Iberostar Tenerife won the first ever Basketball Champions League title on home soil, beating Banvit 63-59 in a tightly wound final. It was a successful climax to a competition that was improvised in structure, far too long-winded to follow for much of the season, but ultimately presented the public with a fitting showpiece finale.
Tenerife never trailed after the early possessions of their semi-final win over Reyer Venezia, and there was little doubt in the end that the strongest team took the trophy. Both teams were convincing in their semi-final wins, even if only by single digits. While scoring was low – Tenerife won their games with 67 and 63 points – excitement was high.
Final Battle of Styles
It was tempting to see the final as a battle of philosophy and practise: Tenerife’s depth and commitment to constant ball movement versus Banvit aka Jordan Theodore’s one-man show. That isn’t quite fair on the supporting players on Saso Filipovski’s team, Damian Kulig and Furkan Korkmaz in particular contributed over the two games, but with an eight-man rotation, options are always limited.
Everything the Turkish team did came from Theodore – literally. He played all but 23 seconds of the game, and there are no other playmakers to share the load. Perhaps Korkmaz handled and initiated for a possession or two, but almost every possession not just of this final but the entire season rests in Theodore’s hands. That’s an unprecedented level of pressure, especially for a player who leaves everything out there on the floor emotionally.
He was devastated at the final buzzer, after his left hand layup, down four points with 10 seconds remaining, rimmed out and finally let Tenerife celebrate. Winning this title, after the Turkish Cup for the team and BCL MVP for himself, would have been a bigger individual achievement than almost any single player in recent memory.
Don’t confuse his dominance with hero ball though. Theodore is an unselfish scorer. He probes the defense, scanning and calculating the best way to pick the lock. Expert in finding his angle of attack, once he penetrates to the danger zone between lines of defense, he has perfect timing on drop-off passes once the baseline help steps up.
Everything Banvit does is initiated through one player as he patiently looks for a way in. By contrast, Txus Vidorreta’s Tenerife run many possessions as if the ball will detonate if held by the same player for longer than a couple of seconds once it crosses halfcourt.
The balance and reserves of talent they can call on were crucial. Tim Abromaitis scored 19 points versus Venezia; zero in the final. Marius Grigonis top scored with 18 in the championship game, winning him Final Four MVP, but only four in the semi. That’s the same semi-final total as Davin White, who pushed his team over the line in the final, scoring the last five points, including the dagger deep three-pointer over Korkmaz.
Nowhere was depth more obvious in the final than in the performance of Mamadou Niang. The lanky Senegalese centre didn’t play in the semi-final, but had a game-changing impact in only five minutes in the third quarter. OK, so he picked up three fouls in 96 seconds, as Kulig and Orelik’s wider bodies and know-how forced him into illegal contact.
But what an effect he had elsewhere – grabbing a loose ball to put back for two; forcing Theodore into a missed floater with his long, stick-figure arms; swatting a hopeful jumper as it reached the peak of its rainbow arc then grabbing the rebound, and finally detonating a dunk as he exploded past Kulig on a rim run pick and roll.
He changed the rhythm of the game, gave Banvit something to deal with that they hadn’t seen before. Vidorreta played the right card by not yanking him back to the bench after the flurry of fouls, but that was also a function of having more bodies to call on. With two other frontline fives at his disposal, he could afford to use a wildcard. By contrast, Filipovski had to run with the eight names he trusted, with nobody else to turn to for a fresh look.
By the end of 40 minutes, Tenerife had seen everything Theodore and Banvit could throw at them. Their way of winning these elimination games, in the Turkish Cup and BCL playoffs, was keep it close til the end, then let Theodore take over. They did the first part, trailing 58-57 with two minutes remaining, but only scored once more after that. Maybe if White didn’t nail that three, if Theodore could have knifed down the lane with an extra one percent in his legs to finish that layup, it could have been different? But such a one-way bet was never going to come up every time.
Grigonis Never Says Die + Other Final Four Notes
Marius Grigonis has been known as a lights-out shooter throughout his youth ball and now burgeoning pro career. He filled it up on catch-and-shoot triples in the final, knocking down 4-of-7 including a deep bomb in the fourth quarter to keep Banvit at arms’ length. But it wasn’t just his shooting that impressed – he flew in for offensive rebounds, took and made pull-ups from midrange if the defense dropped off, and while he’s not quite there as a secondary playmaker, would have picked up a couple more assists if Vazquez or Bogris had made more shots.
