays by any team in Europe this season, but you could never bet on them being replicated that on a regular basis. Faced with true pressure, they retreated into their shell.

ATHLETICISM

So, what to do next? If I was sat in De La Fuente’s chair I would erect a banner to cover the whole of one wall with ATHLETICISM in capital letters. Barca needs to get faster, quicker and jump higher. Elite shot creation and a combination of speed and physicality upfront are essential. So you might say that’s true for any team, but there has been a particular dearth of both at Palau Blaugrana. Think back to the Euroleague champion 2010 team: Rubio, a healthy and prime Navarro, Pete Mickael, young Fran Vazquez, Terrence Morris, Boniface N’Dong… slowly but surely they have morphed into an unthreatening, slowed down shadow of that squad.

Tomas Satoransky is signed til 2020 but with an NBA out every summer. Crucially this summer the Washington Wizards, who drafted him in the second round in 2011, have enough cap space to absorb the rest of his $1.5 million buyout above the $650,000 ‘excluded amount’ the team can contribute outside of the cap, and it doesn’t look like they need to worry about bringing Kevin Durant home. We won’t know anything for sure until July 10 when NBA free agent deals can be signed, but there have been reports that the Czech might follow Mario Hezonja across the Atlantic. Whether he would make the leap to be a third point guard is debatable, so what the Wiz can offer in terms of minutes might be the tipping point.

If he leaves, the buyout cash heading to Catalunya can go towards a replacement. The issue is… who?

The market is bare at the very top level in Europe for lead guards. The stars of the last two seasons are Nando De Colo and Malcolm Delaney. The former re-upped with CSKA and the latter has made it abundantly clear that he wants an NBA gig. What do Tyrese Rice, Alexey Shved, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Bobby Dixon, Milos Teodosic, Brad Wanamaker and Keith Langford have in common? They all play (or will play) for Turkish or Russian teams, and none are available this summer. This is what Bartomeu appears to be talking about when he complains about resources.

On the wing, there are no vacancies. Alex Abrines is signed through 2019, and if I was in the GM’s chair I’d be praying like hell that Oklahoma City want to bring him over this summer, although reports Stateside say this is unlikely. Abrines would be a lot more useful as a simple spot up shooter in OKC than being asked to create with ball in hand for Barca. Contrast him with the way that Jaycee Carroll has refined and developed his game to attack closeouts and score on the move from mid-range over the past few years. Abrines is another one who slots into a well-oiled offense but lacks the ingenuity to create in the midst of chaos. The same could be said of Stratos Perperoglou. He’s fine for what he is, but isn’t going to stamp his mark on a series.

So given that De La Fuente is green in the job, the options for elite-level replacements are sparse, and the club president has just announced a change in tack to re-prioritise youth development, it looks like Barcelona might be about to embark on a re-building process. The new Euroleague system offers the security of being able to take an NBA-style step back (lucky them…). But the politics of coming second (or lower) are such that it would be very surprising if this was anything more than a brief retreat, unless the money tap really has been tightened for real.

Rob Scott – @robscott33

A Tale of Two Coaches: Laso Grins While Pascual Awaits His Fate

Pablo Laso ended another season smiling. Somehow the understated, quiet man in charge of Real Madrid came out on top. Five years into his reign, chalk up a third ACB title – the second in a row – to go with one Euroleague, four Copas del Rey, three Supercopas and, yes we’re counting it, one Intercontinental Cup.

Yet he is still seen as a survivor. Still fending off suspicions that he’s merely incredibly lucky to have coached a team full of supremely talented players. Still the ‘loser’ of back to back Euroleague finals. But clearly Madrid has its mojo back, and a pair of domestic trophies from a ‘bad’ season.

Meanwhile Xavi Pascual is a sitting duck. At the time of typing, he isn’t officially unemployed, but reports are strongly linking his post with Blaugrana legend Saunas Jasekivicius. General Manager Joan Creus has announced that he will be stepping down. It looks like Barca is cleaning house.

This Real Madrid team seems to have more lives than its Cheshire Cat-like coach. Swept in embarrassing fashion in the Euroleague playoffs by Fenerbahçe, beaten three times already prior to this series by their eternal Catalan rivals, without homecourt advantage, this should have been an uphill struggle. But they were one clever baseline-out-of-bounds play away from sweeping their way to the Spanish title.

In truth, this series showed why both of these clubs came into the playoffs rested, having been spared the mental and physical strain of competing in a Final Four. The ability of both teams to put points on the board outweighs their capacity to stop the other. Madrid just hid their soft spots more cleverly, whilst exposing Barcelona’s numerous flaws.

