Unicaja and Joan Plaza Bounce Back; Pouring one out for Valencia

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Much like the NCAA National Championship, it was a grind-it-out, defensive oriented affair in Valencia in the deciding game of the Eurocup Finals. Despite Valencia’s tough home-court environment, Unicaja proved to be road warriors again, winning 63-58 in the deciding game on the road for the second time this postseason (they won game 3 in the quarterfinals against Bayern Munich). Unicaja was led by Eurocup Finals MVP guard Alberto Diaz, who scored 12 shots on 4 of 6 shooting, had two assists, and provided some great defense at the guard position throughout the series.

It was not a pretty contest by any means in the deciding game, as Diaz was only one of two players to reach double figures scoring for Unicaja (Jamar Smith being the other). However, the defense of Unicaja was the underrated star of the series, as Unicaja held Valencia to only 4 points in the deciding 4th quarter (though part of it was Valencia not making open shots; props to Mark Titus and his “if they don’t make shots, they don’t win” theory). The Malaga-based club also quieted two of Valencia’s best offensive players, Rafa Martinez and Fernando San Emeterio, throughout the series, and especially in Game 3, as Martinez scored 3 points on 1-of-7 shooting, and San Emeterio scored 7 on of 1-of-9 shooting (this also resulted in Martinez having an epic meltdown at the end where he got a technical for jawing with Nemanja Nedovic and made the game go on five minutes longer than it should have; I thought he was going to fight every Unicaja player on the floor). The big concern going into the series was if Unicaja would be able to handle the offensive precision and depth of Valencia, but in the most crucial moments, Unicaja’s perimeter defense, led by Diaz, Smith, Nedovic, Jeff Brooks, and Adam Waczynski, came up big and willed the underdogs to victory. As you can see in the highlights below, Brooks’ huge block on Martinez in the closing seconds was a moment that Malaga fans will remember for a long time.

The win helps Unicaja return to the Euroleague after a one-year hiatus. Unicaja was one of the more entertaining clubs in the regular season last Euroleague, thanks to Mindaugas Kuzminskas, who is now playing for the New York Knicks. However, they nose-dived a bit in Top 16 play, didn’t make the playoffs, and didn’t perform well enough in the ACB to generate an at-large berth, thus pushing them to the Eurocup for the first time ever this season.

Thankfully for the Malaga-based club, they didn’t have to spend too much time away from Europe’s top, and most lucrative competition.

The win also was a bit of redemption for head coach Joan Plaza, a fiery and intense coach who has also coached for Real Madrid and Zalgiris prior to arriving in Malaga. This is the second Eurocup title for Plaza, as he won one in 2006-2007 (then the ULEB Cup) with Real Madrid (in addition to an ACB title). However, he wasn’t able to build on that success for long in the Spanish capital. Lackluster finishes in the ACB and Euroleague in consecutive seasons after his dual-title campaign resulted in him being replaced by Ettore Messina, who achieved Euroleague Final Four success in Plaza’s wake, thus dwarfing Plaza’s Madrid legacy in the record books a bit.

However, Plaza bounced back this year with Unicaja, and it is a bit satisfying to see on Plaza’s behalf. He gets forgotten in Spanish coaching circles among fans as of late, as he doesn’t have the credentials of a Messina, former Barcelona and current Panathinaikos coach Xavi Pascual or Pablo Laso, the current Madrid coach. And there was some speculation on how long he would stay in Malaga after being demoted to the Eurocup this season. Despite all that, not to mention not having home court advantage or Dejan Musli, who was lost to injury prior to the Finals, Plaza was able to add another championship to his underrated legacy. You could see in the interview below how much the victory meant to him, and how much he knew it meant to the community of Malaga as well.

Good for you Joan. We need more of your profanity-laced timeouts in the Euroleague.


 

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Not living in Spain or having much access to ACB games (other than random YouTube uploads), I did not have much familiarity with this Valencia team leading up to this Eurocup playoffs. However, once I started watching the Eurocup, Valencia was one of the teams I fell in love with quickly.

