Zalgiris loses to Minsk, drops to 2-6 in tight European-league games; what is happening in Kaunas?

Ksistof doesn’t get it either…

The conversations BallinEurope has with peers in the European basketball blogosphere lately tend to drift toward one team: Žalgiris Kaunas, the hardest luck team in Euroleague basketball.

No, wait, strike that. Let’s start over.

The conversations BallinEurope has with peers in the European basketball blogosphere lately tend to drift toward one team: Žalgiris Kaunas, a team that, in spite of a roster chockfull of experienced talent, simply cannot close out games and fall apart in the clutch.

It’s one of the two, anyway. Or maybe not: Perhaps we can lay the blame at Joan Plaza’s feet (though expectations going into the season were long) or on the subpar refereeing (which might be stretching things a bit considering the sum total of questionable calls in game seven of the Euroleague Top 16 round worked out in the Greens’ favor).

Maybe the front-office issues and lack of payment to players have been overwhelmingly distracting (as Marko Popovic told heinnews and BiE in a recent Taking the Charge podcast interview, “We made a deal at the beginning of the season that this team would stay together until the end of the season, no matter what happens. Hopefully people are going to recognize the way that we play for this club, the way that we show on the court and hopefully the financial status is going to change. We are just focused on the court. Of course we hear the rumors going on around the club but we are trying to be focused, which is not easy, I gotta be honest…”

Maybe it’s none of the above, some of the above, or all of the above. But with Žalgiris now looking at a 4-6 record after another heartbreaker to Real Madrid last week, Lithuania’s remaining representative may have already bad-lucked itself out of a Euroleague playoff spot after starting out at a strong 8-2 clip. An examination of crucial moments may give some insight into the Bizarro equivalent of last season’s Olympiacos squad. Or perhaps not.
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On Zalgiris Kaunas and developing Clutch Identity

Zalgiris Kaunas logoAfter watching Žalgiris Kaunas stumble through heartbreakers and possible backbreakers in the Euroleague Top 16 round, BallinEurope’s agent in Lithuania, Y., couldn’t help but confirm his suspicions about the Greens’ performances in crunch time. Y. probably wasn’t, but you may be surprised at the secret culture of losing within the Lithuanian power…

It’s almost unreal, as though the Gods of Basketball had banished one green-and-white soul from Lithuania with no prospect of return, a club that should be grouped with FC Barcelona, Olympiacos Piraeus, CSKA Moscow and other teams who have a long history, produce amazing talents for national teams, lead their respective national basketball, and simply win.

Yet for some reason, BC Žalgiris seems destined to lose.

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Joan Plaza: “I can’t imagine” leaving long-term Zalgiris project

In an extensive 15-minute interview, Žalgiris Kaunas head coach Joan Plaza manages to pack in quite enough to make Greens fans highly optimistic about the future.

While not commenting on his boss, Žalgiris’ notoriously wacky owner Vladimir Romanov, the Spanish mastermind does fearlessly take on heavy questions of race and culture. Plaza is admirably learning Lithuanian and emphasizes how important it is to learn that second (or third) language to communicate with players – but finds certain attitudes toward 21st-century multiculturalism a “little shock” in his country of residence.

On the plus side, Plaza sees hope and promises that he is devoted to “working on creating a new generation of [Lithuanian] players” and that he “can’t imagine” leaving Žalgiris with his long-term plan in mind.

(Sudden thought: Might we someday see Plaza helming Team Lithuania?)

Plaza also manages to get in a plug for his novel-writing (!), with his 2009 book Les Mantes de L’Angelina translated into Lithuanian and a second tome set for spring 2013 release in Spain. While the latest novel is not about basketball, its female protagonist (!!!) is a character “fighting for dreams,” a theme Plaza knows something about.

The full interview runs below.

kava su IQ_ Joan Plaza from Intelligent Media on Vimeo.