Numbers can tell a story: Barcelona shot 50% from three-point range in Game One, then  22%, 31% and 33%. Look at the turnover percentages from Games Two and Three. The margin for error in this series was way tighter than that.

Llull Leads, Rudy Helps

The battles on which the series turned may have been subtle, but they were unmissable. Firstly, let’s not get bogged down in second-guessing coaching decisions, the players ultimately decide games. Sergio Llull ran away with the Finals MVP trophy, averaging 19 points, seven assists, shooting 43% from three point range. More than that it was the way he scored – diving through, round and between defenders, pulling up deep for threes – it was as demoralising for Pascual’s team as it was energising for Llull’s teammates in white.

Another major difference between this Madrid lineup and the one that limped into and out of the Euroleague playoffs was that Rudy Fernandez was back to his best as a defender, darting in from the weakside to poke the ball away or alter a shot like a lizard flashing its tongue out to catch a fly.

No player in Europe divides opinion outside of Spain – you either don’t like him or really hate him – but for such a maligned practitioner of the performing arts its a a rugged defender that Madrid really missed him for a large part of this season. It was more than fitting that the key final possession of the the decider for Barca ended with Rudy helping along the baseline, altering Tomic’s tentative finish enough that the ball could be knocked off the rim.

The hopped-up help defense also created turnovers, and Madrid punished them ruthlessly. Off missed shots and turnovers alike, Madrid pushed the ball up the floor even quicker than normal, running Barca’s old legs into the ground. This play shows it all – Rudy protecting the rim, then the ball finds its way to the other end in a flash before the defense could set up. Doellman is just about in the frame as the net ripples.

Role players from Madrid stepped up where they had been silent before, whereas Barcelona’s shrunk from the moment. Trey Thompkins might have saved his career in a white jersey. Here at last was the inside/out force, able to bully his way through the paint, control the glass and hit threes. He finished the finals shooting 12-of-14 from two point range, 5-of-8 from three, none more important than the calm, smooth hook shot he tumbled in in crunch time of Game Four. He would be even more  valuable roster-wise if they could get him a passport from a European state that Spain recognises, but he must have at least given the front office pause to think about giving him a contract extension.

Rewatching Game Two I started to wonder what the outcome of the series would be if it was decided in a ‘penalty shoot out’ – five one-on-one battles, score or miss, football-style. I would put good money on it going to sudden death after reaching 5 – 5. Satoransky is probably Barca’s best isolation defender, but Llull put him on his heels multiple times. This hypothetical scenario might be the best use for Jeffery Taylor – he’s a toolsy individual stopper but still completely lost when defending in a team context.

Taylor was given the job of checking Satoransky, given the nod to start the series in a lineup with Llull, Rudy or Carroll. The first play of Game One, the Czech handed the ball off, crossed to the opposite wing and cut backdoor behind a ball-watching Taylor. The latter took 11 minutes of court time to rack up his five fouls, and if he at least made Satoransky work a little harder over the course of four games, it wasn’t a tactic that really worked – not the first time this season either. Taylor showed again that while he put in the effort, he doesn’t have the awareness or innate sense of positioning to be a plus defender.

On the flipside of the coin, Gustavo Ayon absolutely busted his behind on defense, and came up with two huge plays towards the climax of Game Four that spared the prospect of going back to Catalunya for the decider. He has always been a dropback defender in pick and roll, and his lack of explosiveness in challenging shots at the rim was exploited ruthlessly in Euroleague, none more so than in the playoffs. But here he lept up to deny a lob perfectly late in the fourth quarter and then again stuffed Tomic at the rim as Barca tried to mount a remontada.

Pascual goes down with the ship

Pascual looked like he had run out of ideas by the end of the series, going down with the Good Ship Zone Defense just as he had in the Euroleague series with Lokomotiv Kuban. Although initially Madrid may have been hesitant in probing its weaknesses, it was no match for Sergio Rodriguez. Pull up three, drive and dish to Reyes for a three point play then another pull up, he figured it out and held his opponents at arms’ length.

The zone made sense as a throw of the dice – throughout the series Pascual’s team struggled to keep up with Madrid guards – Jaycee Carroll in particular – curling round elbow screens. They often had to switch off the ball which led to a mismatch for the screener – a big, often Reyes – inside. Madrid exploited that frequently. The zone, a kind of matchup 2-3, was not even as successful as it once was – one screen was enough to get  a switch, a mismatch and a score.

The play below shows in microcosm the problems Barça had with Carroll’s gravity as a shooter when they tried to chase round the screen rather than switch. Three man go to the ball, Samuels and Doellman fail to rotate quickly enough, Hernangomez has a layup.

