The last pack of Joints before the big break presents you with the stories behind the games in Barcelona and Roma, with a short stop in Athens and a final visit to Kaunas.
Puff it up!
An NBA glitch for a minute. The most memorable game from Kobe’s rookie season was the last of that season: The Lakers were down 3-1 against the Jazz and playing game 5 in Salt Lake City. It came down to a tied-up game on the last possession and Laker ball. Kobe was an 18-year-old rookie back then, having started in only six games the entire season and averaging about 8 points per game — Far from the sole go-to guy he became later on.
Nevertheless, Kobe took that last shot that hit nothing but … air. The game went into overtime. Some might thought the kid would shy from the ball after the airball, but nothing was about to stop Bryant. Not even when he made another airball, and another and then another. Three airballs in a row on decent (Kobe-style) shots in a single overtime.
Kobe detractors celebrated and claimed nothing would come of such a selfish kid who shoots airball after airball in a clutch moment in a playoff game in his rookie season. For one of the writers on Ballineurope.com, though, it was a sign this kid was something special. So very few players have the balls to take such shots and continue to play like nothing has changed after the first airball.
What does this have to do with the Euroleague? In recent weeks, we’ve seen a 17-year-old kid named Mirza Sarajlija who plays 20 minutes per game for Olimpija. In Roma, with the game tied at 62-62 and the final seconds of regulation running down, Sarajlija held the ball. Veterans like Jasmin Hukic and Ivica Jurkovic were in Olimpija’s lineup but the kid, who was 1-for-7 from the field to that point, didn’t only have the ball but also the balls. Sarajlija ran the clock down and took the game on his shoulders. His shot hit nothing but … air.
Olimpija somehow manged to tie the score and the game went into overtime, but not before the kid had another chance to win the match and instead turned the ball over. While we didn’t witness another series of airballs in overtime by the skilled Sarajlija, but he kept his game going and didn’t hide from the ball. There’s something special in this kid…
The Barcelona show
No doubt who’s the hottest team in Europe now: It didn’t even take the two losses in three games by CSKA to put an undisputed crown on Barcelona’s head in the last days of 2008. The 24-point win over Pao in the first leg wasn’t impressive enough. Barca had already smashed Pao that badly twice already in the last years, but didn’t do much more than that later the season.
In the last two weeks, things have changed. First came the easy-easy-easy win in OAKA, and this week the team tortured Montepaschi with a 25-3 first-quarter start. Lavrinovic entered the game on a 0-for-10 streak from the arc and at the final buzzer “climbed” to 1-for-14, but that three-pointer was the bucket that saved his team from a quarter of a round zero points. Take a look at the team stats close to the end of that first quarter and figure it out.
The thing about Barca is not that they look unstoppable, they just make the opponent look miserable. Very, very miserable. The following Joint might explain it best.
First ever for Rimas
Coach Simone Pianigiani’s players seemed in total shock from tip off to buzzer. Nobody played close to his level. Probably the best example was Rimas Kaukenas, one of yours truly’s favorite players. The best way to describe his game style would be to say he’s an all-around guard. Kaukenas can score, sometimes even a lot, but he’s not a scorer. He does a lot of things on court. He’ll rebound, assist, steal and make the defense move to create situations for his teammates. Not a lot of players contribute in so many aspects on court in such a steady manner as the Lithuanian talent.
Let’s put it into numbers. From 2000/01, when he started his pro career after college, to today, Kaukenas played 96 games in European competitions and 276 in domestic leagues in Israel, Lithuania, Belgium, Germany and Italy for six different teams. In the European cup games, Kaukenas didn’t finish a single game without one rebound or assist. Always at least one of the above. Mostly, of course, with more than one in both.
In domestic league games, Kaukenas had only seven nights without a rebound or assist. In five of these seven, he had at least one steal; in the other two, he had no steals as well but at least drew fouls. In Barcelona, he had his worst game ever in this respect: He played over 32 minutes, more than anyone else in Montepaschi, finishing with eight points on 4-for-12 shooting from the field, but lost three balls and was blocked twice. That’s it. For the first time ever in his pro career, a total of 344 games, Kaukenas finished a game with no rebounds, no assists, no steals and no fouls drawn. If you needed an image of Montepaschi’s lack of production, even on a miniscule scale, on that night, Kaukenas was the perfect example.
Saved by the Point
Montepaschi scored only three points in the first quarter at Barcelona, but stayed out of the record books. The one to hold the undignified record for fewest points in a quarter is another Italian club: Benetton Treviso. Under one of the best coaches out there, Ettore Messina, Benetton scored just two points in the third quarter of their Top 16 game in Istanbul against Efes Pilsen on March 10, 2005. The final score was a 52-43 win for the Turks.
If you’re looking for a link between the games, you can find it in Henry Domercant. Back in 2005, Domercant was on Efes and excelled with 16 points, 8 rebounds and an index rating of 24. This week, he was on the other side with Montepaschi, but was still best on his team with 13 points, 5 boards and an index of 17.
