By Rob Scott / @robscott33
By the end of this Thursday, we will know the 16 teams who will be flung into the blender that is the Euroleague’s second phase. Chances are, unless you’re a card-carrying member of the Delije, or this guy, you want Partizan Belgrade to be amongst them. Who wouldn’t be rooting for an infectiously talented group of young players on a club with one of the finest basketball traditions in Europe?
Vujošević’s young bucks host CSKA Moscow, a tougher task lately than earlier in the year. All they need to do is match the result of JSF Nanterre, who have to host Fenerbahçe hoping there will be no blowback from dropping one to Partizan the week before. Both teams are tied on a 3-6 record, but Partizan hold the tiebreak by virtue of losing by one and winning by thirty in their two matchups. Sounds simple? It should be, but remember Fenerbahçe has nothing to play for, having already secured the top spot in the group, and Nanterre has already won in Barcelona. So, what can Partizan take from last week’s stunner in Ataşehir and can they replicate it versus Messina’s CSKA?
Partizan jumped out to a 23-7 lead over Fener, and won the game by two. You don’t need to be a Sloan Conference delegate to realise that hot start was kind of a big deal. It came off the back of scorching shooting from Bodan Bogdanović and Dragan Milosavljević, who rained in threes from all angles, abetted by Joffrey Lauvergne and Tarence Kinsey. Partizan shot 12-of-13 in the first quarter, and the cushion was enough to withstand a Fener comeback that was never particularly convincing. But can it be repeated next week, and if necessary for fourteen games after that?
Vujošević’s team has been pretty ugly to watch so far in Euroleague play, even before Leo Westermann’s season-ending injury. Contested two-pointers abound in a paltry 99.5 offensive rating, even including that game, at the joint slowest pace in the league, 67.8 possessions per game. They shot 11-for-18 from three point range against Fener, having made only 44 of their 126 attempts in the eight games prior, good for 34.9%. Shots went in over outstretched hands, but sometimes not contested at all, whether as a result of missed rotations or poor transition defense. CSKA has been guilty of similarly sleepy defense this season, so it could happen again, but don’t bet on it. Messina’s team tightened up its defensive intensity enough to glide past Barcelona last week, and Partizan’s shooters are likely to find it pretty difficult to hit shots at such a rate again.
Fener-backlash? Can CSKA win a streetfight?
Those rotations Fenerbahçe missed are likely to be imprinted on their brains by Željko in what I am guessing has been a series of hard practice sessions this week. As pointed out by the esteemed rodhig on twitter last week, Bo and Bojan ended up just losing their men on defense and Preldžić over-helped more than once, leaving the perimeter unguarded. Bo in particular was guilty of just lazily switching off his man, away from the ball, and the communication between defenders seemed to be a real problem, allowing hot shooters to just loiter in the corner. This is all fixable stuff, which also bodes well for Partizan, as Nanterre will probably feel the adjustments.
After Fener’s inevitable comeback that began when their offense clicked into gear (suspiciously coincidental with when Nemanja Bjelica, Emir Preldžić and Bo McCalebb entered the game down 23-9) Partizan managed to keep a hold on the game. They did it in a more familiar way – by throwing up a forest of arms and bodies in the paint.
Every time a sea of hands thrust upwards to the heavens for a rebound, a young Serb (or Frenchman) came down with the ball. Partizan’s sheer length inside is a problem as neither Lauvergne, who played almost the entire game at power forward, nor any of the gaggle of young centers can space the floor. But what they lack in spacing, the accumulated wingspans of Milutinov, Musli and Gagić along with young Joffrey, can make life hell for any frontline that won’t fight for every loose ball, not to mention Dragan’s hyper-extended swoops to the rim and Kinsey’s reborn wing-stopping swagger.
CSKA may have raised their game for a fellow (perceived) contender, but can they go down to street level at Pionir Arena this week? Can they go blow-for-blow with hungrier, more desperate foes? Their record in that department under Messina is patchy, particularly this year.
The lineup of Bogdanovicć, Milosavljević, Kinsey and Lauvergne at the first four positions played 34 minutes of the 40 last week, with the five-spot rotating between Musli (18 minutes) and Milutinov (14) with only two minutes for Gagić. Vujošević knows his horses and is riding them all the way, which is completely justifiable given who is available. Such a thin rotation is no problem in terms of fatigue, these guys are all young enough to run themselves into the ground, but it does leave the team vulnerable to foul trouble or someone having an off-night.
That’s the tightrope they have to walk though, and even a loss is likely not to be fatal as Fenerbahçe should take care of Nanterre. With fourteen more games possibly coming up after Christmas, a deeper rotation is going to be vital if they want to worry anyone decent, and I don’t mean adding Milenko Tepić.
The odds are good for Partizan to keep the Serbian flag flying in the next phase, and that’s awesome for the competition. If they could get Davis Bertans back, to stretch the floor and move Lauvergne to the middle, the win at Ülker Arena won’t be their last of the season.