Justin Doellman has been in the spotlight lately for an embarrassing passport mishap, but the inconsistencies in his game were highlighted in the finals. In Barça’s Game One win, he buried 6-of-8 from three point range, then went 0-for-7 over the remainder.

Doellman’s series probably sums up his Barça career. He’s a very good shooter, a cerebral,  capable passer, but struggles when made to move on defense and doesn’t assert himself enough. It’s not that his shooting is streaky, but his ability to influence the game wavers a little too much for a starting power forward on a team that hopes to be the best in Europe. His future must be uncertain now – remaining in an import slot significantly narrows their options for retooling.

That shaky grip on the ability to enforce their will is replicated throughout the roster, and might be the final word on the end of Pascual’s tenure. Even though Game One turned on the final play, Barça looked strong throughout – Tomic on the short roll picking holes in Madrid’s rotations with laser precision and delicious invention; Satoransky beating the press, Doellman bombing from deep. When this team is hitting threes and getting to the line, surprise surprise, it looks great. But it just didn’t last, and there were too many non-factors in the backcourt.

Pau Ribas was supposed to be the marquee signing of the summer, but he was underused as Pascual refused to let go of Navarro and Oleson, even Arroyo. The stubborn commitment to ‘his guys’ is probably great for motivation, and every indication is that his players love him. But there must be a point at which the team makes a clean break with the past. It looks like that has just begun.

Rob Scott / @robscott33

PODCAST: ACB Playoffs – Barça, Baskonia and Bonus Biyombo

Euroleague is done and dusted, but across the continent domestic playoffs are either under way or about to tip off. Spain’s ACB is still undoubtedly the most interesting league in Europe, and the post-season starts on Thursday.

We hit up our good friend Austin Green of LosCrossovers.com who has been based in Sevilla this season for the lowdown on everything Español.

01:25 – Raul Lopez retirement tribute and Fuenlabrada miracle (see video below)

12:15 – FC Barcelona vs Montaki Fuenlabrada

19:25 – Laboral Kutxa Baskonia vs Herbalife Gran Canaria

34:30 – Real Madrid vs UCAM Murcia

43:17 -Valencia vs Unicaja Malaga

Stick around after the series breakdowns for Bonus Biyombo.

Here’s that wonderful video we talked about, capturing how the final day unfolded for Montakit Fuenlabrada and how they discovered that they were playoff bound.

and the ‘oración’ from Joan Sastre that set it all off

Follow Rob Scott and Austin Green on Twitter, and you can check out our full SoundCloud stream and download the podcast on iTunes.

Redemption: Victory for Khryapa and Milos as CSKA Buries The Past

The Moment CSKA Didn’t Lose

It was happening again. From a 20-point halftime lead to a two point hole, this wouldn’t have been just ‘another CSKA collapse’. It would have been a mental and physical surrender. Viktor Khryapa, one of the unfortunate icons of the Red Army club’s perennial failure in this competition, rose in a crowd of bodies to tip in a desperate De Colo three pointer after Teodosic nearly spilled the ball, and the small red corner of the arena exhaled. With one tip of the ball, Khryapa changed the narrative of his own career, and this club’s history. This wasn’t the moment CSKA won the title, but it was the moment they didn’t lose it.

Fenerbahçe coach Zeljko Obradovic complained bitterly post-game about a supposed travel by De Colo on the final play of regulation, and I’m sure he was convinced. It was hubris though, considering how many fouls Luigi Lamonica in particular whistled in the second half. The officiating was maddening in its inconsistency, as the slightest contact was penalised at times, but the Fenerbahçe press was allowed to step over the normal bounds of physicality. Jan Vesely shot 1-for-10 from the line and lost the plot in the process, which eliminated one of Fener’s big advantages against a thinner CSKA frontline.

Khryapa and Teodosic Redeemed

This was a game for redemption, and for putting superstition in the bin where it belongs. Itoudis reflected on this in the press conference, probably talking about Teodosic and Khryapa without naming them directly. That those two men came through in crucial moments made it even more poetic. The enigmatic Serbian is the most ingenious creative whirlwind in European basketball, peerless as an artiste. You’d have to be dead inside – or a Fenerbahçe fan – not to feel a warm glow as he celebrated winning a Final Four in his seventh attempt.

His bounce pass to De Colo on a backdoor cut late in the fourth was one of the crucial moments when CSKA just about managed to hold the line – Khryapa’s three pointer was another. Even though Bobby Dixon broke through the barricades eventually, if Fener had taken the lead even a couple of plays earlier the mental toll of having to fight back may have been too much.

