CSKA and de Colo remind VTB (and doubters) that they’re arguably Europe’s best

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It was easy to forget about how dominant CSKA Moscow was this season, especially leading into the VTB Finals against Moscow rival Khimki.

After all, considering their 2015-2016 campaign included a Euroleague and VTB title, this season could be considered a disappointment. They finished second in the regular season, looked shaky against Baskonia in the playoffs (though they did sweep), and they finished 3rd in the Euroleague Final Four, losing to underdog Olympiacos in the semifinals. For a powerhouse like CSKA, those results just aren’t enough.

And then there were all the other stories. The Milos Teodosic leaving to the NBA rumors. The whether “Dimitris Itoudis will be back as head coach” rumors. The rumors of David Blatt coming to replace him. Khimki’s epic comeback against Zenit St. Petersburg in the semifinals. Khimki’s Alexey Shved winning the VTB Regular Season MVP award.

There seemed to be all kinds of indicators that this would be series, that maybe CSKA would run out of gas, and Khimki, qualifying for the Euroleague with their semifinal win, would build on the momentum they achieved from their victory over Zenit. Milos would be distracted. Nando wouldn’t be able to handle the load himself. Itoudis would fold under the pressure of being on the “hot seat”. These were all stories that I thought would make this CSKA-Khimki finals a close and competitive series. Even the promos got me pumped that Khimki had a puncher’s chance of pulling the upset.

(Yes, I have no idea what the words say; I am not literate in Russian unfortunately.)

And yet, CSKA just slapped me and other doubters back into reality three games later.


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This was not a series by any stretch of the imagination. This was complete and utter domination from start to finish. CSKA completed their 9-0 undefeated run through the VTB playoffs (they also swept Astana in the first round and then Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar in the semifinals) by beating Khimki by an average of 16.3 ppg. The combination of Aaron Jackson and Cory Higgins guarding Shved made the reigning VTB MVP a complete non-factor, as they limited him to 31 percent shooting from the field and a cumulative PIR of 23 for the series. It was the kind of performance that made the Golden State Warriors’ run in the NBA postseason look pedestrian in comparison.

While all the attention was on Shved and Teodosic, and for good reason, de Colo proved once again this VTB finals why he is one of the best guards in all of Europe. De Colo didn’t really impress in his tenure with the San Antonio Spurs, and there are always doubts amongst European basketball fans about the legitimacy of de Colo’s tenure so far with CSKA. Is he a MVP-caliber player because of or despite Teodosic? Some people will credit Teodosic’s big time shooting and playmaking as the reason why de Colo is successful: teams are more afraid of the Serbian wizard hurting them than the French guard.

De Colo bucked that theory in what was a magnificent series from beginning to end. In game 1, he scored 21 points, shot 57 percent from the field, put up an efficiency of 20 and had a +/- of 22. What is probably the most underrated aspect of de Colo’s game is his ability to draw fouls and get to the line. The 29-year-old guard did that in bunches in game 1, as he drew 7 fouls, and went 12-13 from the line. As for Teodosic? Well, he only scored 7 points and put up a PIR of 8 while shooting 25 percent from the field.

In game 2, Teodosic stepped up and his biggest game of the series, as Khimki actually made things close in the first half. He scored 23 points, on 8-of-11 shots from the field (73 percent), and posted a game-high PIR of 24. But once again, de Colo’s performance was also solid, as he scored 20 points, shot 7 of 13 from the field (54 percent), posted a PIR of 14, and drew a game high 6 fouls. While Milos got all the attention, you can see in the highlights below that de Colo did his share of damage in the series swinging game 2 win.

In the deciding game 3 CSKA victory, it was once again de Colo who shined brightest, as he scored 20 points, 6-of-12 from the field (50 percent), had 4 rebounds, 3 assists, put up a PIR of 19, and had a +/- of 34, a game high. Once again, Khimki threw all they could to stop the French national, whether it was Shved or Markel Brown or the “Russian Delly” Viacheslav Zaitcev, and yet it had no effect. De Colo proved once again that though he doesn’t have the personality or flair of teammate Teodosic, or perhaps even Khimki’s Shved, he’s the VTB’s best overall player, and there was no doubting that as he was awarded Final MVP during CSKA’s trophy raising ceremony on Khimki’s home turf.


