By Rob Scott / @robscott33
The Euroleague season is an asymmetrical beast. 24 weeks, nearly half a calendar year, of steady build-up, followed by a manic month into which the entirety of the playoffs and Final Four are crammed. This makes momentum crucially important, as Olympiacos showed over the past two years. Barcelona rode a 19-1 run towards the end of the Top 16, but dropped their last two, albeit after they guaranteed top spot in the group. There are no garlands and no glory given out for being at the front of the race when it doesn’t matter. Have Barca suffered a mechanical at the worst moment? Or are glitches inevitable on such a long and demanding parcours?
Waiting to help provide the answers to these questions is Galatasaray. They survived an almighty scramble for fourth place, and now they must show whether they can be anything more than a willing sacrifice offered up to a cranky god. Of our four playoff series, this one might appear to have the greatest potential for a quick sweep, but that would be an underestimation of this Galatasaray team, who can certainly bother the Catalans enough to force a game four, if not send the series back to Palau Blaugrana for a decider.
Like all Xavi Pascual teams, the defining image of this Barcelona squad is its defense. Pascual has turned average defenders like Brad Oleson into disciplined, scurrying maniacs. Even as Juan Carlos Navarro prolongs the autumn of his career, he still rarely breaks down and misses a rotation, even if he can be fatigued by being made to chase round screens.
Victor Sada can flat out take away you primary option, especially if it involves pick and roll, which this being modern basketball, it probably does. Waiting at the rim is Joey Dorsey, one of the best switching bigs in the European game, now purged of the lapses in concentration and discipline that saw him cast out of Piraeus. Boki Nachbar and Erazem Lorbek are nobody’s idea of stoppers, but within this team context, their lack of lateral speed can be sufficiently covered up with smart positioning.
What gives Galatasaray half a chance of banishing the broom is something of a paradox: Their offense is simple, certainly the simplest of all the playoff teams. Most of everything runs through Carlos Arroyo. Amongst the repetoire is an intermittent but specular pick-and-roll lob connection to Pops Mensah-Bonsu; Zoran Erceg popping out to the three-point line, and Arroyo taking pull ups by himself. Arroyo, Malik Hairston and Manuchar Markoishvili can all hit contested shots, and they form a percentage of the Cimbom offense that alarms the purists.
The point here is that it might not matter that Barcelona can contest shots that other teams can’t, when the other team is used to making contested shots in the first place. Galatasaray won just enough games to qualify by taking care of the ball and shooting a pretty good effective field goal percentage. That’s almost definitely not enough to win the series, but it’s a recipe for staying in each game.
As with most teams facing Barcelona, it’s upfront where the Catalans have the biggest advantage. Galatasaray have nobody with the size or skill to deal with Ante Tomic. Neither Mensah-Bonsu, Furkan Aldemir or Milan Macvan really has a shot at knocking the Croatian off his spots either on the block or in pick and roll. Tomic is a master at catching on the roll then passing to the spots vacated by help from the wing, and it’s hard to see a situation where any of the Galatasaray bigs will be able to man the middle on an island.
There’s no respite when Tomic sits and Joey Dorsey enters. A devastating finisher around the rim and a force of nature on the offensive glass, there is no more physically demanding matchup in Europe. If Pops can only keep him away from snaffling second and third chance points, his series should be considered a success.
If Barcelona has a soft underbelly, it’s at the power forward spot, where Erceg should look to to exploit Lorbek on the closeout. The fact that Pascual is willing to play Nachbar at the four shows how his attitude to defensive softness has mellowed with age, and Ataman should go all out attack when the ex-NBA man is on the floor.
Brad Oleson was ineligible after signing midway through last season, and he would certainly have made a difference in their five-game saga with Panathinaikos. The issue of Juan Carlos Navarro dominating the ball in close games has dissipated. As long as Oleson or Huertas is on the floor with La Bomba, he can play off the ball, curling round screens and attacking the paint for his trademark floater. The Copa del Rey final marked the passing of a torch. It was the quiet American who dragged the Catalans into the final play of a game they had already lost. Opponents can no longer key in on JCN, help off Sada and cut off the circulation of Barca’s offense.
The balance of talent and team strength is all with Barcelona. However, with a veteran roster, a significant home advantage and an offense that could maintain a 40-minute immunity to conventional medicine, it doesn’t seem likely that Galatasaray will roll over and accept the shortest of series.