Two gorgeous assists in the first half summed up how impossible it is to contain him when he is in this mood. Twice, a defender managed to get him in the air, unable to shoot, but both times he dropped off an exquisite assist. How did he see the Frenchman streaking across the baseline in that split second? Nobody else will know. Defensively, he managed to skirt round the issue of playing with four fouls – as did De Colo. It was a masterful performance.

De Colo took the Final Four MVP award to go with his overall season trophy. He has done everything asked and expected of him this season – racking up 7 assists to go with his 22 points in the final. He was the CSKA offense in overtime, beating Udoh by a split second to the rim for a layup, drawing fouls and carrying the responsibility for winning a game they’d already won, then lost, then didn’t lose.

Itoudis’ Steely Calm

This game was a masterclass for coaching prowess, combining on-court strategy with the psychology needed to win the biggest games. He bravely kept with the switching scheme that gave up 22 offensive rebounds to Lokomotiv Kuban in the semi final, and once again Andrey Vorontsevich did a phenomenal job keeping Dixon and Sloukas in front of him. Only when Vorontsevich fouled out did Ekpe Udoh establish himself as a force and Bobby Dixon raised his head – another reason Fener cannot complain too heavily about the refs.

Itoudis has somehow managed to turn this financial behemoth into an underdog – at least in their own minds. A little siege mentality never hurt anyone, and while Vesely in particular shrunk from the moment, Itoudis got exactly what he needed from his role players. Pavel Korobkov only played eight minutes but he didn’t need to do much, just not be a net minus in his time spelling Hines, and he did just that. Putting little Dimitri Kulagin on to hack Vesely after he air-balled a free throw was the perfect kind of dick-move that only some coaches would have the balls to do in this game. It worked.

Dixon and Datome eventually found enough space to break down the defense late, but for most of the game CSKA gave a demonstration in perfect rotations and positioning. They switched on to the ball, overloaded the strong side to deny the easy pass into the post mismatch, but then autonomically recovered across the floor when needed. On the backline they stunted towards the corner and recovered back with perfect timing. It forced Obradovic’s side into a lot of hasty shots deep into the clock, and was a huge reason they led by 20 in the first place.

Sir Hines Returns

Kyle Hines was finally back to his Olympiacos-mode best. His first season in Moscow was a mess, playing a bit-part role at power forward on a team in disarray. Now in his third campaign, he finally reverted to the force of nature that the Piraeus fans still adore.  He was honest after the game, when ELA asked him whether he can put all the demons, all the history out of his mind in the moment. “I’d be lying to you if I didn’t necessarily think about ‘here it goes again’ because I’ve been on the other side of this, of a 19-point comeback.”

At last, CSKA flipped round all of the ‘demons’, the history of failure, the superstition. How fitting that the player who twisted the knife in 2012 was able to heal it all four years later.

Listen to the ELA Podcast for adrenaline-fuelled reaction direct from the scene by me and Sam Meyerkopf, as well as interviews with Kyle Hines, Bobby Dixon and Aaron Jackson. It’s worth sticking around ’til the end.

PODCAST: The Monkey Is Finally Off CSKA’s Back

A Euroleague Finals that goes to Overtime is a spectacle to be seen.  Rob and Sam were live in Berlin and breakdown all the action from a crazy Finals that saw CSKA Moscow beat Fenerbahce Ulker 101-96.  In the podcast are post-game interviews from Kyle Hines, Aaron Jackson, and Bobby Dixon.

 

You can check out our full SoundCloud stream and download the podcast on iTunes

The Day After: Reflections on the Un-killable Beast

Baskonia had their chance. Up four inside the final minute, they had given everything they could. The colour was draining from the faces of the Fenerbahce fans, even if the stands remained a deep, electrifying yellow, save for the raucous corner of red at one end, threatening to send eighty percent of the crowd back into the craziness of an east Berlin night in a fog of disbelief.

If defeat was painful in the moment and the immediate aftermath, it was probably dulled by mental and physical fatigue. Baskonia guard Mike James, who had the highlight of the night throwing down a lob from Darius Adams, was candid after the game. “I think we blew one tonight. We get one stop, we win the game.”

Reflecting in the cold light of a dull morning after, the tiny mistakes and near-misses will probably haunt them even more. Could they have closed out on Datome a split second quicker? Could someone have bodychecked Sloukas in the paint and at least make him earn the tying points at the stripe? Maybe, but

The way Baskonia came back after their early jitters was a microcosm of their season. Ioannis Bourousis was at the centre of everything, dominating a juddering battle in the paint with Ekpe Udoh. He came in with the Basques down 13-4, and immediately went to work. Nando De Colo may have been unstoppable with the ball all season, none more so than in the earlier semi final, and it may seem churlish to question his MVP award. But in terms of his overall impact. nobody took on more of a load for his team than the bear-like Greek centre.