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There were other stories worth talking about from this series for sure. Semen Antonov emerged as CSKA’s go to guy and leading minutes-man in the block as he put up 16 and 18 points in game 1 and 2, respectively. Aaron Jackson may have earned himself a bigger contract and role for another club in Europe for his efficient performance as well as shutting down Shved. Kyle Hines continued his streak of winning championships as a player, going back to his time with Olympiacos as well as Bamberg. And one has to wonder if Dusko Ivanovic and his ponytail will be back on the Khimki bench after going down so soundly in the VTB Finals.

And while it wasn’t the biggest story, one has to feel that Itoudis validated himself and his future as CSKA head coach. Itoudis, a disciple of Zeljko Obradovic (he was his top assistant when Obradovic was at Panathinaikos), has done nothing but succeed in his tenure with the “Russian Army” team. Three Euroleague Final Fours, three VTB titles, and a Euroleague championship. Yes, he does coach a club with the biggest budget in Europe (35 million Euros). However, big budgets don’t necessarily translate to automatic success. Real Madrid, who has the second-largest budget (27 million Euros), is in a dogfight with Valencia in the ACB Finals and was whooped by CSKA in the third-place game in the Euroleague Final Four. And Olimpia Milano had the sixth-biggest budget in the Euroleague (19 million Euros) and they finished in dead last in the Euroleague, and were bounced in the semi-finals of the Lega Basket Serie A playoffs.

The bottom line? Money helps, but you need the right coach to put it all together. Itoudis has done that in his three years in CSKA, and he should do that going forward as head man of CSKA in the next couple of years at least. And if CSKA decides to go “crazy owner” and let him go? Well, Itoudis will have his pick of the top jobs in Europe. And he will be successful, no doubt about it.

But even that Itoudis redemption story is secondary to de Colo. De Colo will be back in CSKA, and the roster will look a whole lot different for the most part. Jackson will probably be gone, as well as his running mate Teodosic. And yet, the CSKA train will keep humming. De Colo will keep making big time shots, getting to the line, and carrying this club to top-level success, even though we will try to think of ways to doubt him or lessen his accomplishments. Maybe we will say it’s “Itoudis’ coaching” or “Kyle Hines’ mentorship” next year as the reason why de Colo puts up another All-Euroleague campaign.

But let the highlights speak for themselves below…

Yep. It’s about time we put those doubts of de Colo as a superstar player in Europe back in our pockets where they belong.

And make sure they stay there for a good stretch of time…

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Brose Bamberg: BBL dominance, Euroleague improvement, and the future for Trinchieri…

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After their 88-76 win over EWE Baskets Oldenburg in Game 2 of the EasyCredit BBL finals, Brose Bamberg looks set for another German domestic league championship celebration (though Oldenburg should get some credit for their incredible Cinderella playoff run). The “Freak City” club has made things look relatively easy this postseason, as they not only dispatched Oldenburg 96-60 in Oldenburg in Game 1, but they also swept Bayern Munich (a club that made the Eurocup playoffs this year and played in the Euroleague as recently as last year) in the semifinals.

The dominant performance this postseason can be considered another notch on the Bamberg championship belt that has been getting larger and larger since the 2009-2010 season. In the seven-year span, Bamberg has won the BBL six out of the last seven years (with it bound to be seven out of eight perhaps as soon as Sunday). The only time they did not win the BBL was during the 2013-2014 season, where they finished as the No. 2 seed, but were upset by in the first round of the playoffs by the Artland Dragons. (Bayern Munich ended up beating Alba Berlin in the championship.) Furthermore, in the same time span, they have won four German Cups, with the most recent one being this season.

