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.

 

ELJ’s “Key Five-And-One” Playoff Preview: Olympiacos (3) vs. Anadolu Efes (6)

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Two previews down; two to go. If you missed it or unaware of how these previews are formatted, check out part 1 of the preview (Real Madrid vs. Darussafaka) and part 2 (CSKA vs. Baskonia) so you’re caught up.

Okay, now onto part 3, the 3-6 matchup: Olympiacos Piraeus vs. Anadolu Efes Istanbul.

(Also, major H/T to YouTube user MyBasketballTV who uploads these awesome Euroleague player highlight videos that I mostly embed on here; please subscribe to him/her/them if you haven’t already.)

Vassilis Spanoulis

Nobody is more crucial to this Olympiacos team and their Final Four chances than Spanoulis, the long-time Greek point guard. At his best, he is the engine of this Olympiacos offense thanks to his versatile scoring ability, as well as flashy and spectacular passing and playmaking. Furthermore, Spanoulis is one of the craftiest players in the continent, able to draw fouls, and do the little things to get to the line and help Olympiacos earn extra shots as well as extra points.

In Round 2, the 34-year-old point guard demonstrated why he has been voted a Euroleague and Greek MVP, putting up a masterful performance in a 90-66 win over Anadolu Efes at home in Piraeus. He scored 17 points on 5 of 9 shooting from the field, dished 9 assists, had 3 rebounds and accumulated a PIR of 26, the highest for a winning club that week and the highest mark of the season for him. The dominating demonstration by Spanoulis earned him Euroleague MVP for the week, as showcased in the video below:

But, as great and legendary as Spanoulis can be (I mean, christ, the Euroleague made a special documentary on him and he’s still active in the league), he can be his own worst enemy at times. He can be a black hole if his shooting is not on, as well as a turnover machine, forcing unnecessary passes at seemingly poor times. And as of late, Spanoulis hasn’t really finished the year on a good note, which correlates strongly with Olympiacos’ poor finish (they finished 1-4 in their last 5 games). After putting up a PIR of 24 in a big 79-77 win in OAKA over Greek rival Panathinaikos in Round 8, Spanoulis hasn’t reached the 20 PIR mark since, and has only put up a PIR in double digits six times from Rounds 9-30. Those are not impressive marks considering how much he has the ball in his hands and is depended on for offense in Ioannis Sfairopoulos’ system.

Luckily, despite Spanoulis’ regression after a hot start (Rounds 1-8), they have been able to get over his cool down period. But, this will be a tough matchup for Spanoulis (vs. Thomas Huertel, who’s been one of the best point guards since February), and Olympiacos is dealing with many injuries as well. For Olympiacos to punch their Final Four ticket, they will need an early-season Spanoulis (or past-season, MVP-esque one) over the next three-to-five games.

Nikola Milutinov

After an injury in a Greek Basket League game on April 10th, Khem Birch will be a serious question mark this series for Olympiacos. That is a huge blow to Olympiacos’ front court, which has depended on him as a powerful rim runner and anchor to their defense, which has been one of the Euroleague’s best this season. While Patric Young has experience with this Olympiacos squad and offers the same kind of physicality as Birch, 22-year-old Serbian Nikola Milutinov will be the more important player in the post and could be the key difference this series, especially if Birch misses games or is not 100 percent.

Milutinov has surged as of late, with his strongest performance of the year coming in Round 28 against Real Madrid, whose front court is stacked with NBA-caliber bigs such as Gustavo Ayon, Anthony Randolph, Othello Hunter, Felipe Reyes, and Trey Thompkins. The Serbian rising star and 2015 first round “draft and stash” pick of the San Antonio Spurs put up a line of 18 points,4 rebounds, and a PIR of 24 (a season high) in 21 minutes of play (also tied for a season high). Milutinov, who formerly played for Partizan Belgrade before coming to Piraeus, has soft touch and good skills and touch around the rim for a near seven footer, as evidenced in this highlight video of his performance against Madrid below:

However, consistency has been a problem for Milutinov this season. He has five games this year where he posted negative PIR marks, and he can be a non-factor on the floor at times as well. In the last game against Efes, he barely played, logging less than three minutes before being primarily regulated to the bench. Unlike Birch, whose springy and physical, Milutinov is a more “to-the-ground” big, lacking the athleticism or physicality of the newly acquired Canadian center. With Birch’s status a game-to-game issue, Sfairopoulos is going to need to trust the young Serbian star with more minutes on the floor. And consequently, Milutinov needs to capitalize on that coach’s trust with a big series as well.

