By: Rob Scott / @robscott33
Only a few days after the climax of the Top 16, the Euroleague playoffs raced into our lives, and it seems like there has barely been a chance to take a breath. Real Madrid can relax into the season’s climax having been the only team to sweep their way to London, while CSKA Moscow joined them on Friday in controversial circumstances.
Elsewhere, the action will go down to a pair of dramatic Game Fives, and there is much to get stuck into. Whilst the home teams will probably be favoured in both, that is by no means prohibitive. In Game Four, Barcelona’s clever zone defense(s) confounded Panathinaikos’ ability to put just enough points on the board to win, but they still generated enough open shots to win Game 4, and surely Dimitris Diamantidis can not play as badly again. Having already won at Palau Blaugrana, Panathinaikos will fear nothing.
The other decider, in Piraeus, is even closer. If anybody says they are 100% confident in making a prediction, they must be a liar. Efes are terrible on the road and were never really in either of the first two games at SEF, but with all the momentum, they must be considered equals at this moment, for this one off game to decide who makes it to London.
Reds forget to win
Olympiacos could claim they actually won the series in Game Four, in Istanbul last week. They did “win” the game, except they forgot to actually win it. Up seven points with 1:29 on the clock, they conspired to throw away the win, and possibly the series. In 89 seconds, it went missed layup, blocked shot, missed three, no transition defense, turnover, spilled rebound, no box out, defeat. It was a catalogue of mistakes, worryingly reminiscent of the Top 16 defeat at home to Montepaschi Siena, minus the clock malfunction. They won the title last year by executing to perfection when it really mattered, a quality that is erratic at best amongst this year’s team.
Pick and roll still working
As far as Game 5 goes, they just have to trust that their offense can get the better of Efes and make some adjustments personnel-wise to try and nullify the Turks’ size advantage. Offensively, the Greek team’s high pick and roll attack still looked like it was generating more than enough quality shots.
To try and cut off the easy kick out pass from Spanoulis to Papanikolau out of the high screen and roll, Efes changed up their defense from earlier in the series and positioned their power forward, Gönlüm or Savanovic, much closer to the three point line. However, Spanoulis could easily get by Erden and the help had to come down from the four’s spot, leaving Papanikolau wide open at the top of the arc. He drained two threes in quick succession on very similar plays in the second quarter.
Olympiacos shot 9-for-15 from three point range in the first half and only 1-for-9 in the second but if they can make the right choices in the pick and roll game, it still looks difficult for Efes to stop them. In the second half, when the threes weren’t falling so well, three times Kyle Hines screened and rolled hard to the rim, but Spanoulis completely missed him. On two of them he would have had a pretty clear layup or dunk, the other one may have needed a perfect pass. The drive and kick game has served the Reds well, and ‘Spanoulis-to-Papanikolau’ was the second most prolific assist connection in the competition and number one for three point field goals. But if Spanoulis forgets about the screener, especially when it’s a finisher as strong as Hines, their offense can become too reliant on the long bomb.
The second adjustment that could help coach Bartzokas and his team is one that was already made, at the start of the game but ignored as it went on, and that is to play Georgi Shermadini. It doesn’t seem like the big Georgian has fully settled in yet, after his arrival from Tel Aviv. But one of the huge advantages Efes had in Game Four was interior size, which led to an incredible 50% offensive rebounding percentage.
It may have been Jamon Lucas’ tip in that won it, but Semih Erden grabbed five offensive rebounds and created many more, as any combination of Printezis, Powell, Hines or Antic had to double up just to try to box him out, leaving space for other Efes players to grab errant shots one after another. Shermadini started the game, picked up two quick fouls and only played seven minutes.
Although he hasn’t been given a chance to show it yet, he’s also a much better pick and roll finisher than Powell, who is also nowhere near the required defensive presence either physically or fundamentally, whether it’s battling with Erden and Barac or out-smarting Savanovic. Kyle Hines always plays above the limits of his body, but at some point, all the lower body strength and clever positioning imaginable can’t help a 1.98m player guard one who is 2.10m, especially one as clever as Erden, when he is actually trying. Most teams would suffer in a comparison of chemistry to last year’s championship winning team, but going into the Final Four, Ivkovic knew what he had on his roster and how to use it. This time round, that harmony is not yet present on anything like the same level, and could be far from it.
Efes short on story, can they write their own?
Efes are in many ways a tough team to like. They play a slowed down, unspectacular game and their best players are not inspirational, narrative-driving names like Spanoulis or Teodosic, nor are they up-and-coming phenoms like Heurtel or Bjelica. Jordan Farmar has often played like his current station is beneath him, only deigning to turn it on when it matters, the spoiled American sent away in disgrace. Sasha Vujacic and Semih Erden may be European, but both also belong to that NBA cast-off line, and now Vujacic has been suspended, ironically for saying the team would win the series if only Mahmuti would let him play. Because he played in the NBA once, you know? On the other hand, for the Turkish veterans Tunceri and Gönlüm, this Final Four would be a deserved achievement towards the end of two distinguished careers.
One player it is surely difficult to root against is Jamon Lucas. The wonderfully skilled, hard working guard has raised his profile in Europe from role player to true team leader, and every player has to make his first Final Four before he can become a legend. This year, and in this series in particular, he has expanded his game from defensive specialist to become an aggressive, one-man transition causer. Game Four saw him punish Olympiacos’ slack transition defense - If he had Bo McCalebb’s blistering speed, he would have got straight to the rim, but by pushing hard before the defense was set, he forced semi-transition opportunities that led to easy points.
It’s also worth remembering that Game Four at Abdi Ipekçi reportedly drew 11,356 fans, which is comparable to the attendance in Piraeus, and nearly three times the crowd in Moscow for Game One of the CSKA series. Divorced from any football empire, Efes may not have the cultural weight of Fenerbahçe, Galatasaray or even Besiktas, and when the team was bad, they had a lot of empty seats. But perhaps the perceived threat of a vacuum where their fans should be in London, should they make it, is not quite as bad as it once was. Although it would have been nice if they had put together this team a year earlier, to try to win a Final Four spot on home turf.
A marketing dream?
The Euroleague marketing department already has a giant-sized jpeg of Vasilis Spanoulis to put on a billboard outside the o2, they can just use last year’s. Likewise Navarro, Diamantidis and Teodosic. Efes might not have the star power to promote the competition to the uninitiated in a foreign land, but if they do make it, lets hope their new-found fans follow them to London. Take it from one who lives there, the folks in the UK need to be shown what a Final Four atmosphere is like, having only experienced the circus-show of the NBA. The two Greek giants can produce that by themselves, as we saw in Istanbul and on many occasions before.
Four clubs, two games, only one chance for each to book their tickets to London. The neutrals who crave the loudest, most passionate and intense ‘devotion’ in their basketball might just be cheering on teams wearing red and green this week. What is undeniable is that whichever four clubs battle it out at the o2 arena next month, all four will have deserved their place.