What has made Bamberg’s dominance in German basketball so remarkable is that they don’t fit the profile of most clubs who are considered “powers” in European basketball. Bamberg’s a small city (73,000 population) that’s a fraction of the size of the metropolitan populations of their major BBL rivals in Berlin (3.5 million) and Munich (1.45 million). They had only a budget of about 8.5 million Euros in 2016-2017, which was the third-lowest of any Euroleague club (only Zalgiris and Crvena Zvezda has lower budgets). They don’t have a deep club developmental program like many of the top clubs in Europe. And when they do sign players, they either get “under-the-radar” German talent, or players who are looking to revitalize their careers whom they can sign on a discount. Just looking at this year’s club: forward Nicolo Melli and Fabien Causeur came to Bamberg from Olimpia Milano and Baskonia, respectively, after lackluster seasons, and a diminishment in role with their previous clubs. Since their arrival, Melli became the club’s most valuable player in Euroleague competition, and Causeur has been the club’s leading scorer in BBL play at 12.6 ppg. Already there are rumors that Melli and perhaps Causeur may be pursued by other clubs this summer, but as usual, Bamberg will have a plan to replace these top players, a seemingly annual tradition for the “small-market” German club.

Those are a lot of factors against the club, and yet, the club is on the verge of another BBL championship. For fans of European basketball who are relatively new to the game (such as myself), what Bamberg is doing is impressive, and should be a model for other European clubs who want to find long-term success despite not being in a large metro area or having the biggest budget to sign free agent players.


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While Bamberg’s dominance in the BBL has been noted, they haven’t had quite the same success in the Euroleague. The club has qualified for the Round of 16 twice, but has never advanced to the playoff stage at all in their eight-appearance history in the Euroleague. While a spot in the Euroleague is always reserved for a team from the BBL, Bamberg, much like the other clubs in Germany, do not have A license designation, which means that they are constantly competing for a Euroleague spot year after year. Being in the Euroleague boosts clubs in so many ways: it gives the club more exposure, it helps them attract talent, and most importantly, it gives them more revenue opportunities. Bamberg has been able to capitalize on this, parlaying their frequent Euroleague appearances into building a strong club foundation that can still succeed despite frequent changes in talent (remember, last year the club lost Brad Wanamaker to Darussafaka in the off-season).

In the first year of the new Euroleague, Bamberg was Germany’s lone Euroleague representative, and the season was a bit of a mixed bag. After a 20-point win at home over FC Barcelona, the club was 7-9 after Round 16, and had an outsider’s chance of making the playoffs. However, injuries, inconsistency on the court, and well…bad luck resulted in them losing four straight games from rounds 17-20 (killing any postseason hope) and going 3-11 down the stretch, good for 10-20 overall and 13th overall in the standings (they were tied record-wise with Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv, but they had a better point differential and swept Maccabi during the regular season).

On a first glance, one could say that it was a disappointing Euroleague campaign. However, this Bamberg team was much better than its record-indicated. Even though they had a 10-20 record, they ranked 6th in PPG (79.9) and 12th in PPGA (81). The difference of a negative 1.1 ppg average resulted in a pythagorean record (expected W-L) of 14-16. Just judging by pythagorean W-L, Bamberg finished 10th in the Euroleague, which is better than Zalgiris, Barcelona and Galatasaray, all clubs who finished better in the actual standings than Bamberg.

So what does this mean? Well, the big difference in pythagorean and actual record indicates that Bamberg was really unlucky last season in the Euroleague. In games decided by 5 points or less, Bamberg was 2-11 last season. Now, some enthusiasts may credit that to the club “not being clutch”  or “unable to handle pressure”, but the reality is that a few breaks here or a few breaks there, and maybe that record is 6-7, 7-6 or hell even 11-2. Was Bamberg a playoff club last year? Not quite, according to pythagorean record, but they were right on the cusp. If they can keep most of the core from this year’s club, and replace those who leave with some “underappreciated” stars like they have done in the past, than it is possible that this club could be a playoff team if their luck does a 180 in 2017-2018 in the Euroleague.

(Of course, this is assuming Bamberg closes out this series against Oldenburg and doesn’t pull an Asvel or Golden State Warriors.)


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What will be key to Bamberg’s continued success is how long head coach Andrea Trinchieri stays in “Freak City.” After taking over in 2014 for Chris Fleming, the current German national team head coach and an assistant with the Brooklyn Nets, Trinchieri has continued the standard of success set by his predecessor, as Bamberg has won the BBL title every year in his tenure. This is not a surprise, as Trinchieri has been successful in his two previous stops before he made the move to Germany. With UNICS, he helped the club reach the Eurocup finals in 2013-2014, and he had considerable success with Italian club Cantu, as they won the Italian Second Division in 2009, the Italian Supercup in 2012, and was named Italian League coach of the year twice (2010, 2011).