American Luke Sikma and Romain Sato were a couple of my favorite players when they were in college, and it was nice to not only see them again, but still being just as effective as professionals in Europe. I remembered Sikma being an efficiency machine in the WCC when he played at the University of Portland, and I have fond memories of Sato torching A-10 foes from beyond the arc when he played at Xavier. Neither has changed much in terms of game. Sikma remains a versatile and efficient post player, and Sato is the hot-hand off the bench that could swing momentum for this Valencia club at any given moment.

But while I had some prior fondness for Sikma and Sato, I grew to appreciate all of head coach Pedro Martinez’s Valencia squad with each and every playoff game. I loved Rafa Martinez’s heat-check 3’s and abrasive personality that made Sasha Vujacic look like a choir boy in comparison. I sunk in the in-depth post moves and beard of Bojan Dubljevic, who was probably Valencia’s best player this series (he had 16 points, 6 rebounds and a game high 19 PIR in Game 3). San Emeterio and Joan Sastre were crafty wings, who gave up many athletic disadvantages throughout the playoffs (especially in the last two rounds against Unicaja and Hapoel Jerusalem), but were able to be effective on the offensive and defensive in positive ways for this Valencia club.

And the fans? Well, when things were going well, as they were in Game 1 of the Finals, you could appreciate how turned up they got, often times boosting their team on the floor.

Valencia was like that good college team that didn’t have five-star recruits, or one tremendous star player, but relied on great chemistry and depth to win games. Martinez played a 10-plus rotation where multiple guys received double-digit minutes, even in the postseason, something that seems crazy to think about it in retrospect (whether its college or NBA, most teams are playing an 8-man lineup). And Martinez, while intense, always seemed focused in the moment, looking more like a seasoned college coach than the professional one you would see in the NBA (though to be honest, I would say Euroleague coaches are closer in spirit to college ones than NBA).

If I had to compare Valencia to any college basketball team, it would be a Gonzaga, of sorts: good, but not great players; a head coach who isn’t necessarily as widely-heralded as others in Europe (he had a lot of success with Gran Canaria as well); and a small, but rabid fanbase that makes Fuente de San Luis one of the more underrated (and perhaps toughest) venues in Spain, maybe Europe.

I am happy for Unicaja and Plaza. I am happy that more basketball fans will get to see Alberto Diaz in the Euroleague next year. The Malaga fans are some of the better ones you will see in European basketball circles.

But I wanted to see Valencia a bit more. I wanted to see the “Pedro-ball” and Rafa Martinez going at it with CSKA’s Milos Teodosic in a “who has the better half-assed beard and is more combative” contest. I wanted to see a potential Zalgiris Kevin Pangos and Sikma cross-match, akin to their Gonzaga-Portland days in the WCC.

However, with the cap of country teams in the Euroleague at four (meaning there can’t be more than four teams from one country), it is probably all but certain that Valencia will be back in the Eurocup in 2017-2018 (along with Malaga, Real Madrid, Baskonia and Barcelona will most likely be in the Euroleague; Barcelona was not good this year, but they have an A license).

Pour one out for Valencia. Let’s hope they show more Eurocup games (other than just the playoffs) next year on Euroleague TV.

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9 thoughts on “Unicaja and Joan Plaza Bounce Back; Pouring one out for Valencia

  1. Πάτε καλά; April 7, 2017 / 8:02 pm

    I am thinking the first Euroleague game of Malaga, with the face of Bertomeu in fake Euros and i am already delighted 😀 Otherwise, it is always good to see teams wearing green jerseys in Euroleague!

    ps. Stupid Alonso, stupid Baskonia.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pierre Marie Corbacho April 12, 2017 / 1:12 pm

    Gotta love the more green indeed. Though it will be interesting to see if Bertomeu and the EL committee break by laws and add a fifth Spanish team, which is getting momentum as of late. Personally, I think they should maintain the 4-team per country cap

    Less than a week until the playoff begin!

    Like

    • Πάτε καλά; April 12, 2017 / 3:08 pm

      I am guessing Bertomeu will add a 5th Spanish team. Otherwise, the matchup Fener PAO will be a sentimental torture for PAO fans and one for the ages for all the rest.

      My predictions:

      -Real and CSKA will have absolutely no issue.

