Panathinaikos completes comeback; Olympiacos fans unravel; and the uncomfortable reality of ‘ultra’ culture

Yesterday was a big day in European basketball. Fenerbahce, as expected, took a two-game lead over Besiktas in the Turkish BSL finals. Brose Bamberg won their third straight German title, and eighth domestic championship in nine seasons. And, Valencia pulled off a huge upset in Madrid to even the up the series in the ACB Liga Endesa finals.

However, all of those games deferred to the last big game of the day, which was the deciding Game 5 of the Greek Basket League championship between heated rivals Panathinaikos and Olympiacos in Piraeus.

If you follow European basketball (or just basketball in general) on Twitter, you probably heard about the incident in Piraeus that resulted in a wild, but dangerous ending. I will talk about that part later, and some of my own thoughts about the “ultra” culture.

However, I want to talk about the game first, for what PAO did seems to get lost in the discussion due to the events that happened in the last two minutes.


pappas_league-title_web-thumb-large

Make no mistake, what PAO did wasn’t easy. While PAO took care of games 2 and 4 in Athens, they struggled immensely all year in Piraeus. Going into game 5, they were 0-4 for the year on Olympiacos’ home turf, which also includes their matchup in the Euroleague. The Red and White’s extremely physical style of play proved to be difficult for PAO, as their 90’s New York Knicks approach to basketball seemed to throw PAO off rhythm, especially on the offensive end. With a Greek Basket title on the line, and the Olympiacos ultras going to be in full, ridiculous and intimidating force, it seemed unlikely that PAO would be able to pull off Game 5 and come back from a 2-1 deficit in the series.

And yet, PAO not only beat Olympiacos in Peace and Friendship stadium, but absolutely dominated the game from the five minute mark of the first quarter on. Olympiacos put up an early 11-3 lead, but the wheels came off for the defending champs after the hot start. Though Olympiacos led 17-14 in the first quarter, PAO won the second quarter 10-22 and then the third quarter 10-21 to go up  37-57, which was too insurmountable for the home team to overcome, as they lost 51-66 to the Athenian visitors.

One could credit PAO head coach Xavi Pascual for adjusting his offense in the critical game. A coach who depends on his big playbook and heavily patterned offense, Pascual ceded control to his ball-dominant point guards Nick Calathes and Mike James. Calathes and James hurt the Olympiacos defense all game long, whether it was in isolation, drive and kicks for open threes (especially to KC Rivers who hit three 3-pointers), or in the pick and roll. For the game, Calathes put a line of 12 pts, 4 rebounds and 3 assists, and James, the MVP for the game, put up a line of 11 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists, good for a game high PIR of 19. If you watch the highlights below, you will see Calathes and James come up time and time again making big plays on the offensive end.

On the defensive end, PAO took away drives and the paint from OLY and forced their rival to beat the Greens from deep. The strategy worked, as OLY shot 25 percent from beyond the arc on 28 shots. Add that with 12 turnovers committed (in comparison to PAO’s 7), and it made sense that PAO won by such a large, and comfortable margin. Center Ioannis Bourousis took away scoring opportunities in the paint from OLY, as he had two blocks, a steal, and neutralized Nikola Milutinov, Khem Birch and Patric Young in the block, as they only combined for 8 points combined.

The disappointment in the finals for OLY could somewhat be contributed to stars Vassilis Spanoulis and Georgios Printezis failing to come through in the big moments. One could blame fatigue or PAO’s depth and defensive focus just getting to them in the final game of the year. However, the fact of the matter is OLY depends on their top two stars to win, and when they don’t play well, the game become very difficult for the club, especially on the offensive end. Spanoulis went 2-for-11 from the field and had 4 turnovers, good for a PIR of 5 (9 points total). Printezis was even worse, as he went 2-for-14, scored only 4 points, and had a 0 PIR. A combined 13 points from your two biggest players is not a formula for success, and OLY learned that the hard way in the title game.