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Monday Hangover: Žalgiris Kaunas impressive again; Saric’s 2012-13 debut; Goldsberry’s Bizarro Buzzer-Beater of the Week

Goldsberry, who won for losing

Damn, BallinEurope watched a lotta sports this past 72 years: Euroleague games, highlights, quarters here and there, a VTB United game, three hours of late-Sunday night NFL football, two sports-related films for upcoming Taking The Charge podcasts … life is ball games … and especially basketball, but unfortunately BiE watches almost nothing live and compresses most viewing into the weekend.

So no further ado: Three quasi-brief impressions from the bigger games, done up bullet-style.

Žalgiris: Ever interesting, ever relentless. BallinEurope’s recommended EL game of the week was Žalgiris Kaunas at Emporio Armani Milano. Žalgiris, with its slight vulnerability shown lately, needed to make a statement in this game in BiE’s opinion. Don’t worry Greens men and women: After this game, your guys will be sure to move up in the BallinEurope Euroleague power rankings

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Euroleague Power Rankings: 2012-13 Opening Day Edition

All right, it’s that time again! With hours to go before the 2012-13 Euroleague season tips off, BallinEurope breaks out its first power ratings for the big league.

Whereas normally a disclaimer to the effect of “the following ratings are based on current trending only and are not necessarily based on the overall quality of the teams” runs here, this year BiE’s switching things up a bit. To wit: For this edition of Euroleague power rankings, the teams *will* be run based on BallinEurope’s totally subjective viewpoint. (Mainly because BiE couldn’t figure out what to do with Barcelona…)

Get your arguments ready and read on for this season’s first power rankings, with Official BallinEurope Fearless Predictions™ for the upcoming season peppered throughout. Enjoy the games!

The favorites
1. Olympiacos Piraeus. The usual reserved spot for the defending champion comes with some justification this year, as Vassilis Spanoulis & Co. show no signs of letting up on their 2011-12 season-ending 22-4 run. In the off-/preseason, Olympiacos’ foursome of Spanoulis, local hero Georgios Printezis, Kostas Papanikolaou and Evengelos Mantazaris suited up for a disappointed Team Greece – all but Mantazaris acquitted themselves nicely, with 50-of-89 (56.2%) overall shooting and Spanoulis dishing out just under six assists per game in three Olympic qualifiers.

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Romanov hit with key Žalgiris question: “Will Plaza be sacked as quickly as Zouros?”

Tick, tick, tick…

Over at Russia-based Sport Express is a lengthy interview with Žalgiris Kaunas basketball/Heart of Midlothian football club owner Vladimir Romanov. Popularly Sometimes known as “Mad Vlad,” the Ūkio Bankas man weighed in on quite a few topics related to his basketball team, including the Sonny Weems departure, the state of Russian basketball and just what the heck happened with Ilias Zouros last season.

An English-language extrapolation of the interview follows. As of this writing, Liga Endesa-imported coach Joan Plaza still holds his position with Žalgiris, but Romanov’s evasive answer to the question of Plaza’s short-term future aren’t exactly enthusiasm-generating…

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Lietuvos Rytas: Stable in Motion (and Jonas Valanciunas, too)

In the leadup to the 2011-12 Eurocup Final Four tournament beginning on Saturday, Eurosport Turkey basketball commentator Uygar Karaca contributes a series of previews on the remaining quartet entitled “Four Teams, Four Stories” to BallinEurope. Today, Karaca takes a look at Lietuvos Rytas – and the club’s amazing ability to continually come back and adapt.

Valencia is not alone in its ambition for the third crown. Their opponent in the semifinals, Lietuvos Rytas, for the last five seasons has demonstrated the model on how to come back again the damage they have suffered. Nobody can deny that L. Rytas is a difficult place to work for coaches, but somehow, with different players and different head coaches, this club has managed to book a ticket for the final four of Eurocup in Khimki.

It seems Lietuvos Rytas has a similar scheme although the names change: One US-based star and three domestic leaders. Recall 2005, when they got their first crown in the ULEB Cup. Coach Vlade Djurovic left mid-season and Tomo Mahoric, the young Slovenian coach, led them to victory against Makedonikos in the finals with players like Delininkaitis, Stelmahers, Robertas Javtokas and Tyrone Nesby.

