With one more week of Euroleague play to go before the field of viable contenders officially shrinks again, Ball in Europe contributor Francesco Cappelletti wraps the round that was in the big league. In this week’s roundup, Signor C. laments Montepaschi Siena’s fate, Sergio Scariolo’s precarious position and the reason Olympiacos might yet give Barca a workout before all is said and done (Hint: It starts with “Linas” and ends with “Kleiza”).
Group F focus
Oddly, the group which could have been in doubt until the buzzer of Week 6 suddenly has two qualified teams after five weeks: These are Real Madrid and Maccabi Tel Aviv, teams which will meet next Thursday at Palacio Vistalegre to define a first place currently in possession of the Israeli side for their 81-76 victory of February 4.
Montepaschi Siena was shocked by a 43-point fourth quarter scored by Alan Anderson and teammates. OK, take out the final (meaningless) 10 points, and 33 remain on the back of the Italian champions. How was this possible? MPS had recovered during the third period thanks to big hearted Terrell McIntyre and bad offensive decisions from previously unstoppable Doron Perkins, but, I mean, if you play with six men (seven minutes of nothing for Nikos Zisis in crisis, Ksistof Lavrinovic plagued by back spasms), and you enter the final fraction with a 3-point advantage at Yad Eliyahu, well, you know your destiny.
Montepaschi ran out of gas, watching the Anderson-David Bluthenthal duo destroy basket from the short or long range. Coach Simone Pianigiani has his faults, obstinate as he is about playing the same rotation every game in every competition. Somehow he didn’t notice the team aging, he didn’t want to accept that it might still be possible to win in Serie A by letting the likes of Tomas Ress, Marco Carraretto and Denis Marconato play more than Romain Sato and Shaun Stonerook…
An era is over, and the bad news is that the two new faces (Zisis and David Hawkins) brought in to represent a new beginning, are not worthy of Euroleague. Instead, Ettore Messina got in a full Abdi Ipecki and that away win he needed to be sure of a playoff spot. The second quarter was decisive, with four consecutive triples (two each for Jorge Garbajosa and Sergio Llull, again the best two on the floor) broke the game open and Efes Pilsen never managed to come back. Despite foul issues, Felipe Reyes was fundamental, giving an internal dimension Real often lacks in perimeter specialist Darjus Lavrinovic and Garbajosa.
On his part, Ergin Ataman forgot Daniel Santiago, very effective in just five minutes of use, while Igor Rakocevic has confirmed suspicions of those critics who say he hasn’t been playing because he no longer the same Igor Rakocevic. It seems Rakocevic has suddenly realized he’s 32 years old: He had the opportunity to turn around the worst Euroleague season of his career this week, but he wasn’t good at all.
Sergio Scariolo must be furious. BC Khimki is now in third place in Group H and clearly not favoured to gain the group’s second pass to the playoffs. The Russians’ saga began with an amazing win in Baskonia, then it was time for a loss (with the same scoring differential!) in Moscow against Tiago Splitter-orphaned Caja Laboral, and the story continued with an unpredictable humiliation in Zagreb, where Cibona took the first success of its Top 16 and kept itself in the race to qualification.
The final week’s schedule shows an interesting game in BC Khimki-Olympiacos: Scariolo’s team must win by a margin of seven points more than Caja Laboral’s over Cibona. Otherwise, Scariolo is out. Out of Euroleague and, probably, his job. We’ll see if in Spain, Dusko Ivanovic will try to put injured Splitter back in the roster for the crucial game: Don’t tell him that Baskonia has a better look without the Brazilian and Mirza Teletovic is playing like an All-Star.
Talking about mental toughness – what BC Khimki hasn’t enough of – some word on Panathinaikos and Asseco Prokom is obligatory. The Greens saved their Euroleague season by winning in Belgrade (Did Drew Nicholas read the last Frank Euroleague Roundup? He answered it with an amazing 6-of-6 from beyond the arc) and messing up Partizan’s plans. Assuming Regal FC Barcelona doesn’t lose a decisive home game against Dule Vujosevic’s boys, the Serbian team is rooting for PAO to beat Maroussi BC, or the third Athenian club will go to playoffs to the Partizan’s detriment.
The real contender
We’ll have to wait for the draw which will cross the four qualified teams at the Final Four. However, we can just say Asseco Prokom is not a serious rival for Olympiacos, so the Reds are quite sure to be in Paris. The impression is they are the only squad able to make Barcelona sweat on the way to winning the trophy. Olympaicos has the talent, length, weight, and experience.
And above all, they have Linas Kleiza.
“Experts” who describe Kleiza as a power forward make me laugh: Have they ever seen him in action? Maybe when he was at University of Missouri he was a power forward. Now, he’s something out of the European standards of small forward. He has the body of a four, the movements of a three, and the shoot of a SG or SF.
Who on Barcelona can guard him? Big men Fran Vazquez and Terrence Morris haven’t the feet speed to stay with him, Pete Mickeal is physically smaller. Lubos Barton (who played four minutes at Maroussi in his first Euroleague appearance of the year) is for me the ideal solution, even if I know he’s not healthy and Xavi Pascual’s not a lover of individual defensive tachtical moves. But more than pick-and-roll plays involving Milos Teodosic/Theo Papaloukas and Nikola Vujcic/Ioannis Bouroussis/Sofoklis Schortsanitis, over Josh Childress’ explosions to the basket, Oly depends on Kleiza. And on defense, unwatchable and absolutely to change for a team whose ambition is to replace mortal enemy Panathinaikos on the throne.
The breakout games of Sergio Llull (14.5 points in the last two games) did coincide with a light dip in Rimas Kaukenas’ numbers (a total of four points in 23 minutes); Messina thanks his Spaniard but he knows first place in Group F is due to a Lithuanian resurrection … Andrey Vorontsevich is the nicest news for coach Pashutin: With his contribution, the solid Sasha Kaun and an outstanding Viktor Khryapa, Pashution can easily bench Pops Mensah-Bonsu, a big man someone (e.g. Montepaschi, BC Khimki) would welcome with a red carpet … Aleks Maric caught 12 rebounds against Panathinaikos (no Pekovic for Obradovic) and shot 2-of-10 from the paint: It’s hard to face athletic giants like Mike Batiste and Marcus Haislip … Marko Tomas keeps on shining: Real Madrid’s management must again think of that unhappy movement intented to confirm Louis Bullock and discharge the Croatian … Young Zalgiris Kaunas’s honouring its Euroleague Top 16 bid better than did Unicaja Malaga, who would have believed so two months ago…?