Bourousis is everything to this team: low-post bruiser, point centre, Nowtzki-esque swish merchant. But for all of his relentless grinding in the paint, it’s his ability to pop out to the arc that is the key to Baskonia’s offense. Send the screen defender to help on the ball and he can punish you from deep. Refuse to help off him and Mike James and Darius Adams have space to attack, or pull up from three, as he did in the reckless exhilaration of Baskonia’s comeback.

Ultimately, Adams only had so many matches to light, and his last one burned out just a little too early, his final jumper rimming out as they dribbled down the clock.

Reflecting less than 24 hours later, maybe they could have got a better shot. 25 seconds left on the clock, scores level, the plan was to make sure they got the last shot, James confirmed to ELA after the game. It’s easy to criticise here, and you minimise the chance of turnovers without passing the ball, but some off-ball movement wouldn’t have been too much? As Adams pounded the ball up top as the digits fell away, the feeling was all-or-nothing. If he didn’t make it, overtime was more or less beyond them. As Bogdan Bogdanovic made up for his bad shooting night to bury the knife, then twist it, Adams and James strained every sinew to respond, digging into reserves of energy that just weren’t there.

This Fenerbahçe team is too experienced and too resolute not to put their foot into the sliver of space as the door closed and kick it off the hinges. They stumbled at this point last year, but seemed supremely relaxed in the build up. Pero Antic told ELA on Thursday about how much confidence and togetherness they gain from their leader, Zeljko Obradovic. In these situations, ‘coach’ seems like an inadequate word to describe it. Not to say that Zoc’s on-court direction wasn’t important.

When Zoc rewatches the tape of this game, he might allow himself a brief smile as he sees his team executing one of his pet plays to survive when their backs weren’t so much against the wall as holding up the damn building.

To carry that out, you need experience and talent. Fener spread the responsibility for the win right across their squad – Bobby Dixon had a poor game, Bogdanovic’s shot didn’t drop in regulation, Vesely is still less than healthy, although he personally hauled Fener back into contention late on when Baskonia took everything else away.

Go down the list of names and you get veteran after veteran. Luigi Datome buried a three to cut the deficit to a point before Adams missed his crucial free throw. Kostas Sloukas – who has won this championship twice already – was ice-blooded with the ball in hand and the game on the line. Udoh and Pero Antic never backed down.

The final seven or so minutes of this game were the practical application of everything Obradovic would have prepared them for, but the players still need to carry out those instructions, no matter how good they are.

Some juggernaut basketball teams seem machine-like: The CSKA Moscow 2012 vintage, or Pascual’s Barcelona at their peak. But this Fener team is different – like a lot of champions, it combines a thorough commitment to detail and preparation with a tangible emotion, it plays with feeling. That’s something that I probably didn’t appreciate until seeing them play in person. Rather than a machine, it’s a sinewy, red-blooded animal. A possibly un-killable beast that a ragged band of hunters nearly – but not quite – took down.

Postgame, ELA asked Bogdanovic where his love for pressure comes from. “From Serbia,” he said, grinning.  Just like grey haired general prowling the sideline. It will take even more than Baskonia bravely threw at them to stop the trophy going to Istanbul.

PODCAST: Fantastic Fenerbahçe and Russian Reaction

Euroleague Adventures was in the arena in Berlin as Fenerbahçe overcame Laboral Kutxa in an overtime classic, while CSKA slid past Lokomotiv Kuban in a low key Russian derby.

We brought in all around Russian basketball expert Vladimir Spivak for his thoughts on the first game and stories about a CSKA role player’s taste in beer. We also talked to Laboral Kutxa’s Mike James, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Bobby Dixon of Fenerbahçe and CSKA Moscow’s Kyle Hines. Listen below for all the reaction from a wild night in Berlin.

Breakdown
0:00: Sam and Rob breaking down the Semi’s
10:55: Vlad Spivak joins us to talk Russian teams
19:40: Mikes James Interview
21:55: Kyle Hines Interiew
23:20: Bogdan Bogdanovic Interview
24:00: Bobby Dixon Interview

You can check out our full SoundCloud stream and download the podcast on iTunes

De Colo Keeps Cool and CSKA Advances With Ease

CSKA Moscow buried half its demons, Nando De Colo broke the Final Four scoring record as he dropped 30 points and the Red Army team gave upstart Lokomotiv Kuban a harsh lesson in how to survive the all-or-nothing environment of a Euroleague Final Four. CSKA won 88-81 to reach the final on Sunday.