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The Spanish League explained: Part two

Ball in Europe contributor Francesco Cappelletti contributes the second part of his look at the ACB with briefs on a dozen teams who won’t exactly compete for the Spanish league title, but certainly compare with most European competition. Part one can be read by clicking here.

One step behind. These ACB teams aren’t worthy of a title drive; despite this, their value is surely greater than other European mid-level teams. With at least seven or eight really good players apiece, they’re readier to exploit every possibility than richer and more ambitious clubs can. For example, Gran Canaria 2014 is coming off a monster season in which it finished the regular season in sixth place (ahead of Valencia) and was eliminated by Unicaja Malaga in the quarterfinals. Gran Canaria is now without Carl English, Mario Fernandez and Joel Freeland, who are testing themselves in top teams; however, the newly arrived Jaycee Carroll from Teramo and Will McDonald are noticeable names for a non-Euroleague team, and they fit perfectly into this team’s scheme thanks to men very similar to them. The skeleton is nearly the same as last year: Joshua Fisher and Marcus Norris comprise a duo that provides veteran attitude and intangibles, while Melvin Sanders, Sitapha Savane and James Augustine carry a strong presence on both ends of the floor.

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Euroleague Power Rankings (Week 7)

The last game day before Christmas is just ahead, so let’s check which are teams are hot and which are not at the moment.

1. CSKA Moscow (6-1) (+1)

It was just a short-term downgrade to second place for CSKA Moscow. An emphatic win against Panionios and a hard-fought victory over Unics Kazan helped them to recover the first place in our unique Power Rankings.

2. Montepaschi Siena (6-1) (-1)

Siena had a little more trouble than expected in beating the Lithuanians from Zalgiris Kaunas. On the other hand, in the domestic league, the team continues to win and confirms their current good situation.

3. Regal FC Barcelona (6-1) (+1)

The big win of the week comes from FC Barcelona and their victory in the OAKA. This puts them in third place on the Euroleague Power Rankings and shows the nice job done by the coaching staff to build such a strong team.

4. TAU Ceramica (5-2) (+2)

The offensive powerhouse from Vitoria comes off another destroying win in the Euroleague. And they will play against ALBA Berlin this week in a rematch of Igor Rakocevic’s 6-for-6 three-point effort.

5. Unicaja Malaga (5-2) (+2)

Unicaja is currently in the upstream, so it’s time for them to slow down to remain in their classical up-and-down moves. The big win at home against the Greek Olympiacos team with a reduced team gives them the necessary boost to remain among the top contenders for the Top 16.

6. Olympiacos (5-2) (-3)

Olympiacos is currently a little bit off, as the team has not yet identified the leader who takes over games in the final minutes, which ultimately caused their defeat in Malaga. Josh Childress is doing the job, but he is not the “Messiah” awaited by the Reds.

7. Panathinaikos (5-2) (-2)

Panathinaikos is a bit in the same situation as Olympiacos and even lost at home. The game against FC Barcelona will remain in the minds of fans and players, but the next matchup against SLUC Nancy should get them back on track.

8. Cibona Zagreb (5-2) (+1)

The weeks continue and Cibona is still in the Top 10 in our rankings. The Croats are playing an excellent season so far, building on some local talent with surprisingly strong US players: A mix that works very well and qualifies them for the Top 16.

9. DKV Joventut (5-2) (+2)

Ricky is back, and so is DKV Joventut. It’s not quite that easy, but the Badalona team is currently getting better. The case of Pops Mensah-Bonsu is definitely sealed, and Eduardo Hernandez-Sonseca is working in the paint. With Ricky improving every game now, the Top 16 will be very interesting.

