By Rob Scott / @robscott33
In the dramatic conclusion of every classic television and literary whodunnit, the master investigator gathers all the protagonists in one place. to deliver the final exposition. Word by word, the players are either exonerated or condemned. The audience gasps, justice is done and the previous hours, days or weeks of intrigue deliver a satisfying pay off.
Fiction can be compelling but sport, in its purest form, is even better, as Woody Allen memorably argued:
So it’s a mystery worthy of Angela Lansbury as to why Euroleague doesn’t see anything wrong with 14 weeks of drama culminating in dribs and drabs. Friday sees the Top 16 come a conclusion, with playoff places and seeding up for grabs in both groups, but before the buzzer sounds in the final game, everything could already have been wrapped up.
In Group E, ALBA Berlin have snuck back into contention by beating Panathinaikos at OAKA. They take on Maccabi Tel Aviv at home, and a win will see them qualify - at the expense of the defending champions if PAO beats Crvena Zvezda in Belgrade. The fate of three teams could potentially rise and fall with every possession until one is cruelly eliminated.
As it happens, the game in Berlin should have finished by the time the second half begins in Belgrade. If ALBA wins, Maccabi fans had better hope pride is motivation enough for CZ. But if the champions have won, PAO is in even with a loss, by virtue of their tiebreak over the Germans, and that game will be a dead rubber.
Choose your own adventure?
On a slightly less exciting, but no less relevant note, by the time Real Madrid tip off against Zalgiris at home, they will know if they have to win or not in order to secure the number one seed. It’s likely that Barcelona will have beaten Galatasaray, a game that tips a full two hours earlier. In a quirky echo of last season, Madrid could ‘choose’ to lose to the Lithuanians in order to face Olympiacos in the playoffs once again.
Why they would want to bring that on themselves when they could book a series against either Anadolu Efes or Laboral Kutxa would be another mystery, and I don’t seriously believe that they ‘chose their opponent’ last season either. But even the possibility that they could accidentally drop the game invites an element of doubt as to the integrity of the competition that could easily be avoided.
The identity of the eventual fourth seed in Group F remains unknown, after both Efes and Baskonia won this week. Sadly, the problem of staggered scheduling rears it’s head on this side of the bracket too. The Istanbul derby between Efes and Fenerbahçe tips off an hour and forty-five minutes earlier than Baskonia’s game at Unicaja Malaga. The latter will be meaningless if Efes can get the win. If Fener manages to bounce back from this week’s defeat, Baskonia is in with a win. That could be a compelling situation, but again there’s a huge risk that we get half the fun.
Still, even with these grumbles, it should be a hugely dramatic night. Put to one side the fact that a reputable(?) Euroleague blog told you ‘move along, nothing to see here’ about Group E, there could be a huge landslip in the hegemony of Europe’s elite, between now and next month.
ALBA trying to make history
If ALBA does make it into the playoffs, they will be the first German team to do so in the ULEB-era. It would be a huge step forward for German hoops. Bayern Munich went 5-9 in last season’s Top 16, and before that in 2012/13 ALBA went 4-10 and Brose Baskets Bamberg 0-14. ALBA’s first Top 16 win in that campaign was the first such victory by any German team. It came against Bamberg.
This ALBA team has been put together with skill and precision, there are no wasted roster spots. They enjoy a budget advantage over most German competitors but not their rivals for the Euroleague playoffs.
The victory in OAKA was archetypal. They pressure the ball with relentless intensity, but its the physical strength of the bigs that makes the biggest difference. They may not have any high flying shot blockers crashing in from the weakside to protect the rim, but Maclean, Banic and Radosevic are all strong enough to force opposing bigs off the spots they like, and to challenge shots from a less airborne position. They don’t give up position and they forced numerous missed shots in the paint as the Greens scored only four points in the final five minutes.
It was fitting that the game-winning tip-in from Alex Renfroe came with 1:54 remaining. ALBA might have to work hard for its own points, but they sure as hell are going to make you work for yours too. PAO’s ball handlers were constantly having to force the ball into gaps in the paint that didn’t exist, even in pick and roll. Everyone rotates so quickly that it doesn’t result in too many open threes. Maccabi’s stretch fours could really test this approach but don’t forget one of the reasons the champions could be in trouble is that they lost to ALBA at home already.
As with other financial middleweights, ALBA will have to remodel the lineup over the summer, as it seems unlikely they will have the money to keep hold of Redding and Maclean, not to mention Hammonds and Renfroe. It could be now or never, and with apologies to folks in Tel Aviv, it will be hard to root against them.
This article was updated at 17:36 GMT Monday 6 April to correct the paragraph about German teams in the Top 16.