MVP De Colo but not the only star

De Colo grabbed the headlines with his smooth, in-rhythm 30 point game, the execution often looked effortless. It was an MVP performance from this year’s winner of that trophy, and the Frenchman’s creativity on the ball always gave CSKA an option to break down the competition’s leading defense. But away from the headlines, two players really epitomised this year’s CSKA team, and gave the biggest clues as to how they might bring home the championship that billions of rubles have failed to deliver since 2008.

Kyle Hines played 36 minutes, and put up an 8 point, 7 rebound, 3 assist game for a 13 ranking. Rarely has a number failed to capture a player’s impact on the game. He set impenetrable screens to free up shooters, carved out his own bubble of space in the paint in the familiar way that a 2.00m man shouldn’t be able to do in a game at this level, and turned Loko attackers away from the rim like a nightclub bouncer.

Fridzon refused to beaten off the dribble. There weren’t many ‘key’ moments of this game, as CSKA led from tip to buzzer, but on the few occasions Loko threatened to make a game of it, Fridzon was there, busting his ass to deflect a loose ball; keeping his man in front of him and forcing Loko into mistakes. He canned all but one of his shots too, kicking in 13 points.

Defense + tactics = Quality

CSKA president Andrey Vatutin never fails to put an expensive team on the floor. CSKA’s budgetary advantage is so huge that they could waste $3million on Joel Freeland and not even miss him. But some comments he made to eurohoops.net in the build up to this weekend were telling. He described the roster, accurately, as “less fancy than last year” and claimed they won their playoff series over Crvena Zvezda due to “defense and tactics, not quality.” The precise context is unclear, but if there’s a difference between this year’s CSKA squad and the expensive failures before it, it’s that they realise that defense and tactics are qualities.

Kyle Hines summed up the difference to ELA after the game by focussing on two simple words: ‘Confidence and experience.” He added, “we have the experience of being on the other side, and I think this season we were kinda tired of coming back home with all the disappointments [of previous Final 4s].”

It certainly looked like CSKA were confident and experienced in the first quarter as Loko came out colder than a Russian winter. After Barcelona bamboozled their offense for a time with zone in the playoffs, CSKA gave them a taste of their own medicine, switching screens enthusiastically. Andrey Vorontsevich checking Malcolm Delaney is a mismatch, but it was one that Itoudis seemed eager for his opponents to try to exploit. At the other end, Giorgios Bartzokas’ team came out timid, going under screens and allowing De Colo to settle into an easy rhythm.

Nervous Lokomotiv

It wasn’t the characteristic intense, pressuring, switching defense that had carried them in the Final Four. After the game, ELA asked Bartzokas if his team had been nervous early on, and if the 23-12 deficit was the difference in the game. He agreed without hesitation: “It was exactly as you said. For most of our guys, it was their first experience in the Final Four.” Certainly it looked like CSKA was just too experienced and prepared for the occasion. Bartzokas didn’t make excuses, but it seemed like he realised his team just wasn’t quite ready for this.

One Final Four veteran on their squad, Dontaye Draper, did his best to keep them in the game with a selection of pull up jumpers, including a banked three from just inside half court on the third quarter buzzer to cut the lead to 10. Ryan Broekhoff rimmed out a three that would have cut it to four inside 90 seconds, but mostly nothing Lokomotiv’s players did really impacted the game. They stayed alive thanks to 22 offensive rebounds including eight for Anthony Randolph. There was enough in this game for Dimitris Itoudis to ruminate on before the final, although it has to be said that the switching scheme accounted for a lot of Randolph’s glass-cleaning, and it did its overall job of stopping Loko get the shots they wanted. More than that, he let old man Viktor Khyrapa blow by him and dunk. C’mon man….

Malcolm Delaney racked up 26 points in what could be his final game in Europe before heading to the NBA. But it was a strangely impactless display – only in the early part of the second half did he assert himself in a meaningful way. 12-for-12 from the line is a skill – and whether he can replicate the ability to get to the line in the NBA might make or break his career – but it masked a 1-for-7 line inside the arc, and it wasn’t a farewell that he’ll look back on with any fondness.

Anthony Randolph was another major reason why Loko made it here, but he was maddeningly inconsistent. Sure, he crashed the glass, but he also played tentative defense and dropped off too far to allow some key three pointers. Chris Singleton made an immediate impact when he entered to start the second quarter and Loko went back to switching, but by that point, it was almost too late.