10. Lottomatica Roma (5-2) (-2)

Coach Repesa is gone, and so goes the five-game winning streak. It’s not that simple, but the team does need to find itself again at this moment. Even if Brandon Jennings gains in minutes, the goal is to win games and not to develop the scoring skills of a high school kid.

11. Real Madrid (4-3) (+3)

A tough win at home against Partizan, and Real Madrid moves up in the rankings again. Coach Joan Plaza’s is probably the most discussed position right now in the Euroleague, but with every win, his seat remains in place. By the way, Real will play in Moscow this week and a loss is very probable.

12. Maccabi Tel Aviv (4-3) (+1)

Maccabi wins on the road but loses in the domestic league; what a strange situation. However, since Lior Eliyahu has woken up in the Euroleague, the team seems to comfort their Top16 spot and should continue their presence for another few games.

13. Efes Pilsen (3-4) (+2)

After being ranked pretty high at the beginning of the season, the Turkish Brewers have fallen down regularly in our Rankings but seem to find their way back up right now. After beating the red-hot AJ Milano team at home, things look a little bit better right now.

14. Partizan Belgrade (3-4) (-4)

Partizan needs to win its games at home and maybe take one or the other win on the road. This week, they nearly did, losing by only 1 in Madrid. However, they remain strong and should be able to reach the Top 16 again this season.

15. Fenerbahce Ülker (3-4) (+1)

Fenerbahce Ülker was on the way to win in Berlin but without any obvious reason completely struggled in the second half and gave ALBA Berlin a highly important win. They showed no problems in the domestic league in beating the small team Antalya and they have a crucial game at home against Joventut this week.

16. ALBA Berlin (3-4) (+4)

ALBA Berlin remains unbeaten in O2 World and will try to continue the win streak against TAU this week. However, a surprising loss on the road in the Bundesliga was not in their favor, and the still long list of injuries is a problem for Luka Pavicevic.

17. AJ Milano (2-5) (-5)

A big move up and big move down; this is how to look at AJ Milano’s fortunes last week. The team had an impressive win at home against CSKA which boosted their stock. However, it wasn’t enough to continue their streak and lost in Istanbul. Everything remains possible for the team, though, as they host Partizan this week.

18. Panionios (3-4) (-1)

The Greeks took a severe loss in Moscow, like nearly every team in the Euroleague. Additionally, they lost by 16 against Olympiacos in the Greek league, like nearly every team in the A1. So not a lot of changes for Panionios right now.

19. Asseco Prokom (2-5) (-1)

Prokom did the job in Nancy with the loss and not giving back the lead taken in the first meeting. The Polish team needs to win a few more in order to qualify for the next round and are currently in the best position for 4th place in their (poor) group.

20. Air Avellino (2-5) (-1)

Air Avellino lost nearly all of their chances to qualify for the Top 16 with the home defeat against Maccabi. It was a great experience for the small Italian team to participate to the Euroleague but the dream is coming to an end.

21. SLUC Nancy (2-5) (+1)

Nancy had a small chance and took it. By beating Asseco Prokom behind an astonishing effort from Cyril Julian, the French team needs to win on the road now in order to have a last qualifying chance for the Top 16.

22. Union Olimpija (1-6) (-1)

Nothing is really working well right now for the Slovenians. Coaches come and go, injuries and defeats mark a season to forget in the Euroleague. The management is probably already thinking about next year and seeking improvements in order to become competitive again.

23. Zalgiris Kaunas (0-7) (+1)

Yes, Zalgiris only lost by seven, so it was enough for me to take them out of last place. And when reading the forums, I even hear voices claiming that the Lithuanians still have a chance to reach the Top 16 by beating SLUC and Asseco. Yes, that sounds possible.

24. Le Mans (0-7) (-1)

Should I really waste any time writing about the biggest disaster of the year? Starting with a team names that opened some eyes but also a rookie coach, Le Mans should probably refocus on their traditions of talented young locals and experienced coaches. At least the fans would not be as disappointed.


Yarone’s Weekend Joints – Part II

Part II of the Weekend Joints is presented to you with visits to Kaunas, Nancy’s hot dog stands, Pionir, Milano and Greece. Can’t go wrong with that route.