Derrick Brown

Much like Spanoulis, Brown has been a bit of a life force for this Efes squad this season. When he plays well, Efes hums on the court and looks like one of the Euroleague’s best teams. When his play wanes, Efes looks as beatable as any of the other non-playoff teams. For Efes to have a chance to pull off the upset, head coach Velimir Perasovic and this Efes team will need a big series from Brown.

The 29-year-old, 6’8 former Xavier Musketeer is an explosive player on both ends of the court. The lefty forward can drive the ball and score strongly around the basket thanks to his high-flying athleticism, but he can also pull up and hit the mid-range with ease. He has a great ability to block shots and initiate the Efes fast break off of turnovers, an area they excel in considering the bevy of athletic guards and forwards on their roster. Brown demonstrated this ability and then some in a masterful performance in Round 21 against Red Star, where he scored 20 points, had 11 rebounds, 2 steals, 2 assists and accumulated a PIR of 33 in a 86-72 win in Belgrade. The dominating performance on the road, in a hostile Kombank arena environment, earned Brown MVP of the week honors, as seen below.

Brown most likely will be matched up with forward Georgios Printezis, who has been Olympiacos’ most consistent (and perhaps best) player this season. Brown hasn’t been great this year against Olympiacos, as he has only put up PIR marks of 8 and 11 in both contests. For Efes to pull of the upset, they need their best and most dynamic player to step up and win the matchup against “King George”. If he doesn’t, the chips will be heavily stacked against the Turkish squad in terms of making their first Final Four since 2001.

Thomas Huertel

If Brown is Efes’ most important player, Huertel may be their most dynamic. Though he is a sixth-man off the bench, Huertel is the team’s primary playmaker, leading the team in assists at 5.8 apg. Huertel is a crafty playmaker, able to beat defenders off the dribble and find open teammates for good, high-percentage shots. But Huertel is no, Ricky Rubio-“pass first and second; shoot third” guard. He can get to the rim and can find his stroke from the outside, as evidenced by him shooting 51.8 percent on 2-point shots, and nearly 36 percent from beyond the arc, both solid marks from a point guard.

During the month of February, no player was more crucial to his squad than Huertel was to Efes during that month of play. Huertel averaged over 16 ppg and over 10 apg, good for a PIR average of 23 during that time span. His stellar play, which helped Efes get back in the playoff picture after a poor start to the season, earned Huertel MVP of the month honors, as seen in the video below:

The French guard doesn’t get as much attention at times because he shares point guard duties with Jayson Granger, who normally starts for this Efes squad. But Granger is more of a combo guard who is depended on for shooting and scoring, not as much for playmaking, like Huertel. Without a doubt, the matchup between Spanoulis and Huertel will be a fascinating one, and if Huertel can outduel the Greek Euroleague legend, that could mean not only a return to the Final Four for Efes, but a boost to Huertel’s stock as a player not only here in Europe, but abroad as well.

Tyler Honeycutt

Tyler Honeycutt is not the team’s best player. That honor probably belongs to Brown, or maybe Huertel. But there is no player that is more complete or well-rounded than Honeycutt, who has been a Draymond Green-esque player for this Efes squad. Honeycutt doesn’t average double figure points this year (only 9 ppg), and he has only started 1 game as well, but his 13.6 PIR is third-highest on the team, and that is due to his multi-faceted game on both ends of the court.

Just look at the other categories Honeycutt excels in: he averages 7.1 rpg, a team-high and 0.9 bpg, the second-best mark on the squad. But, he also averages 1.1 spg, also the second-best mark on the team. And he is primarily a wing player that can play four positions on the floor. If that’s not Draymond Green-esque, than I don’t know what is. He put on his best Green-like performance in Round 5 against Panathinaikos, as he scored 15 points, grabbed 13 rebounds, and dished 4 assists, good for a game-high PIR of 28, as illustrated in the video below.

Honeycutt is a nightmare matchup for Olympiacos on both ends of the floor thanks to his superb athleticism, strong skill set, and long 6’8 frame. Olympiacos will have to find a way to neutralize him, which will be easier said than done, especially considering the former UCLA product can beat teams in so many ways on both offense and defense.

