by Rob Scott / @robscott33
The back-to-back champions are back. Not that they had ‘gone’ anywhere in Euroleague, clipping through the Regular Season at 10-0, but as some partial-yet-informed observers had noted, not everything was going smoothly. Out of the Greek Cup, slipping back in the League, a key man down, and now Željko Obradović rolled back into town, with a Fenerbahçe squad that can put up points in a hurry. Not a big deal for Europe’s finest big-game performers. Nothing to sweat about when you have Vassilis Spanoulis playing one of the finest games of his career, dropping 28 points, 9 assists, 5 rebounds and an index rating of 39.
Even though Spanoulis began dancing round the Turks’ flimsy perimeter defense from the first minutes of the contest, this was a four-point game at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Olympiacos’ defensive intensity wasn’t as high as it could have been, and Bojan Bogdanović kept Fener hanging around in the first half.
That was just about good enough to give Fener a chance, until Olympiacos, and Spanoulis in particular, dialled back to the 2013 Final in London and unleashed ten minutes of basketball that would be almost impossible for any team in Europe to resist. Going 7-of-11 from behind the arc in the final period, they blew away any resistance the Turks had left, just as they did to a Madrid side with one hand on the trophy, six months ago.
All but the first triple, where Bjelica just fell asleep and backed off too far from Perperoglou, were down to Spanoulis, either shooting himself or penetrating. He has such a quick release on his jumper, with that uncanny ability to slip to the rim that he draws help, and freezes bigs on the switch, but Fenerbahçe repeated their over-rotation and over-helping, to the degree that there was often not one, but two options to kick out for the open three.
When they switched Vidmar or Bjelica out to him, he froze them and swished the pull up (cut to Mirza Begic thanking God they’re now on the same team). On the second play in this grainy video, McCalebb and Preldzić both help down too far, leaving the perimeter wide open. By the time they try something different on the fourth play, sending a soft double team of McCalebb and Zoric to the top of the arc, Bo can’t rotate in time back to the corner.
Beyond this ability to collapse the defense, though, is this Olympiacos team’s mental fortitude. Their shooters, Lojeski and Perperoglou in this case, know they will get good looks. Spanoulis has a calm head and drives with all options possible. It must be mentally draining to know your rotations have to be precise, swift and perfectly disciplined as fatigue sets in, but as energy saps from the opponents, Spanoulis and company don’t wilt.
The Fenerbahçe offense had to be re-jigged from its peak alignment, Bogdanović handled the ball at the top of the key much more often than normal, with Nemanja Bjelica hampered by injury, although Emir Preldžić is still a better option as an improvisor and creator. Bojan is a beautiful scorer from the wing but isn’t the facilitator that they need to get the defense moving and create shots for others, though Bogdanović is still pretty damn hard to stop from scoring himself. One of the strengths of the Fener offense is its positionally-unconventional playmakers, but a traditional point guard would be useful sometimes.
Spanoulis may be on a level all of his own in terms of all-around offensive creation, but there’s a good chance they’ll have to stop him if they want to win the title. Panathinaikos recently sent James Gist and even Stephane Lasme to bother him with long arms and quick feet, and it’s easy to imagine Marcus Slaughter doing the same kind of job. That’s probably not a 40-minute solution, but worth pursuing as a significant wrinkle. Fenerbahcçe doesn’t have anyone of that size and mobility - Vidmar only improved his efforts to contain the MVP in the second half because he didn’t foul him every time he hedged out. As the video showed, Bjelica froze on the island.
Mardy Collins was a DNP, and Dimitrios Katsivelis was absent with injury. It didn’t matter - The Reds might miss Acie Law at some point during the Top 16, but tonight wasn’t it. Kostas Sloukas was a bit part player, outshone by Evangelos Mantzaris. The young Greek guard hit 3-of-4 from behind the arc, grabbed four rebounds and handed out four assists in 32 minutes. But it was his relentlessly disruptive defense on Bogdanović, McCalebb and others that defined his performance, typified by poking the ball away from Vidmar in the final minute for Lojseki to bring the house down with a valedictory runaway dunk over Žorić. Bartzokas has all the guards he needs, making Collins all the more pointless even as an insurance policy.
Linas Kleiza is a problem. Aside from scheme-related defensive issues, which depend on everyone working together, his post defense, or lack thereof, was shocking from a player earning big money and supposedly offering veteran leadership. Kleiza’s poor positioning and effort was evident, as Perperoglou and Printezis both abused him on the low block. He still has a sweet touch around the rim, but as long as the porous defense is a constant and the scoring remains intermittent, he will be a net-minus.