Trinchieri is known as an offensive guru, able to get the most out of his players even without high-profile talent. He utilizes constant motion and movement in the half court, with an emphasis on high ball and away screens from his post players, and a strong emphasis on the three-point shot. Trinchieri’s offense feels modern in terms of professional ball: you see a lot of pick and roll, and a lot of drive and kick for open three point shots. However, it’s also obvious that he demands a lot from his bigs in terms of craftiness. What ‘s impressive from what you see on the video below is how post (and even wing) players will throw off defenders in initial actions, faking away or ball screens and then cutting to the basket or popping to the mid-range or three point line for open looks. Possessions vary each time down the court, but there are rules and some basic continuity to what’s going on in the halfcourt for Bamberg, a sign of a well-run, but flexible offense.

One of the biggest beneficiaries of Trinchieri’s philosophy has been Melli, who has excelled in Trinchieri’s system in his two seasons in Bamberg. He is not the most physical or tallest post player, nor is he quick enough to be on the wing, but he is crafty on the floor, and is able to stretch opposing post defenders out with his shooting touch, both characteristics Trinchieri seems to prefer in his big men. Hence, it’s no surprise Melli went from an unheralded bench player to a borderline All-Euroleague player who may be seeing a big payday this summer from another club.

With a third-straight BBL title, Trinchieri may seek other challenges in the future, as soon as this offseason. Bamberg is doing all they can to sign him to an extension, but the Euroleague coaching carousel will get interesting this summer, especially depending on what jobs are taken by certain coaches this offseason (Zalgiris head coach Sarunas Jasikevicius to Barcelona and former Cleveland Cavs and Darussafaka head coach David Blatt to Maccabi Tel Aviv are popular predictions). Yes, Trinchieri will want another shot in the Euroleague with this club, especially after so many close losses last season. Yes, this city and club loves him and his animated personality. But the amount of respect he has in the European coaching community is only growing, and it feels like it’s only a matter of time before Trinchieri is able to land that “A License” job.

Bamberg has recovered from coaching losses before, as they transitioned seamlessly from Fleming to Trinchieri. However, to do it two times in a row? That won’t be easy, especially considering the lengths bigger-budget clubs such as Bayern Munich (they lobbied for a Euroleague Wild Card spot, and will undoubtedly increase their budget to acquire better players) and Alba Berlin (they are looking to upgrade at head coach after a disappointing couple of seasons) will go to catch up and dethrone Bamberg from the top perch.

As long as Trinchieri is there, Bamberg will continue it’s uncanny and atypical string of dominance in the BBL. But the end date on Trinchieri’s time in Freak City feels like it’s due soon. A year, maybe two tops if Bamberg is lucky. Good coaches in Europe don’t stay at small clubs for long.

Hence, Bamberg better have a contingency plan to soften the blow of his eventual departure, whenever it should occur.

Can Panathinaikos come back and snap Olympiacos’ streak? (And if they don’t, what next?)

As expected, Panathinaikos and Olympiacos are fighting for another Greek Basket League championship. Since the 1992-1993 season, either Panathinaikos or Olympiacos has been crowned champion of Greece, with the lone exception being in 2001-2002 when AEK won it. In that time span, Olympiacos has won the GBL title 8 times, while PAO has won it 15 times, with a string of dominance coming from 1998-2011 where they were crowned champions of Greece 13 times in 14 seasons (this was when legendary coach Zeljko Obradovic was coaching the Athenian squad).

However, Olympiacos has been the stronger team as of late, as the Red and White won the past two GBL titles, and currently holds a 2-1 series lead after a 64-62 comeback win over their Athenian rival in Piraeus. In the third game of the series (the GBL does a 1-1 home-away alternating format over a five-game series), PAO made a valiant effort to steal the road win in Piraeus, as they led with less than 3 minutes in the game. However, some big free throws by Serbian center Nikola Milutinov, and some key stops by Olympiacos ended up saving the game for home team in a physical, wild and intense contest, typical of what is expected in this Greek basketball rivalry. As you can see in the highlights below, this game was full of physicality, high emotions, and big moments; exactly what should be expected from a championship matchup.