Many of CSKA’s past Final Four failures have been pinned on Milos Teodosic, and he was up and down throughout this game. They might need him more on Sunday, but tonight he took a back seat to De Colo and Fridzon in the backcourt. Cory Higgins was his usual plug-in-and-play self, denying Delaney the ball and generally being a pain in the ass to play against.

Despite the late flicker of hope that this game could produce some drama, it was routine, and in the end, a mundane victory that could have been a VTB league regular season matchup – in fact both of those between these teams were a lot more fun to watch. De Colo drained a three to put CSKA up 16 with seven minutes to go but the stands were already filling up with yellow-clad Fenerbahçe hordes who drowned out anything happening on court. That was the moment the game was really over as an event.

History repeating?

De Colo chipped in a couple of late free throws to beat Ramunas Siskauskas’ 29 point haul on this floor in 2009 and claim the Final Four single game scoring record, but it was nothing more than punctuation. Itoudis knows what happened next though. As an assistant his Panathinaikos team beat CSKA to take the crown. The head coach? Of course, a certain Zeljko Obradovic, his opponent on Sunday.

Some stories just write themselves.

Final Four Shootaround #2: Pero, James, and Datome’s Pre-Game Thoughts

By: Sam Meyerkopf / @HoopLikeDrazen

We are LIVE IN BERLIN!  Here are quotes from the Fenerbahce Ulker and Laboral Kutxa Vitoria media session.  To checkout player and coach quotes from the earlier media session of: CSKA Moscow and Lokomotiv Kuban.

Pero Antic

What can you bring from your Olympiacos experiences?

Antic: “The team spirit.  That is the only thing you know to stick together and to work together throughout the whole game and tournament.  It’s not a time to be a superstar or whatever.  Just team spirit and we have to play hard and play a team game.”

What’s the team spirit of this team?

“The friendship that we have.  The love that we have between us.  And we have Zeljko.”

What’s its like playing for Coach Obradovic?

“It’s a great thing. You’re learning something everyday.  I was thinking that I always play against him but never for him.  So this was a big thing to be asked to play for him, to come here.  And the first talk we have was let’s reach the Final Four.  That’s why I came back from the NBA.  That’s the first thing he said but we came here and that’s not enough, so we have to play.”

What makes Coach so special?

“You should watch some video man.  You watch some videos from the game and you will see what’s special.  But friendship, the friendship he has for the players.  He is on the court always trying to help us and he is different off the court.  But great friend for us.”

What’s the key to stop Vitoria?

“Basically coached said in an interview today, they have three point guards.  Bourousis at center and the two point guards and Adams and the other guy (James).  So that’s their main guys but there are also role guys who do the dirty job and we have to fight the whole game versus everybody.”

Luigi Datome

How has coach gotten you guys ready for the Final Four?

Datome: “Practicing and meetings.  We arrived here because of work, concentration, motivation, and we are trying to do the same tomorrow.”

What’s the key to the team’s success?

“Great people who sacrificed themselves and worked hard.  Winning ahead of everything.  No matter who scores more or plays more, the focus is on the win.  And we have a lot of good players who share the spotlight.  Everyone is ready to contribute.”

Does that idea of sacrifice come from coach?

“Yes of course, he wants to win.  He’s here to help us to win.  He doesn’t care who plays more, shoots more, scores more.  He just focused on winning.  He uses us to win the game.  You have to adapt to his philosophy for sure, he is the boss.”

Mike James

When was the first time you Dunked?

James: “18 actually.  When I was 17 I was always trying to dunk and I was mad because all my friends can dunk and I couldn’t.  So I kept trying and trying.  So eventually when I did my high school coach was like now you have to dunk all the time.”

So is that how you got the motivation to always put one on someone?

“Yup, my high school coach.  Now he told me you have to dunk everything. Dunk when you can.  And I have fun doing it.”

What were the big differences between last year’s failures and being such a great team this season?

“Just another year under our belts. I mean me and Darius came in half way.  And really had never played Euroleague.  I hadn’t even played in a European competition.  So just the experience and us having experience together.  We brought back seven or eight players and that helped a lot.”

How do you and Darius Adams feed off each other?

“It just works.  We know how to put each other in positions to score better.  I know that he likes to shoot 3’s. So if I give him the ball in open space he’s probably going to shoot it and he’s probably going to make it.  So it’s just knowing each other’s tendencies, where each other like to score, and where each other like the ball.”

What did you guys focus on this week?

“It’s hard to focus on Fenerbahce because they have like 10 players who are amazing.  So it’s hard to focus on just one thing so we just focused on being us.  We don’t want to come here and re-invent something or do anything different.”