This season is a bit of validation for Pascual, who was fired last summer from Barcelona despite his history of success with the club. In his first season in Athens, Pascual won a Greek title (snapping Olympiacos’ title streak) and made the Euroleague playoffs as a 4 seed (19-11 overall) despite taking over after the season started. That is a stark contrast to Barcelona, who finished 11th overall in the Euroleague (12-18 overall), lost in the first round of the ACB playoffs, and is now looking for a new head coach after firing Georgios Bartzokas after one season.

As Barcelona shuffles again for another head coach (and apparently being rejected by Sarunas Jasikevicius, who is apparently staying with Zalgiris), Pascual is once again on the top perch with the best coaches in Europe. Quite a turn of events in less than a year.


panathinaikos-olympiakos-2

I am still new to European basketball, as I have been following European ball on a regular basis for about 2.5 years now. When watching domestic leagues, it is refreshing to see how styles are different from country to country. The ACB is a more wide open style, with a bigger focus on offense and games being called more tightly. The Greek Basket league on the other hand is 80’s Big East Basketball: physical, no-holds barred, and not a lot called (and not just Olympiacos; I watched some AEK, PAOK, and Aris games and they all played the same way). I can appreciate both styles, as diversity in the game is always fun to see from a fan’s perspective.

However, the big difference between Europe and American NBA fans is the “ultra” culture. Though it’s pretty well-known in soccer circles, it does carry over to basketball, especially in Greece. In the last two minutes, with the game obviously going to end in PAO’s favor, the Olympiacos ultras showed their “dissatisfaction” with the result around the two minute mark, as evidenced below.

For a fan that’s used to NBA fanbases, who switch their team allegiance depending on what club LeBron James is on, this was quite the sight. I mean, fireworks, flares, explosions and for a good 20-30 seconds, the players didn’t seem fazed, as if this was just normal for them. Even on Twitter, as I remarked my shock, I was brought back to earth by people quite familiar with the Greek basketball scene:

Yep. I still have a lot to learn about Greek, and perhaps even European, basketball in general.

Overall, even though I imagine this kind of stuff is going to be expected on my end in the Greek League, it shows how different and ugly “ultra” culture can get. Sometimes, as Americans, “ultra” culture can be seen as “wow, these fans are so much better than American ones” or “it’s like a college environment!” And yes, when the focus is on the games, the “ultras” can give off that impression to us “outsiders”. It’s easy to see the positive when you only look at the surface.

However, between this incident, and my viewing of a recent documentary “Forever Pure” which looks at the La Familia “ultra” fan base of Beitar Jerusalem, I definitely have a modified view of “ultra” culture. It’s not just a bunch of fans coming together to be loud and cheer. There’s deep politics to these groups, as “ultra” groups can be vessels for extreme politicians who know they can mobilize people and an agenda better at a sporting event than a rally. And unfortunately, these “ultra” politics sometimes can be racist and hateful. There can be violence. There can be demonstrations of slurs that would make most people in America cringe. I mean, take a look at some of the photos below:

Can you imagine if a scene like that broke out in America? Can you imagine what Adam Silver would do? Hell, could you imagine what senators would come out of the woodwork and claim that as an act of terror? Stephen A. Smith, Skip Bayless and Jason Whitlock (or even Donald Trump, that ever-opportunistic bastard)  would be spewing conservative nonsense for weeks. This made “Malice in the Palace” look like a middle school lunchtime scuffle.

I’m not referring to all Olympiacos fans as responsible for this incident. I know many Olympiacos fans and they are practical basketball people who don’t get wrapped up in the politics or antics of “ultra” culture (like the people who run Courtside Diaries who are good knowledgeable basketball people and excellent writers not to mention Olympiacos fans). And yet, honestly, my view of Olympiacos and perhaps Greek basketball clubs as a whole has changed because of this. I am not a fan of this shit in any sport, and it’s a big reason why I don’t embrace soccer as much as other people. This is not fandom. What happened was outright dangerous for everyone involved.