The series in the two previous games have followed the same format: Olympiacos won game 1 at home in a 63-58 slugfest, while PAO won in OAKA 84-80 in a bit more faster-paced, offensive-oriented contest. It is quite clear how both teams needs to play in order to capture the GBL title: PAO needs to settle in their offense, shoot well, and push for more offensive opportunities through steals, turnovers and increasing the pace; Olympiacos wants to ugly it up, use their physical frontcourt to establish the tone, and open up their offense through the pick and roll.

In games 1 and 3, Olympiacos got to play their style. In game 2, it was PAO who dictated how the game was to be played. Thus, it’s not surprising the series sits at 2-1 in the favor of Olympiacos. And with home court advantage in this series, the signs may not be good for PAO, especially considering the lost opportunity in game 3.


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For Olympiacos, a third-straight GBL title would be a nice little consolation prize after falling short in the Euroleague Final Four championship game in Istanbul. A nice development has been from Milutinov, who has emerged as Olympiacos’ go-to post player this series. Khem Birch, who has been the glue to Olympiacos’ defense this year, has gradually faded out this series, as Patric Young, through his physicality and hustle buckets, has usurped Birch’s minutes in the rotation. In game 3, Young played 11 minutes and had 7 points, while Birch played only 3 (and only had 1 point).

As for Milutinov, despite being only 22 years old, he has emerged as Olympiacos’ second-best frontcourt player (behind only Georgios Printezis) and practically saved the game for Olympiacos.  In 25 minutes of play, he scored 14 points, grabbed 5 rebounds and posted a PIR of 20, which was a game-high. Furthermore, Milutinov was a key reason why PAO struggled to score in the paint, as they shot only 12-32 from 2 point shots, and took almost as many 3 point shots as 2 pointers (27 3-pt attempts). And lastly, Milutinov and the Olympiacos frontcourt made it difficult on Chris Singleton and James Gist, who posted PIR totals of 5 and negative-1, respectively in game 3.

How PAO can handle the Olympiacos frontcourt in game 4 (and perhaps game 5 if they win in OAKA while facing elimination) will be a key factor in whether or not Xavi Pascual’s squad can pull of the comeback. Because, when it comes to the perimeter, PAO probably holds the edge. Vassilis Spanoulis hasn’t been a 100 percent this series, as he sat game 2, and was held relatively in check in game 3 with only 5 points and a PIR of 7. Spanoulis and other perimeter players such as Evangelos Mantzaris, Thomas Zevgaras, Erick Green and Ioannis Papapetrou have showed trouble at times trying to slow PAO’s perimeter offense. After a relatively quiet game 1, Nick Calathes has been a consistent machine, helping PAO in other categories than just scoring. KC Rivers had a big game 1 where he scored 16 points. Mike James has been the kind of explosive guard that has not only given PAO a boost off the bench, but has given the Olympiacos defense fits. And they have gotten some good contributions from Nikos Pappas, who parlayed a 16 point, 20 PIR performance in game 2 to a starting role in game 3, and Kenny Gabriel, a combo forward who stretches out Olympiacos, and provides PAO with some spot up shooting as well as defensive versatility.

When PAO gets out, pushes the ball, or is able to get the ball moving quickly out of their sets, they look like a championship team. But, as Olympiacos has done to many teams this year both in the Greek Basket League, when things get physical, the PAO offense stagnates, and things tend to result into poor, low-percentage ISO situations. That is evidenced in the box score, as Olympiacos has won the assist battle every game in this series by far, a sign that Olympiacos is playing better team basketball on the offensive end than their opponent. If PAO wants to win, that differential has to be closer, and they need to get into their offense quicker to make it happen. Too many times, PAO wastes time off the clock trying to get in their sets, and it often works to their detriment, resulting in bad or rushed shots or forced ISO situations late in the shot clock.