Series Wild Card: Can Olympiacos stop the bleeding?

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Olympiacos is team trending downward and fast. They lost sharp shooting Matt Lojeski late in the season, which has limited their outside shooting effectiveness as a team as of late. Birch may or may not play this series, and even if he does, he won’t be a 100 percent. Spanoulis hasn’t quite played as well down the stretch, and that is worrisome considering his age and the miles on his body odometer as a player. Erick Green, who looked mid-season like the boost Olympiacos needed to make the Final Four, has totally disappeared from the Olympiacos rotation for whatever reason. Other than Printezis and Kostas Papanikolaou, this team has been a mess during the last third of the season and goes into the playoffs as a bit of a wounded dog of sorts.

Which begs us to ask the question: can coach Sfairopoulos stop the bleeding and turn Olympiacos’ fortunes around?

Olympiacos will have the home court advantage. And they certainly have the playoff experience advantage over Efes. But there are a lot of question marks about this Olympiacos squad entering the playoffs, and Efes is no slouch. Perasovic took Baskonia to the Final Four last year. Huertel has some playoff experience during his time with Baskonia (when they were Laboral Kutxa). Efes beat Olympiacos just recently in Round 29, so this Turkish club knows they can match up with the Greek basketball power. And Efes can run and gun with the best, and that will test the depth of Olympiacos, which is looking a little sketchy at this moment.

Olympiacos will need to make a statement in game 1, a statement that the last third of the season didn’t mean shit, and they’re ready to prove why they finished third in the Euroleague and that they can add another Final Four to their illustrious history. I know Olympiacos fans are telling themselves this, and believe Spanoulis and Printezis will help turn around this Olympiacos ship.

Game 1 will tell…because if Efes’ surprises in the opening playoff game…well…fans of the Red and White might need to start planning for next season rather than next month.

A Quick Preview to the FIBA OQT Bracket Rounds

Turkey and Canada are still two teams that have a chance to qualify for a spot in the Olympics in this Olympic Qualifying Tournament.

After a preliminary round of games, we have reached the bracket rounds of the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament. The reward? Three teams will get berths in the upcoming Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro where they can fight for a chance to earn a bronze or silver medal (sorry…nobody’s competing with the USA, even though the lack of big-name stars like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Stephen Curry will make it a little bit more interesting). 12 teams remain in the OQT, and to be frank, there is a strong chance a team worthy of an Olympic berth will not qualify through this tournament. While I do think the FIBA World Cup is a better venue for National Team basketball competition, the Olympics still remains the most high-profile, and the dogfight for the last three spots will be interesting to follow this weekend.

For those who are unaware, the tournament is split into “three groups”: An Italy Group, a Serbia Group and a Philippines Group. The winner of each group goes to the Olympics. Everybody else will be forced to watch the Olympics on the NBC Family of networks from their home country (whether or not it’s the one they participated for in this tournament though is to be determined). Before going into the preview of the “bracket” round, let’s point out some key events and thoughts from the tournament so far.