I love European basketball, and I do love the Greek game, and will continue to love both going forward. It’s physical, heated on the court and amongst fan bases, and when things are in control, the fan environments can be the best in Europe, maybe the best in the world. But it’s important to understand the depths of “ultra” culture, and it’s not always positive, and it shouldn’t always be duplicated. Even in America we see MLS fans try to “duplicate” this behavior in their own fan sections and stadiums without knowledge of what these “ultras” are really about, which isn’t always about the game, but rather politics.

I am not totally discouraging “ultra” culture. I know it can enhance the game experience. And I know it’s not just a basketball thing, as it is more pronounced in soccer. However, I got a new perspective on European basketball this weekend. There’s a dark side, a reality that isn’t really all that comfortable to witness. I have to admit, I felt uncomfortable watching the last two minutes of that game. I felt something horrendous was going to happen. I felt as if I was watching something from a movie, not a live game.

We shouldn’t feel that way when watching sport, especially basketball.

We should just enjoy the beautiful game. And we shouldn’t expect chaos because the road team won on a hated rivals home court. It shouldn’t be “well…it wasn’t that bad all things considered.”

But it’s going to be that way from now on. I am going to expect shit to go down now in certain matchups from here on out. And that’s sad considering how much I love European basketball.

It’s amazing how one event can scar or desensitize you so easily.

Advertisements

Ranking the field of the upcoming Euroleague Final Four

It’s been awhile since I have been able to post here on this blog, and I am rewatching the Euroleague playoffs this week to get myself reaquainted with the Euroleague (NBA Playoff season doesn’t help) as well as re-psyched up for the upcoming Euroleague Final Four. It could be the long layoff. It could be summer is approaching. Apologies for the long periods without posts or Tweets. Those who follow this blog should be used to it by now.

Anyways, we are almost a week away from the start of the Euroleague Final Four, one of the most underrated events in professional sports. Unlike the NBA, it’s single elimination, no best of five or sevens here. Win two games, and your team is the champion of Europe. Simple as that; no second chances until next year. For basketball fans who get numb to the postseason until the NBA Finals in June (especially this playoffs season, where it seems all but determined that we’re going to get a Warriors-Cavs rubber match), this kind of format is not only exciting, but a breath of fresh air. If you have not checked out the Euroleague Final Four before in years past, this may be the season to finally get acquainted with the Euroleague and European professional basketball scene.

In this quick preview, I am going to break down each of the four teams and rank them according to four categories:

  1. Talent
  2. Coaching
  3. Fan Attendance
  4. Intangibles

Okay, so let’s take a look at what the four clubs bring to the table when they arrive in Istanbul next week. While the field looks exactly like the one in 2015 in Madrid, the odds and outlook of the clubs is a lot different from the one which Real Madrid won in 2015.

spanoulis

Olympiacos Piraeus

Talent: 4th of 4th

Olympiacos had the toughest road in the playoffs, as they were down 2-games to 1 to 6th seed Anadolu Efes going into Game 4 in Istanbul. However, thanks to the heroics of Vassilis Spanoulis, Olympiacos won two straight games, and punched their ticket to the Final Four, their fourth appearance in the last six seasons.

Unfortunately, this Olympiacos team may be the shakiest talent wise of the field. Olympiacos limped toward the finish, and as stated before, were on the brink of elimination until pulling off the huge road win in Istanbul in Game 4. The lone Greek representative relies heavily on the two-man combo of guard Spanoulis and forward Georgios Printezis, who earned first-team All-Euroleague honors this week. In the playoff series against Efes, Spanoulis averaged 17 ppg, 6 apg, and a PIR of 17.2, and his frontcourt mate Printezis, averaged 12.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg and a PIR of 14.8. Those two players were the only players for Olympiacos who hit the double digit PIR average mark for the club in the five-game series.

Olympiacos doesn’t have the best depth, but they did get some bounce back performances from post Khem Birch, who posted a PIR average of 8.4, and 6.2 ppg, 5 rpg, and 1.2 BPG in just under 18 MPG, and guard Erick Green, who averaged 10.2 ppg on 38.1 percent from beyond the arc. Both players were non-factors down the stretch in the regular season, and it was comforting for Olympiacos fans to see them appear again after being relative no-shows during late-March and early-April.

