By Rob Scott / @robscott33
It’s easy to see the Euroleague Final Four as the climax of the season, but across the continent’s domestic leagues, the playoffs are only just getting started. The top divisions in Italy and Spain boast intriguing series up and down the bracket, but the former is outshining its more talented, higher profile rival.
Last night, Banco di Sardegna Sassari, from the island of Sardinia, defeated EA7 Emporio Armani Milano 90-83, on the same floor where Maccabi Tel Aviv shocked their way to a Euroleague championship. The series stands tied at one game each. It was a fantastically entertaining clash, as Sassari used their trademark long-range attack to swish 13 of their 25 three point shots, including a madcap 35-point third period in which they shot 7-for-8 from behind the arc.
It was hard not to draw comparisons with the Maccabi team that stopped Milano appearing in the Final Four on their own floor. The hosts appeared to be cruising behind the smooth, apparently effortless way in which Alessandro Gentile’s court vision, enabled by his physical advantage over defenders, sliced through the Sassari defense. Then the barrage came down from Drake Diener and Marques Green, in an ultra-small lineup with Omar Thomas, Travis Diener and Caleb Green, for which Milano had no answer.
Every time Milano punished Sassari’s so-so defense, someone in blue hit a three-pointer in reply. The Sassari roster is a ragtag bunch, composed of players whose flaws have stopped them playing at the true highest level. Marques Green, standing all of 1.65m, boasts a 35.6% shooting percentage in 26 Euroleague games, but here he has found a role. He had such trouble defending the ball-handler that the inevitable helper had to leave someone else open, but his shooting covers up for the gaps in his game, and he generally made solid decisions. Sassari might shoot a ton of threes, but only a few come outside the rhythm of the offense.
Drew Gordon found himself in at the deep end with Partizan Belgrade in his first pro season, often stuck to the bench behind even younger Serbian players. The kind of ball-watching on defense that tested Dule Vujosevic’s patience was still evident, but the confidence with which he knocked down mid-range jumpers to punish aggressive hedging on the playmaker showed great improvement.
Sassari doesn’t have the budget to compete with Milano to sign premium-level players, so they have assembled a team that makes the most of the long-ball, for which Italian league lifer Drake Diener (along with more defensive minded cousin Travis) is perfectly suited. They put up 27.1 three-point shots per game, the highest in the league, but also lead in percentage, making 39.9%. That combination of volume and success has already led them to the National Cup title,and is now making the most star-laden, glamorous team in Italy sweat.
Here is the point alluded to above: this is a series, and now Milano head across the Tyrrhenian Sea for a pair of incredibly tough games, their season on the line. They don’t just need to escape this slate of games with a couple of wins, they need to prove that their superiority in talent and pedigree is legitimate. Likewise, if Sassari does pull off the upset, everybody knows that doing it four times out of seven is no fluke.
Most importantly for a smaller team, whose arena has 4,500 seats, they are guaranteed two home playoff games. In the Serie A format of 5-7-7, the playoffs are a real reward for a team’s support, and perhaps crucially in this economic climate, for sponsors. On the evidence of the first two games, there may well be a third home tie at PalaSerradimigini.
Aqua Vitasnella Cantu finished third in the standings, but were swept in three close games by sixth seed Acea Roma. Admittedly this means they could only host one home match in the five-game quarter-final series, but at least they cannot complain that a momentary lapse ended their season early. Eight seed Giorgio Tesi Group Pistoia pushed Milano all the way to five games in a thrilling series, and were rewarded with a pair of visits from the top seeds.
Contrast this to Spain, where series positively dripping in intrigue for fans such as Valencia versus Cajasol and Unicaja versus Gran Canaria, will end in only three games, guaranteed. Both are currently tied at one game a-piece, and under the 3-5-5 format, it seems insane to limit the drama to only a trio of matchups.
Even series that ended in two-game sweeps like Real Madrid versus CAI Zaragoza produced drama and close games, so it wouldn’t appear that even a 1 versus 8 clash would result in a boring third or even fourth game. After 34 Regular Season games, it doesn’t seem too much to ask for a high seed to defeat its opponent three times out of five.
It’s not as though the ACB doesn’t know how to do events. Every February, the Copa del Rey tournament grips the attention of the hoops community across Europe, something that no other domestic cup competition can claim. ELA has been on location for two of the past three, and we can confirm it’s an experience that surpasses even the Euroleague Final Four in some ways. There is no reason why their post-season shouldn’t be the same, but somehow it remains unsatisfying, at least in the early stages.
Serie A only numbers 16 teams, giving a 30-game Regular Season, as opposed to Spain’s 18 teams and 34 weeks. Given the financial problems in recent years that have stopped teams being promoted from the second-tier, perhaps it wouldn’t be the worst idea to cut two spots in the ACB in order to expand the playoffs to 5-7-7? Although this approach is unlikely to win the support of the ACB teams who would be most at risk of demotion.
Sardinian sport is on the up, as its young cycling phenom Fabio Aru just placed third in this year’s Giro d’Italia. Now a rowdy bunch of tifosi will welcome Giorgio Armani’s team, Red Shoes and all, to the north of the island. For fans all over Italy, and the rest of Europe where internet streams permit, the post-season is building towards that epic quality that lasts in the memory. Even the teams defeated along the way will have enjoyed an extended encore, not an abrupt postscript to the months of toil from the autumn to the spring. If only every league in Europe could say that.