Where we stand, Group C
Tau (6-2) will travel to Roma (6-2) after the break and must win if they want to finish on top. An Italian win will give Sani the first spot in this group thanks to two wins over the club from Vitoria. In recent years, no team other than CSKA has managed to beat Tau on both legs.
Olimpija is now officially out of the picture, so three teams will fight over two tickets. Fenerbahce Ulker’s (4-4) big win over Joventut (4-4) this week will most likely be enough to give them an advantage in any tiebreaker. Fener will be out only if Alba wins both games and Ricky’s gang does not get a victory at Tau. Since Joventut still needs to play in Vitoria (although that game might not matter to Tau if they lose in Roma) and will host Alba (3-5), the chances of the two teams chasing the Turks to pass them are slim.
All this means that the fourth ticket will be decided in Badalona right after the break when Joventut hosts Alba. The differences play no role here. A win by Simas’ gang will keep Alba out of the Top 16. In the case of a German win, the club from Catalonia will need to win in Vitoria and pray for Alba to lose at home against knocked-out Olimpija in front of 13,000 fans in O2 arena.
Paulius the first
One last bit from Kaunas. Paulius Jankunas had another big game in front of his fans, but this one will go in history books. He finished with a season high of 23 points, going 5-for-5 inside the arc and a surprising 3-for-5 from distance. The Lithuanian big guy can shoot from outside, but he’s someone you can leave open with the state of mind “So he’ll make one of three at best. I can live with that.” That’s probably true but no consolation for Prokom, who saw Jankunas hit three times from beyond the arc for the first time in his Euroleague career, a total of 96 games.
Since Pini Gershon rearrived in Tel Aviv, Lior Eliyahu is blooming. This week he notched his third double-double in a row. As noted by Arale Weisberg on Ynet.co.il, Maccabi legends Anthony Parker and Nikola Vujcic never held such streak. Maceo Baston reached it just once and Nate Huffman three times. The Euroleague longest streak is held by two double-double masters: Mirsad Turkcan and Joe Blair. Both reached a streak of seven, which is no surprise as they also have double-double career averages.
It’s raining three’s
When CSKA shoots 14 three pointers at a 48.2% clip on you in Moscow and you still win, it’s close to a miracle. True, the Russians missed Siska and Smodis, but it’s still one very impressive win for the Spanish squad. Three pointers played a big role in this game, as the teams combined for 26 hits from that range in 50 attempts, and didn’t fall far behind the shots taken inside the arc (31-for63).
Most unique was that no fewer than 10 players — five on each team — scored more times from long range than from inside the arc. Aleksey Savrasenko and Erazem Lorbek were the only CSKA players who didn’t shoot from distance, and obviously scored more inside it. J.R. Holden was the exception. For Real, only Hervelle and Massey tried both options and were more successful from the inside. The rest — Felipe Reyes, Sergio Llull and Venson Hamilton — avoided shooting from three-point land.
Panathinaikos and Nancy met in OAKA in one of the most boring games of the season. Pao won, as expected, 83-69, and that’s was the main problem: It was too expected. Both sides played with no real passion. Pao took a double-digit lead in the second quarter and from there the game continued to be played, but nothing happened.
Well, almost nothing. Ricardo Greer, who’s on the sure path to have the worst turnover per game ratio in Euroleague history as published here, contributed another unforgettable performance with seven turnovers. If you keep in mind that he had a season high of eight in the first game against the Greeks, you get an average of 7.5 turnovers per game. The irony is that those two games also represented his best index rating performances of the season. In France, he had his season high in points with 26, five rebounds and index of 19, while this week he tallied 21 points, six rebounds and 16 index rating.
Where we stand, Group D
Despite the losses, unless the Earth move, CSKA (6-2) will finish this group on top. Real (5-3) stands a very good chance to finish second, but it’s far from a done deal, as they still need to play in Milano and host the only team in the final week that can still snatch the spot: Efes.
The last two tickets are up for grabs, as Efes (4-4) and three teams with a 3-5 record – Partizan, Milano and Panionios — can finish in or out of the pack. Panionios will play at Partizan and host Milano in the upcoming weeks and a lot will be decided in these battles. We might even see here a four-way tie at 4-6, so everything is still wide open in this race.
The index rating doesn’t always reflect what happened on court, but in a very certain way did show what took place in Roma. The game went to overtime and could have gone in favor of the visitors but by the end of the night, Roma had a team index rating of 86 while the group from Ljubljana was stuck at 49: A difference of 37 that doesn’t tell the story of the night, but funnily enough former Olimpija player Sani Becirovic finished the game with an index rating of 38 on the way to MVP of the Week honors. A single Roma player wasn’t too far from Olimpija’s total, and almost made the entire difference between the teams.