One advantage Olympiacos will have over CSKA is in the post with the trio of Printezis-Birch and center Nikola Milutinov, who averaged a team-high 1.4 bpg against Efes. Milutinov is not a scoring threat, but he adds depth to the Olympiacos front court, which will be tough for the thin CSKA frontcourt to handle in their semifinal matchup. Add that combo with the stretch four  and small ball possibilities with Kostas Papanikolaou, and this could be the factor which could propel Olympiacos to an upset victory and a return to the championship game.

Coaching: 4th of 4th

Ioannis Sfairopoulos is a solid coach, but he hasn’t won a Euroleague title as a head coach, which is something he’s missing in comparison to the other coaches in the field. Sfairopoulos puts an enormous trust in Spanoulis to run the offense, who can be a turnover machine on occasion. However, that trust does pay off, for even though Spanoulis can turn a game away, he can also win it with big plays and big shots in isolation. Sfairopoulos deserves some credit for creating a culture where that kind of freedom on offense from star players is not just allowed, but encouraged.

This ranking is less a dig on Sfairopoulos and more an indicator of how good the coaching will be in this Final Four. Perhaps, if Olympiacos can make an underdog run, I’ll feel silly for ranking Sfairopoulos so low initially.

Fan attendance: 2nd of 4th

Olympiacos fans typically travel well, and the fact that the Final Four is only 11 hours away bodes well for Olympiacos in terms of getting fan support. The only thing keeping them from being No. 1? Fenerbahce unfortunately. Thankfully for Olympiacos, they should have the fan advantage in their semi matchup with CSKA, meaning the Red and White don’t have to worry until the Championship game.

Intangibles: 2nd of 4th

They have Spanoulis. They have Printezis. They seem to have finally gotten to somewhat full strength after struggling with injuries during the last third of the season. And, Olympiacos this year has always seemed to rise up to the moment, which makes them terrifying in a single elimination tournament. They undoubtedly are the underdog going into the Final Four, but with their fan support and big-game experience (especially from Spanoulis and Printezis), they could surprise a lot of fans and experts Final Four weekend, especially considering they have the least to lose of the four teams.

14942707809776

CSKA Moscow

Talent: 3rd of 4th

Depth-wise, CSKA and Olympiacos are close: Olympiacos has the edge in the frontcourt; CSKA out-does Olympiacos in the backcourt. Seriously. CSKA has two of the best guards in Europe in Nando de Colo and Milos Teodosic, and those two alone make me more confident in the Russian club in this matchup. But if you look at the CSKA perimeter a bit deeper, and it’s easy to forget how key Cory Higgins was in the playoffs against Baskonia, as he averaged 13.7 ppg on 60 percent shooting from beyond the arc in the sweep over the Basque club. Add the two-way versatility of Aaron Jackson, who averaged 8.3 ppg and 4 apg in the playoffs, and CSKA should prove to be a handful for the Greek representative.

The big issue will be if CSKA can handle Olympiacos’ physicality in the paint. They face a more “finesse” team in Baskonia in the playoffs, as their post players (mostly Johannes Voigtmann and Tornike Shengelia) hovered mostly in the mid-range. That won’t be the case in the Final Four, as Birch, Milutinov and Printezis can bang with the best in Europe. It will be interesting to see if James Augustine, Kyle Hines and Andrey Vorontsevich (and perhaps Victor Khryapa) will be able to hold their own against the Red and White frontcourt. If they do, that would go a long way in terms of helping CSKA repeat as Euroleague champions.

Coaching: 2nd of 4th

Dimitris Itoudis is a disciple of Zeljko Obradovic and it shows: he shares his mentor’s intensity and knack for full-court pressure defense. But, Itoudis is a bit more creative on the offensive end, as he prefers a perimeter based approach that constantly puts the ball in the hands of playmakers like Nando and Milos. While most would say Obradovic would do the same, I doubt Obradovic could tolerate the ups and downs of a player like Milos.