Grigonis is 23 – not quite young enough to keep the ‘prospect’ tag for long, but not old enough to draw on years of experience. His all-action game had the impetuosity of youth and the veteran know-how to stay under control, and that was equally as noteworthy as the output.
Rodrigo San Miguel should probably see a doctor. He plays with a hyperactivity disorder that would see a young child sent to the educational psychologist. He never stops moving, getting in people’s faces, annoying the opposition, oh and knocking down three triples in the final. Even his technical for flopping was probably worth it to rile up the opposition. ‘El Pastelero’ is the archetypal Spanish point guard that I love, and everyone else in Europe thinks is the worst. Ignore them, he’s amazing.
Life at the line – Banvit shot 28-of-34 on FTs in the semi final versus Monaco, who racked up 16-of-22 themselves. In truth this was the ugliest of the three (meaningful) games, and Monaco are probably still wondering how they lost. To be fair, Theodore drew 10 fouls, mostly on the way to the rim as nobody could stop him, so the freebies were earned.
If you’d told Monaco coach Zvezdan Mitrovic his team would limit Theodore to 5-of-15 from the floor, he’d probably have taken it. It all started so well for the French team, with Bangaly Fofana hedging and trapping Theodore, run out dunks off turnovers, Jamal Shuler knocking down threes, that was definitely the plan and it gave them an 18-6 start.
But Theodore showed he can kill a team even if they force the ball out of his hands, and slowly, via plentiful trips to the stripe, Banvit fought back. They made him give it up at crunch time too, but he found Korkmaz with a cross-court laser and the Sixers’ draft pick knocked down a triple for 80-74 with 35 seconds to go. Ball game, and that’s why Theodore was the season MVP.
Damian Kulig was probably the second most important contributor to Banvit’s run. His rim protection was the other side of the coin to Theodore’s offense, allowing Filipovski to ‘park the bus’ in football terms. He had a breakout Euroleague season with PGE Turow in 2014/15, as a burly stretch four with more skill on the ball than his pro-wrestler frame would suggest. Moved inside now, and a step slower, he might have been better alongside Gasper Vidmar than Gediminas Orelik, who shot 4-of-16 including 1-of-9 from three point range in the final. Bulky defensive centre wasn’t what I had in mind a few years back anyway for Kulig.
Reyer Venezia played that oft-filled role of ‘just happy to be here’ in the Final Four, never seriously stressing Tenerife in the semi, scoring only 37 points in three quarters after 21 in the first. They suffered from a bad matchup – Tenerife were excellent at getting their hands in passing lanes and chasing round screens, and while Marques Haynes and Ariel Filloy couldn’t penetrate to force defensive rotation, offense was hard to come by.
Txus Vidorreta’s press defense threw them off badly in the second half – not by causing turnovers but forcing them to use up half the clock just to start their sets. Venezia looked panicked by it, and scenes like this weren’t unusual, with guys thrown off and in the wrong places to start the offense, often well inside 12 seconds on the shot clock.
Venezia coach Walter de Rafaelle looked like he was always searching for a lineup combination that would work, but never found one. Tomas Ress, Jeff Viggiano and Stefano Tonut together in the fourth quarter? The team played super-tight, stepping out of bounds on corner threes, fumbling passes, maybe the occasion got to them. But they had a great run to the finals and should be proud of what they accomplished.
Looking forward to next season
BCL CEO Patrick Comninos gave a press conference on the rest day, and what he had to say was encouraging. The tournament will have 24 teams in the Regular Season next year, rather than 32 this time round. That improvised structure came out of the summertime schism and political back and forth, and while it doesn’t look like that will be fully resolved any time soon, BCL could settle into being a viable contender for the second tier competition in Europe.
Eurocup is currently a season-long play-in contest for the prestige and financial reward of Euroleague, but if that competition were to be expanded through more guaranteed places, perhaps the allure would fade?
€1 million in prize money for the next BCL winner is bound to attract interest. With a slimmer, more meaningful Regular Season, and a Final Four climax that is infinitely more attractive for general fans than a three-game series, FIBA could be onto something here.
By Rob Scott / @robscott33