The matchup that never happened

The Le Mans-Unicaja match had the potential to host one of the most intriguing match-ups Euroleague 2008/09 can offer. Unicaja’s big lead allowed coach Aito Garcia Reneses to send 1989-born guard Raimundo Lopez De Vinuesa, who certainly sports one of the coolest names in the competition, on court for the closing minutes. On the other bench waited Le Mans’ 1990 born guard Pierre-Etienne Drouault, but coach Jackson decided to keep him there, preventing two of the longest names in the Euroleague to go head-to-head. Who cares about Chase vs. Cook who these two young fellas can challenge any TV commentator?

Cyril goes on the road

Some players feel better at home. The rims are more familiar, the chants of the fans give them confidence, the five-minutes-before-tipoff hot dogs taste better and the cheerleaders, too. For Nancy’s Cyril Julian the case is different. Maybe he’s not a big fan of the local rims, perhaps the fans haven’t found a cool rhyme for his name; it’s possible the Nancy hot dogs are too expensive, and the cheerleaders…

So far in two home games, Julian hasn’t scored more than six points, hasn’t grabbed more than five rebounds and his highest index rating is thus far six. On the road, in three difficult spots as at Sopot, at Montepaschi and at Barcelona, he has scored at least 17 points, seven rebounds, and an index of at least 23.

Milos and Peja’s home visit

When players go back to face their former team, in an arena they are very familiar with, they usually excel more than the usual. When Milos Vujanic went back to Pionir with Efes to meet Partizan, he was anything but excelling. Milos grew up in Red Star, which is yet another great reason for him to do his best to torture Partizan, but made his breakthrough to Europe’s center stage with Partizan. In 2002/03, he was the top scorer of the Euroleague at 25.8 points per game.

Actually if you count only his games in Pionir, his season low was 26 points. His next visit to Pionir was in 2004/05 with Fortitudo Bologna, and he scored 25 with five assists to reach an index of 26. Leave out his next and last visit, as a back up player of Pao, and you’ll find his visit this week, once again as a key leading player, as the exception. Vujanic fouled out after less than 23 minutes on court in which he went only 2-for-5 from the field, scored eight points and lost three balls.

Even for Predrag Drobnjak, in his re-debut with Efes, in a gym he spent so many hours and big games on his way to greatness and the way back from there, it wasn’t a happy visit. The veteran played less than four minutes, scored two points and turned the ball over once.

Showing how to get it done

So Milos blew his home coming game against Partizan, but there’s someone who didn’t. The story goes that in the 1999/2000 season Sarunas Jasikevicius returned to his hometown Kaunas with Olimpija. The season before that, he had returned from five years in the USA and wanted to fulfill the dream of any Kaunas kid: to wear the jersey of Zalgiris. Only the green club had different ideas, so the kid had to cross the street and play for Rytas.

Zalgiris went on to win their historical Euroleague title that season, but Saras waited for the right time. In that Zalgiris-Olimpija game, the locals held a 17-point lead before Saras led his team back in the game, all the way to an 85-84 win. With the buzzer, Saras started his own private celebration. He ran around the court for a while with his fists in the air, expressing his joy in the most extroverted possible way. Legend tells he even stopped in front of Zalgiris bench and said “My name is Sarunas. I grew up here, but you didn’t want me and now I beat you,” or something like that.

Whether there’s any truth to that legend or not doesn’t really matter. His obvious post-game celebrations were noticed by all, but it doesn’t seem like it was enough for Saras to feel like he had cashed his check yet. In any season he faced Zalgiris, there was at least one game in which he excelled (and in the other less so). Even his career highs in points (37) and index rating (37) were tallied against his hometown team in the famous game in Tel Aviv when the teams went head-to-head for a win-or-die Final Four ticket match. This season has been no exception: One week after we mentioned his streak was over after he finished a Euroleague game with no points, came a 15-point, four-assist, 22-index night in less than 22 minutes at Zalgiris.