Itoudis is an outspoken leader (he called out the CSKA fans after lackluster attendance in the playoffs), connects well with his players (he has helped keep a team consistency throughout his tenure) and has proven himself at the Euroleague stage in his three seasons with the Moscow-based club (he is averaging 25 wins a year). Combine those intangibles with his basketball knowledge and acumen, and it’s easy to see why Itoudis ranks as the second-best coach of the Euroleague Final Four field.

Fan attendance: 4th of 4th

CSKA will have big name fans there. They will have the lower levels and courtside seats taken for. But in terms of overall fan attendance? Forget about it. CSKA is one of the best basketball clubs in Europe, with one of the most entertaining players in Europe (Milos) who’s most likely gone to the NBA next year (fingers crossed for the Kings). And yet, their home arena is nearly half-empty during the playoffs and is as quiet as an Orthodox church.

Yeah, don’t expect this team to be depending on the CSKA faithful next week.

Intangibles: 4th of 4th

I don’t feel like this CSKA team is going in with good momentum. Though they swept Baskonia, the Basque club had opportunities to win each game late in the fourth quarter. The frontcourt is going to have trouble against these other three teams who have tremendous depth in the post. Milos seems to have one foot out the door in terms of leaving Europe for the NBA, and I could see him having  a down Final Four with that weighing on his mind. And repeating as Euroleague champs is tough, and every non-CSKA fan coming to Istanbul (basically 95 percent of the fans in attendance) will be cheering for CSKA, the Goliath, to go down, whether it’s in the Semis or Finals.

Yes, CSKA has been a well-oiled machine all season long. But, in a one-game playoff against any of these clubs? Well…maybe against Olympiacos their odds are solid, simply because of their advantage in talent. But in the championship? Against Fenerbahce in front of their home fans (and looking for revenge)? Against the crazy depth of Real Madrid? The championship outlook for CSKA doesn’t appear so hot unfortunately.

TECNYCONTRA ZARAGOZA - REAL MADRID

Real Madrid

Talent: 1st of 4th

This Real team is seriously like 13 deep. At point, they have the All-Euroleague first team Spaniard Sergio Llull (who may be the Euroleague Regular Season MVP as well). They also have a second-team All-Euroleague player in center Gustavo Ayon, who may not be even the most talented post player on their roster (I go with Anthony Randolph in that category). They have the biggest prospect in Europe, and the winner of the Rising Star award in Slovenian wing Luka Doncic. And they have veteran presence and experience on this roster with Rudy Fernandez and Felipe Reyes.

Let’s just be honest. Yes, there are a lot of good teams in the Euroleague. The four in the field really were the best four in Europe due to their talent, chemistry and depth. But when it comes to roster depth, size and versatility, Real tops them all. No question about it.

Coaching: 3rd of 4th

Pablo Laso is an accomplished coach. He has won multiple ACB titles, and won a Euroleague championship in 2015. But, like many coaches in Spain, he relies way too much on a deep rotation, even in the postseason. Playing 12-13 guys an even amount of minutes works in the Regular Season, especially when you’re juggling ACB (the best domestic league in Europe) and Euroleague competition. But the Euroleague Final Four is the pinnacle. Randolph needs to play big minutes. Llull needs to be on the floor. Doncic needs to be given rope. And yet, players will come out earlier than they should, because of this trend in Spain to play “more players” in the rotation.

Maybe Laso will adjust. But coaches are a creature of habit, and I have a hard time seeing such an adjustment from Laso, even in a single elimination format such as the Final Four.

Fan Support: 3rd of 4th

Real Madrid fans are loyal. They are definitely a top-5 fanbase in the ACB (I prefer Baskonia’s fans over Real’s, but they are at least better than El Clasico rivals Barcelona). But, while they do have their ultras and dedicated fans who chant all game, home contests tend to be more like NBA regular season affairs in Madrid. Fans cheer for big plays, but for the most part are pretty low key when the action dies down a bit. They would be akin to San Antonio Spurs fans or Los Angeles Lakers faithful. They recognize greatness, have their super loyal supporters, and can get loud when the game is on the line. But will they travel to Turkey? Will they be as crazy as the Red and White Ultras or Blue and Yellow Fener fans? That’s a lot harder to imagine.