Final Four Shootaround #1: Itoudis, Jackson, Claver, and Delaney Pre-Game Thoughts

By: Sam Meyerkopf / @HoopLikeDrazen

We are LIVE IN BERLIN!  After going to the media sessions of the first Semi-Final teams today (CSKA Moscow and Lokomotiv Kuban), here are some player and coach quotes.  And stay tuned for later today for quotes from the other game’s players.

Dimitris Itoudis

To start, a Russian journalist asked the following question below and Itoudis’ response was so good, that it had to be included here.  ELA questions will follow.

Russian Journalist: “The journalists and people here think Lokomotiv is not the strongest team here, so isn’t it relaxing for CSKA?”

Itoudis: “I’m not stupid. Do I look stupid?  So you can’t say that to me.  And I don’t care honestly what people believe.  We have what we have.  Whatever you call it the pressure, the title, whatever it is you have to go out there and play the game.  You have to be dominant on the court and put pressure on the opponent with your tactics and your performance.  That’s what it’s about.  Strongest team, how are they not a strong team, they made the Final Four.  They kicked out Barcelona.  For respect it’s one game, it’s the Semi-Final.”

Now on to ELA questions…

What did you learn from last year’s Final Four?

“I don’t know if I can say did I learn something or what did I not learn.  But definitely the experience was something that you gain and you get it by being present in such events.  Wouldn’t be a big surprise if I said the plan was going good and then three minutes till the end and Spanoulis makes shots and that’s what can happen in one game.  That’s what is also good for the sport, that’s what is so exciting.

What’s the preparation for a Final Four compared to a Playoff Series?

“That’s it, it’s one game.  In playoffs you have time for more preparation.”

Aaron Jackson

So many Final Fours for you, do you have any traditions this week, things you always do?

Jackson: “Yea I have a few things in terms of with music and family.  But for the week, first is I change my whole persona on Twitter.  No being goofy on Twitter or anything, being straight serious.  Other than that I started watching more movies, I started watching Gladiator, Braveheart, 300. Anything to get me into that warrior mindset.  And for music, old school Lil Wayne, anything before 2004, all that.”

You guys are used to Final Fours, what do you guys do as a team to get ready?

“The first three years we’d have dinner, we’d talk about it but this is the first year we were like we are not going to put that weight on our shoulders.  We’re going to just take it like it’s every game and take it like it’s a Final, because we take every game as a Final this year.”

What’s the one thing you’ve learned from these Final Fours?

Limit distractions.  Limit distractions as much as possible.

Victor Claver

What are the keys to you guys having such a good defense?

Claver: “The way we prepare the game.  With scouting, knowing the opponent, and we have good players on the roster.  We can play aggressive, we can play in different positions, and we have different type of players.”

After Game 3 in Barcelona how did you guys turn the Playoff Series around?

“We knew we had one more chance.  And we had to keep everything on the court and that’s what we did.  We played more aggressive and we wanted to win more than them in Game 4.  And in the fifth game we had home court advantage and we had to take it.”

Malcolm Delaney

What has Coach Bartzokas done for your game?

Delaney: “He has believed in me the most, you know he wanted me for the last three years.  He gave me the freedom this year to be the leader of the team.  He’s not a coach who practices four hours a day and kills us.  He’s a players coach.  And with me personally, he brought me in to build the team around me.  And just him giving me the confidence and the ability run the team.  And if you can see sometimes in the games he just lets me go.  He won’t say nothing, he won’t call a play.  If I get into a rhythm he knows I’m taking control of the game and he lets me use my abilities.”

How did you guys get out of that Barcelona series?

“We shot terrible the first two games, even the game we won we didn’t shoot well.  But we weren’t down.  The second game of the series was the best Euroleague game they played all year and then they went back home and had the momentum.  We were still confident.  We just knew we had to steal one game on the road and once we stole that one game, once we went home, we were confident we were going to win.”

What’s the strength of this team?

“Our defense.  We have five players who will defend every position and I just think we don’t have the pressure.  To hear you have teams who need to win Final Fours and they have the pressure every year to win.  You know for us we are going to come here, have fun, and just play as hard as we can.”

What was the feeling this week, how did you as a team prepare?

“Nothing special.  We did the same things we’ve been doing.  We practiced the same way.  Coach doesn’t believe in doing a lot of extra things.  He has a system that he has in place that he feels comfortable with.  And we trust his system.  So that’s all we’ve been working on is ourselves.  We haven’t really been focusing on everybody else.”

The Euroleague Basketball Blog