Mirror performance

Olimpija’s Mirza Begic was one of the nicest surprises in the first three weeks of the Euroleague; once teams put more focus on him, though, things have changed, and Begic has not reached double-digits in the last three weeks. The best example of the change was this week, when his team suffered its worst home defeat ever, 86-65 to Joventut. When the teams met in Week 1, back in the day when Joventut still had Pops, Begic scored 17 points on 8-for-9 from the field and 1-for-3 from the line. This week, they didn’t leave him a choice, played much more physical defense on him, and didn’t allow him any easy baskets. Begic finished the game versus Joventut almost with numbers mirroring the first encounter: 0-for-1 from the field and 5-for-6 from the charity stripe. Kudos to Joventut’s bigs and coach Sito Alonso for a well executed plan.

Devil Smith

Devin Smith arrived in Istanbul as an intriguing player. The season before, he had led Avellino to a great campaign which eventually got them a ticket into the Euroleague. With Fenerbahce Ulker, Smith is doing well in the Turkish league but so far hasn’t foundnd his game in the Euroleague. He stands on only eight points per game with a sub-39% two-point ratio and awful 14.8% from long range. Actually, if you take out his game at Joventut, Smith has made just one three-pointer on 20 attempts in five games.

This week, Smith tallied his worst game yet, finishing the match against Tau missing all his six attempts from the field, didn’t make it to the line even once and committed three turnovers. In total, that’s a minus-5 index rating. Some might say the Euroleague is too big for Smith, and that’s debatable, but he’s still a better player than the numbers show so far. If it’s any comfort, his block on Begic near the end of the 2OT win over Olimpija will stay one of the highlights of the season.

When it all connects

Already last week it was pointed out here that CSKA Moscow is having trouble on the road. The near losses in Madrid and Beograd included a few made three pointer nights, and it was the same in Milano. This time, the percentages were much better, but CSKA connected only five times from long range. Matjaz Smodis finished 0-for-4 from the field but 8-for-8 from the line, and Siska … well, that was covered already. Zoran Planinic was sweeter than sweet in the first half while CSKA took a 20-point lead on the way to what seemed like another walk in the park, but … not that night.

So you know youngster Luca Vitali, a long-time Italian prospect, shone at five for six from long range, but the performance of David Hawkins in the last 11 minutes of the game was something you have to catch. He scored 15 points in that span, including seven in the final two minutes and the last five points from Milano in the game. In that run he missed just a single shot, and broke CSKA’s defense piece by piece. Even more surprisingly was the return to life, at least for a few minutes, of Massimo Bulleri, who scored six points in the fourth quarter. What stood out most in this win was Milano’s aggressive defense, especially in the fourth. For several minutes, it actually felt like CSKA was facing a … CSKA defense.

The uncompleted comeback

Last week, you were asked to check out the “Play of the Week”: Aaron Miles’ coast-to-coast drive to beat the halftime buzzer. This week his coast-to-coast to beat the buzzer also beat Real Madrid, but the story of the game was Real’s comeback. The Whites actually started the game with a 10-2 lead. but from that moment Panionios took over and in the next 20 minutes went on a 53-17 run, to reach a 55-27 lead in the 27th minute.

Then it all started. Real stormed back with a 31-5 run in nine minutes and later on even got the lead back, but their run is worth a closer look. During those nine minutes, Panionios made no fewer than eight turnovers, almost one per minute, but if you think Real was perfect on the other side, you’ve got the wrong picture. Coach Joan Plaza’s boys were actually 5-of-11 from the free throw line and lost four balls in that run but still managed to get it done. It was thanks to massive control on the offensive glass, where their hands were quicker or longer no fewer than eight times. Those extra possessions and easier access to the basket, as usually happens after an offensive rebound, allowed them to stand on 11-of-17 from the field in that run. Marko Tomas was the main man behind the comeback when he scored all of his 18 points of the game in the closing 13 minutes.