Intangibles: 3rd of 4th

I really believe Real Madrid is the best team in Europe. If the Final Four was a seven-game series like the NBA playoffs, no question Madrid would be leaving Istanbul as champions of Europe. They are so fun to watch, have a roster that would probably finish better in the NBA than the Brooklyn Nets and Phoenix Suns, and can beat opponents in so many ways on both ends of the court.

But, that game 2 loss to Dacka…I still can’t get over it. Real clearly was the better team than Dacka in that series (Dacka’ s offense basically consisted of Brad Wanamaker ISOs and Ante Zizic putbacks). This should have been the easiest sweep of the playoffs and yet Real still dropped one to the Turkish upstart and in Madrid nonetheless. That game has just scarred my excitement about Real’s title chances, and considering their first game will essentially be a true away game against Fener, it just seems tough for me to see Real build up any momentum this Final Four.

panathinaikos-fenerbahce-bogdanovic-1

Fenerbahce Istanbul

Talent: 2nd of 4th

Some people may think I’m crazy putting Fenerbahce over Olympiacos and CSKA here. “They finished fourth! How can you say their talent is better than Olympiacos or the defending champs?” Well…let’s take a look at a few things:

  • Fenerbahce dealt with injuries a lot this year. Nearly every key player to this team missed time at some point this year. If this team was fully healthy, they would have finished 1st or 2nd, most likely ahead of CSKA.
  • Bogdan Bogdanovic is the truth…case in point? He was voted a first team All-Euroleague player despite playing in only 20 regular season games. That’s respect. Plain and simple. (And he proved that with his straight up killer performances in OAKA in the playoffs against Panathinaikos, who was the hottest team in the Euroleague going into the playoffs.)
  • This team has great chemistry and can pick one another up when they slack. Jan Vesely has declined the past couple of years, and yet you don’t notice it because Ekpe Udoh has become perhaps the Euroleague’s best post player on both ends. Luigi Datome and Nikola Kalinic have been interchangeable combo forwards, capable of stretching opposing defenses (by playing small ball 4) and having big scoring outputs any given night. If Bogdanovic has an off night, Kostas Sloukas and Bobby Dixon can pick up the slack. This team just plays well with each other, and though they do not have Real’s depth, they probably have better chemistry on both ends when fully healthy, which they have been this postseason.

So yeah. There’s a lot of reasons to like Fenerbahce’s roster.

And of course…Bogdan Bogdanovic is the truth.

Coaching: 1st of 4th

Zeljko Obradovic has won 8…fucking…Euroleague championships. He has turned Fenerbahce into one of the true powerhouse clubs in Europe.

Yeah, there is no competition here. Let’s move on.

Fan support: 1st of 4th

The Canaries will be in full force for this Fenerbahce team in Istanbul. This is the dream scenario really: a Final Four appearance in their home city. These fans get lit already for Turkish BSL games. Banvit-Fenerbahce can get crazy with the ultras. A semifinal rematch against Real Madrid, who beat Fenerbahce in their first ever Final Four appearance in 2015? A possible rematch from the 2016 title game against CSKA?

This Istanbul Fenerbahce crowd will be beyond lit for the semi final (and hopefully championship) game. And that “lit-ness” is going to give Fenerbahce an advantage on the that no other team in the Final Four field will match…not by a longshot.

Intangibles: 1st of 4th

Fenerbahce seems to be a team of destiny. The Final Four being in Istanbul. The crazy last round which had them go from 7th to 4th. Bogdanovic going nuts in OAKA. Udoh making All-Euroleague first team with Bogdanovic. The chance to be the first Turkish club in Euroleague history to win a Euroleague championship (and do so in their home country). Playing in front of one the most rabid basketball fan bases in all of Europe.

Fenerbahce has so much going for them as they head into the Final Four. They are the favorites, even if they may not look so on paper. In all honesty, it would be a miracle of God to NOT see Obradovic and the Fenerbahce team at the podium at center court holding up the trophy and covered in blue and yellow confetti on May 21st.