      -OSFP claims that they are feeling comfortable with Anadolu EFES but I am not so sure. Efes is a team that has a good winning streak, they have athletic players that can run fast and they have a very good coach. Additionally, OSFP always had issues with teams that play a fast-paced game; they lost inside their home from Maccabi, outside from Efes and Milano and they also lost both games from the team of the palace where Gauls had once upon a time settled (saray means palace in turkish). Efes plays the same style so I do not see how they won’t have an issue. Finally, without Lojeski I just cannot see how the heck they will match the athletic bodies of Efes players once Perasovic decides to close the frontcourt. Papapetrou is oriented towards that solution but he is too streaky. Hackett with its length and its capabilities to post players would be a solution but he is injured. Therefore, I am expected a dog fight. Remember that in 2012-2013 Osfp lost both games against Efes in Turkey and during the last 5th game, Efes was ahead until the 4th quarter, were the reds executed Efes with their 3-point capabilities.

      -PAO against the team of the gardens of the Phanari neighbourhood (bahce means garden in turkish). If PAO manages to impose an up-tempo pace, so as to fatigue the small numbers of Fener players that Zots uses (8-9 players for 5 games in 2.5 weeks are just a few) and if the referees will not execute us (because we have seen many things these 10 years in Euroleague), we will make it to the f4..

      Fun fact: PAO has the team that accepts the fewer points per 40min. Usually, these teams make it to the Euroleague f4; the last exception was Unics in 2013-2014 (if I remember well).

      ps.Fan fact no2: Usually, it is the second game in the same town where the…break happens. So games 2 and 4 are by definition the most interesting ones.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Πάτε καλά; April 12, 2017 / 4:05 pm

        *would have been a solution
        **I am expecting a
        ***too few

        Like

      • Pierre Marie Corbacho April 12, 2017 / 4:21 pm

        Yeah, I just feel it is inevitable (5th team) because the ACB is just so head and shoulders over some of the other domestic leagues. I think a lot of it depends on what Dacka does this offseason (i.e. if the rumors are true and if Dogus pulls sponsorship and aligns with Fener; making Dacka a Eurocup team). I just would rather see more country-representation, though I do understand that the best of the best need to compete in the Euroleague to continue to make it more known globally.

        I totally agree on Real. Dacka has some starter talent in Wanamaker, Zizic, Wilbekin and Clyburn, but Madrid’s depth is just so crazy good. I would be surprised if this goes beyond three games. As for CSKA, I think that one will be more intriguing. CSKA’s weakness is in the frontcourt, and Baskonia’s strength is in the frontcourt. I would not be surprised to see this go 5, though Baskonia has tendencies to start games cold, especially at home. I think CSKA will pull it out, just because they have de Colo and Teodosic, but I don’t think it will be as easy as people think.

        The Efes-Olympiacos series intrigues me. These are two teams trending in the opposite ways. Efes has been one of the hottest teams, other than PAO, these past five or so weeks. Olympiacos has been the opposite, and has been on the decline these past five or so week. I think the battle will be if Olympiacos’ backcourt can handle Efes’. Efes is fast and athletic, and Perasovic is a good coach who took Baskonia to the Final Four last season. Olympiacos though will have the physicality and defensive edge, though they have been not as impressive the past few weeks (especially Birch, who just hasn’t looked as good lately as he did mid-season). I think for Efes to win this series, they need a big “WTF” performance from somebody unexpected, like Granger during the last double week of the year. I don’t know what Lojeski’s status is, but it’s obvious they miss him, and if they get him back, that will help a lot since they lack consistent scoring on the perimeter. This will be another tough series, and a toss up IMO. I think Olympiacos’ physicality will win out, but if Efes steals one in Piraeus, then it could be Efes’ series to lose (though I have never been all that impressed with Efes’ homecourt advantage this season).

        I really love this PAO-Fener series. I know it will be tough for PAO but this PAO team has looked like a Top-3 squad since Gist returned and released Gentile. They are so incredibly balanced, and they match up well with Fener at every position. Vesely and Udoh haven’t been as impressive as they were last year, and Singleton and Gist are tough matchups for the both of them, especially if PAO can increase the tempo like you said. Fener’s perimeter is extremely dependent on Bogdanovic, which can have its highs and lows. Datome is a wild card. If he blows up like he did against Real Madrid last year, he may help them pull off the upset. He has that potential, and I think if Fener really wants to make it back to the Final Four for a third straight year, they need Datome to step up. Unfortunately, I don’t think PAO will make it easy for him to do so. Real was not very good defensively a year ago, and this PAO team is much better on that end.