One question that could determine whether or not PAO can keep this series alive is whether or not Ioannis Bourousis will be able to play. Bourousis went down hard with an injury in game 3 and did not return, only logging 14 minutes of play. Maybe Pascual was just trying to be safe, but Bourousis is the only player with the size, physicality and skill to match up well against the Olympiacos bigs. “Small ball” with Singleton and Gist has done okay at times, as it allows PAO to push the pace a little bit more and stretches out the Olympiacos defense, thus opening up more lanes for PAO offensively. However, they struggle to match with the muscle of Milutinov-Young-and Birch in the paint, and they don’t offer Bourousis’ low-post scoring ability as well. If Bourousis is out in game 4, that could be the difference in terms of Olympiacos capturing another title.


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Olympiacos and PAO are two teams in different situations, despite the fact that they remain (and will remain) at the top of the Greek basketball world. Olympiacos has been the model of consistency in GBL and Euroleague play. They have been a team of continuity, as Ioannis Sfairopoulos has been the coach since 2014, and they have surrounded star players Spanoulis and Printezis with similar player each and every year. Yes, Olympiacos will probably lose some players from this Euroleague runner-up squad over the summer (Milutinov is now suddenly a hot prospect, and with the Spurs owning his rights, they may bring him over if they can negotiate a buy-out). But, Olympiacos will find the right replacements who will fit into Sfairopoulos’ system and the GBL and Euroleague success will keep on humming for the Red and White.

As for PAO, they are at a bit of crossroads in terms of where they go in terms of building their team for 2017-2018. There’s no question that this season was for the most part successful. Despite injury issues, an early coaching change, and some roster shakeups (Alessandro Gentile being the prime one), they finished 4th in the Euroleague with a 19-11 record, and finished with a 25-1 regular season mark in the GBL, all sterling accomplishments. But then again, this is PAO. For these fans and management, only championships are acceptable, nothing less. That was on full display in the Euroleague playoffs after the club got swept by Fenerbahce in game 3 in Istanbul, as team president Dimitrios Giannakopoulos made the team take the bus back from Istanbul to Athens rather than travel back by plane. The expectations are extremely high for this team considering the money they spend on payroll, and if PAO falls to their hated rival once again, it is expected that more changes will be made to this roster over the summer.

That being said, one has to wonder if the bus incident will have lasting effects on this PAO squad this offseason. Four players (Antonis Fotsis, Kenny Gabriel, Chris Singleton and Mike James) refused to get on the bus, and the effects are still somewhat felt from the incident. Fotsis is no longer on the team, and Gabriel, Singleton, and James all could leave this off-season, opting for a new basketball home without the headaches caused by ownership. And if they do leave, one can imagine that the “recommendations” from these three to other American players about playing for PAO management will probably be “less than stellar”.

So, it will be an interesting dilemma for PAO this summer. Of course, a championship could change all that. If PAO pulls off the comeback and wins the GBL title, maybe everybody is back, and they can build on this for next season, with a healthy James and Gist available from the start rather than in the last third of the season. Maybe Pascual will have a full offseason and get this club to fully understand and buy into his philosophy in the preseason rather than on-the-fly. PAO has the money. It has the fanbase. And in reality it has the players and coach. Management and ownership just need to trust in these factors to allow this club to be successful.

A GBL title would help PAO ownership be more patient, more trusting. But another loss? Another defeat to the Red and White from Piraeus? Another image of Kill Bill holding up the GBL trophy?

Well, we’ve seen what happened before in Istanbul…who knows what could happen if PAO loses in Athens in Game 4.

 

A Quick Look at the Serie A (Italy) Semi-Finals

While the Euroleague is done, that does not mean basketball is over in Europe. While I do not follow domestic leagues as closely as I do the Euroleague, I think they are worth following for any fan of European basketball. While I will not pretend to be an expert on any of these matchups (again, do not follow domestic leagues as closely due to time and TV access), I will try to highlight some key players or storylines with the following contests.

Today, I will look at the semi-final matchups in the Lega Basket Serie A (Italy).

Serie A Semifinals

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EA7 Emporio Armani Milano (1) vs. Dolomiti Energia Trento (4)

It will be the Serie A’s best offense (Milano) vs. best defense (Trento) in this 1-4 semifinal matchup. While Trento made quick work of Banco di Sardinia in the first round of the Serie A playoffs (they swept the island club 3-0), Milano went through some growing pains, as they dropped the opening game at home to the 8-seeded Betaland Capo D’Orlando before winning the next three convincingly.

