By: Rob Scott / @robscott33
Christmas. Hannukah. A 24 hour all you can eat Chinese buffet opening down the street. These are all things we look forward to, but sometimes, they don’t live up to the wonders of our imagination.
This week in the Euroleague was highly anticipated, and just like that first bite of perfectly seasoned dumpling, it didn’t disappoint. CSKA and Barcelona set down the first real benchmarks of the season, while Panathinaikos and Montepaschi Siena have tails to untangle from between their legs. Fenerbahçe escaped from Bilbao with a win, but didn’t fool anyone, Nic Batum gave another 40 minute masterclass, and Alexander Trifunovic saved his job for another week by putting a one in the W column for Zalgiris.
With apologies to Barcelona and Siena, Thursday’s headliner was CSKA at Panathinaikos. CSKA came out on top in overtime with the 78-76 come from behind victory, and even though both of these teams are deep and balanced, the game was largely defined by how each team reacted to the loss of influence from their star player at different stages of the game. CSKA were held scoreless for over six minutes in the second quarter, and Andrei Kirilenko’s halftime numbers? Zero points, 0/5 FG, -4 ranking. Panathinakos showed how to completely take him out of the game in the first half, by throwing different defenders his way but not over-committing bodies. Whether it was Steven Smith, Ian Vougioukas or even Dimitris Diamantidis, the total team commitment to defense ensured CSKA got very few easy shots. Even at key points in the fourth quarter, Kirilenko was reduced to standing in the weakside corner and not taking part in the offense, as Diamantidis and Calathes subdued Milos Teodosic and CKSA’s trademark lightning-quick ball movement was nowhere to be seen.
Kirilenko’s head was down, his expression pained. Even after a quick steal late in the fourth, he pushed the ball up the floor, dumped it to a guard and then spent the rest of the possession standing in the corner.
Then, the mist cleared.
A thunderous jam after a bobbled alley-oop. A lucky deflection of a loose ball out to Shved who buried the three to close the gap to two. Diamantidis fouled out. Suddenly after controlling the majority of the game, Panathinaikos were shaky. Two huge turnovers by Nick Calathes in the final minute created a Diamantidis-shaped hole in their otherwise impregnable psyche. Could they manage without their reigning Euroleague MVP? The final six minutes of play suggests not.
In OT, Kirilenko was reborn. Twice, Mike Batiste tried a spin move against Kirilenko. Twice, AK returned the ball with interest. Kostas Kaimakoglu buried a three to give Pana hope in OT, but the only lasting effect was to bring back some pride to the initials KK in this year’s competition. Just one more time, the inside-out, sweet touch passing returned to CSKA and Siskauskas buried a three from the left wing.
So, round one of a possible Final Four matchup went to CSKA. Kirilenko shot 3/8 for 9 points but finished with a 22 ranking, including 10 rebounds and 5 blocks. CSKA proved that they can beat the best, on the road, with, by his own high standards, Kirilenko having a rough night. Panathinaikos revealed their mortality if Diamantidis isn’t able to close games out. Round two of this bout is in Moscow on December 14th, and hopefully it won’t be the last time we get to enjoy it.
Elsewhere, Belgacom Spirou came up just short in their game with EA7 Emporio Armani Milano, succumbing 81-76 after being up by five going into the fourth quarter. Demond Mallet and Caleb Green kept up their quest for the imaginary ‘Breakthrough Double Act’ award I made up just for them, but Spirou again looked just one player short of being a real threat to take scalps.
Not even necessarily an impact scorer, just another capable big or a decent backup point guard. Ioannis Bouroussis found life pretty easy against Andre Riddick and Christophe Beghin, and while Riddick is still a useful shot blocker, at 38 his legs have seen better days and he was visibly shattered towards the end of the game. That tiredness probably contributed to his two costly turnovers in the final minute. The team also struggles when Mallet has to sit – Justin Hamilton and Chris Hill both have something to offer, but neither can really be relied upon to run an offense for longer than a play or two.
Spirou is a team that outperforms the sum of its parts on a regular basis, and at the other end of that spectrum, the radio waves to Spirou’s gamma rays (Physics is cool now, apparently) is Fenerbahçe
Ülker. Although they have to get props for winning in Bilbao, and especially to close out with a 14-0 run, the way they did it was not encouraging for a team that has ambitions to make the Final Four.
Fenerbahçe doesn’t have anybody who can penetrate and make a quick decision to pass, or force the defense into an unexpected rotation. With Roko Ukic suffering a major loss of confidence, and Curtis Jerrels seemingly unaware of even the concept of passing, their offense is predictable, and a good defensive team will find it easy to rotate to deny good shots. In this way, they are similar to this year’s Real Madrid team – lacking a true point guard, they rely on individuals with the talent to make difficult and/or bad shots. Jerrels made some ridiculous driving layups and off balance jumpers against Bilbao, and Bojan Bogdanovic showed off his emerging post game, but their rudderless offensive style and sometimes flimsy post defense can only take them so far.
Bilbao, like Spirou, look like a fundamentally sound team, with a well-coached commitment to team defense but lacking enough offensive power, particularly when the game is on the line. Give them Demond Mallet and they’d be a real threat, especially at home. If D’Or Fischer was wearing Spirou red in Riddick’s place, the Belgians might have more than one win. But neither team should be ashamed of their performances so far.
Four games in, and truths are being revealed – cracks are beginning to show in places, elsewhere underdogs are starting to show some swagger (I see you there, Cantu).
The best news? It’s only going to get more real from here on out.
Rob Scott writes Switching Screens every Friday which, so far, just means today. Follow Rob on “The Twitter” at @robscott33.