        To me, Game 2 is going to be key. I think PAO builds on their momentum at OAKA this year and beats Fener easily in game 1. However, Fener will come back and it will be a much closer contest. IMO whoever wins Game 2 of this series wins it all. Fener has great fans, but they haven’t been as invincible at home this year as they were the past two seasons. Of course, refs will be an issue (as they were in the Dacka-Brose game in Round 29; I would not be surprised if the EL will be pushing for Fener representation in the F4), but if PAO holds serve at home, I could see them winning the series in 3 or 4, stealing one in Istanbul.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Πάτε καλά; April 12, 2017 / 6:09 pm

    Perasovic is a very good coach; aside from his participation with Baskonia last season, his 2006-2007 team was just beautiful, an offensive monster. It was a pity he could not coach the team during that f4. Lojo will be off the next 1.5 month and hence, he won’t be able to reinforce OSFP during this period.

    As for PAO, I won’t be surprised to see him in the playoffs (my original surprise was to see this team winning the home court advantage) but there I believe he will have a short trip; Real is just UN BE A TA BLE this year (despite PAO matching up well with the queen). I just hope that Xavi has many tricks out of his sleeve to change a game that does not go well because I am sure Zots has a handful of those.

    The major problem with Euroleague are the ..tickets. A lot of good teams do not sell a lot of tickets and Bertomeu hates that (it harms the image of the league), consequently he gives a lot of closed contracts. Nevertheless, this also creates two other problems:
    a)The first is that not the best teams do not always participate in the Euroleague.
    b)The second problem is that that way you decrease the gap between Euroleague and Eurocup teams (like Cedevita, AEK Athens, Venezia or Hapoel): rich teams get 25 million to reinforce their budget and other teams cannot compete with them in their domestic leagues, therefore ending up to show a much weaker performance.

    What I propose is a 22 (YES, 22) Euroleague. It will allow Bertomeu to fund with 25 million many teams, mainly depending on their domestic league rankings (so it will attract potential investors), it will stir up the competition and we might even see a financial bonus for many high attendance teams (like Maccabi, Baskonia, PAO) since they will play more games with their fans. Finally, it will keep some European basketball talents on this side of the Atlantic (due to higher salaries).

    ps. I do not trust Baskonia; they might steal a game in their home but they cannot beat CSKA twice within 3 days.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Pierre Marie Corbacho April 12, 2017 / 6:46 pm

      Good call on the 2006-2007 Baskonia team. Perasovic is one of the more underrated Euroleague coaches. Guy wins everywhere he goes it seems.

      I totally agree about Real Madrid. Their depth is unbelievable, especially in the frontcourt with Reyes, Ayon, Randolph, Hunter, and Thompkins (that is just batshit). Add that with the quicker than expected maturation of Doncic, and I just don’t see anyone knocking off Madrid. PAO is an interesting matchup because of Singleton’s flexibility as a post (I would love to see a Singleton-Randolph matchup in the F4), but there is no one with Madrid’s depth in the playoffs. Hell, this Madrid team I think could finish better than some NBA teams this year.

      I like your idea with the 22 teams. Yes, tickets is a big deal, and I could see why they place such an emphasis on that when selecting teams. I think the 22 teams could work if they split up the Euroleague into divisions (an East and West for example). Each Division has 11, they play home and away with the 10 in their division and 10 “out of division” games (basically, they miss 1 opponent from the other division, and they rotate each year). I think this works because I like the 30 round format, and considering other domestic leagues go the same length roughly, teams play about 60 games in a year, which I think is the perfect amount for teams (82 is just way too much). I do think some teams from the Eurocup (or even Champions League) deserve to be seen in the Euroleague, and I think the divisions give the benefit of expansion and bigger budgets while not compromising the quality of play.

      Anyways, just trying to piggyback off your idea. But I like it. Also, I admit that while I like Baskonia, I do agree that it will be tough for them to beat CSKA twice in three days. I see CSKA winning the first two, Baskonia winning big or comfortably in game 3, going ice cold in the first quarter like they did against PAO at Fernando Buesa, and lose in a tough one in Game 4.

      Like

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