Milano are the defending champs and have been the best club in Italy as of late, representing Italy in the Euroleague this past season. However, while they have been a dominant force in Serie A, that hasn’t necessarily been true in the Euroleague, as they were knocked out in the first round last year, and finished in dead last in the new 30-game format with a record of 8-22. While they do have the finances, and a Serie A license to become a contender again, clinching another Serie A championship would go a long way in terms of building some momentum for 2017-2018.

Milano depends on their backcourt to generate points and tempo, which says a lot about their guards and wings considering they averaged 86.2 ppg (No. 1 in Serie A play). Point guard Rick Hickman (10.9 ppg, 2.8 apg, 10.3 PIR average in Serie A play) and shooting guard Krunoslav Simon (12.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 15.3 PIR) are the main cogs to this Milano offense, while Jamel McLean (8.6 ppg, 11.6 PIR) adds flexibility and athleticism from the wing.

However, it won’t be easy, as Trento may have the best perimeter defense in Italy. Their tough-nosed approach is led by Aaron Craft, the former Ohio State product who has been a key player for the fourth-seeded club that finished 18-12 this season. While Craft is a limited offensive player, he makes up for those deficiencies with tenacious defense and effort. For offense, that honor goes to Dominique Sutton, a high-volume wing scorer who is averaging 14.9 ppg in Serie A play. Considering Milano’s defensive inconsistencies this season, Sutton may be a handful for Milano’s perimeter players this series.

The key may be the post, as neither club excels in the painted area. Milano’s Miroslav Raduljica just isn’t the same player he was when he played in the NBA, and lacks athleticism, bounce and much versatility in his offensive game. And furthermore, Milan Macvan displays some potential, but it’s not necessarily a good sign when he’s the leading frontcourt player minutes-wise and he’s not even the leading rebounder on the team. For Trento, Filippo Baldi-Rossi is the main post threat, as he averaged 10.3 ppg and 5.2 rpg in about 22 mpg.

Way-too-non-informed prediction: Milano, probably comfortably

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Umana Reyer Venezia (2) vs. Scandone Avellino (3)

This will be a Basketball Champions League rematch of sorts, as Umana swept Scandone in the first round of the playoffs en route to their eventual berth in the inaugural Champions League Final Four (they lost to eventual champs Iberostar Tenerife in the semifinal and Monaco in the 3rd place game). Unlike the other semifinal series, where Milano has a distinct advantage in talent and resources, this one should be a more competitive series.

Umana finished 21-9 in Serie A play, and 9-5 in the Champions League. The club is a balanced one, as they ranked 4th in points per game and 5th in points per game allowed in Serie A play. The No. 2 seed heavily depends on point guard Marquez Haynes, who 12.1 ppg and 3.3 apg while averaging a team-high 29.2 mpg. In the post, Umana can get creative with center Hrvoje Peric, who is averaging 12.2 ppg and 5.5 rpg, and power forward Melvin Ejim (a former Fred Hoiberg product) who is averaging 10.5 ppg and 5.5 rpg and offers athletic, multiple position defensive versatility.

As for Scandone, they on paper have multiple players who can score buckets and in bunches. It is exhibited in the two point-guard combo of Joe Ragland (a huge fan favorite in Italy), who is averaging 17.7 ppg and 5.2 apg, and David Logan who is averaging 16.1 ppg. Both are incredibly dynamic scorers who can change the course of a game in a matter of seconds. Furthermore, add in versatile and physical forward Adonis Thomas in the mix (he is averaging 11.6 ppg), and the flexibility Scandone has definitely will make this a tough match up for the favored Umana club (Scandone also ranks 3rd in Serie A in points per game allowed).

What could sway this series is who will win on the road first. Both clubs went 14-3 at home this year in Serie A play, but struggled a bit on the road. However, Umana was slightly better, as they went 10-7 on the road in contrast to Scandone, who went 8-8. Both teams should hold serve at home in this series, which plays to Umana’s advantage. But, if Scandone can fix their road issues and steal one in Venezia, then it could go a long way in helping Scandone pull off the upset.

Way-too-non-informed prediction: Umana, but in a close one.