  • Not a great tournament for FIBA Asia or FIBA Africa, as the teams from the two continents went a combined 0-12 in group play. I know the NBA is trying to make great inroads with both those continents, both economically with fans as well as in basketball development. However, it is obvious that those continents are still years away from seriously competing on the global level with major continents like the Americas and Europe.
  • Speaking of FIBA Asia, it was a bit of a disappointing showing for Gilas Pilipinas (the name of the Filipino National Team). Despite the home court advantage, Gilas went 0-2, with losses to France and New Zealand in Manila. They played admirably in both games, and actually gave France a pretty good fight, as they actually led the global power after the first quarter. However, their lack of size (average height was 6’5 and that was with naturalized citizen Andray Blatche) ended up being their own worst enemy in both games, as it has been in FIBA Tournaments in the past. There still is some promise with Gilas, as Terrence Romeo and Bobby Ray Parks look to be a good combo to take over the mantle at the guard positions when Jayson Castro and Jeff Chan retire from international play. It’ll be interesting though to see how long Gilas lasts with Tab Baldwin, who has obviously made an impact offensively and defensively with the club (they played a much more aggressive scheme in the OQT). The Filipino Basketball organization isn’t known for being patient, but I think Baldwin deserves some more time, at least through the next FIBA Asia Championship to prove his worth.
  • The Americas was a bit of a surprise, as Canada, Mexico and Puerto Rico all qualified for the Bracket round. Canada, despite missing Minnesota Timberwolf Andrew Wiggins, has remained competitive in their group (though inconsistent…as always) and has really been boosted by the presence of Tristan Thompson, who hasn’t been as active in the international scene the past couple of years. Mexico was missing former NBA player Gustavo Ayon, who just recently signed an extension for the reigning ACB champions, Real Madrid. However, they were able to pull the upset over Iran, who had former NBA player Hamed Haddadi, to qualify for the bracket round in their group. And Puerto Rico, who have faded a bit since their “monumental” Olympic win over the USA in 2004, have played well, and parlayed the experience winning the Centrobasket Tournament weeks earlier into solid play in the OQT.
  • There is going to be at least 1 deserving European squad left out of the Olympics this August. Latvia, Greece, France, Czech Republic, Serbia, and Italy have all proven that they would be competitive if they made the Olympic field, but unfortunately, only three of those listed have a chance to make it. At this point, I would not be surprised to see all three slots go to European squads. The FIBA Europe field in this OQT has been that strong (the lone exception being Turkey, who have not looked very good this tournament).

Okay, with some of those thoughts out-of-the-way, let’s get to the preview of the bracket round of each group.

Serbia Bracket Group

Semifinal 1: Latvia vs. Puerto Rico

Semifinal 2: Serbia vs. Czech Republic

Analysis: Puerto Rico has been a good story, as they pulled off a big win over African power Angola 91-81 in Game 2, and only lost by 6 points to Serbia, a heavy favorite as they are playing these group games in Belgrade. Puerto Rico is led by their point guards, as Carlos Arroyo (who went through an up and down season with FC Barcelona in the ACB last year) and JJ Barea have played well, as expected for Puerto Rico, averaging 12.5 ppg and 14 ppg, respectively. However, the big surprise has been John Holland, who is averaging a team-high 16 ppg and 5 rpg from the wing position. The depth on the perimeter for Puerto Rico has made them a sneaky dark horse threat.

As for Latvia, they have been led by Bilbao Basket star Dairis Bertans, who is averaging a group high 19 ppg on 54.5 percent shooting, and the two Janis’: Janis Timma and Janis Blums. Timma has done more of his damage around the basket, as he is averaging 10.5 ppg but only shooting 25 percent from beyond the arc, while Blums has been a marksman from three, averaging 10 ppg on 54.5 percent from beyond the arc. The only issue for both teams will be in the post, as Puerto Rico relies on aging players like Renaldo Balkman to hold down the fort, while Latvia is missing Knicks superstar Kristaps Porzingis. Whoever wins the rebounding edge will be key to who makes it to the championship game in this matchup, especially since they are both strong teams on the perimeter.

As for Serbia, they are the favorite and rightfully so: they are in Belgrade, and are led by a lot of NBA and European talent such as Milos Teodosic, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Miroslav Raduljica, Nikola Jokic and Nemanja Nedovic. Serbia struggled a bit to put away Puerto Rico in game 1, but they have seemed to find a groove against Angola, as they won by 23 points. Jokic and Raduljica have been key in the post for Serbia, and Bogdanovic has provided impact, as expected, on the offensive end both off the drive and from beyond the arc (he is averaging 12 ppg and shooting 46.2 from beyond the arc. However, the key to the team earning an Olympic berth rests on Teodosic and his ability to create offense for this Serbia team. While Teodosic’s leadership and presence on the floor has been felt (he was a +24 in net rating in their win against Angola), he hasn’t really exploded with a big performance (he had 8 points, 6 assists and 4 turnovers in the game 2 win). If he can channel his big-performance capability in this bracket round like he did in the Euroleague, then Serbia will be a shoe-in for 1 of the 3 Olympic berths.

However, they might have a tougher time in the semifinal round than in a possible championship game. Led by first-team All-Euroleague center Jan Vesely and future Washington Wizard and former FC Barcelona guard Tomas Satoransky, the Czech Republic bounced back with a convincing 16 point win over Japan in game 2 after a rough 12 points loss to Latvia where they shot 37.7 percent from the field, including 2 of 15 from beyond the arc. The key to a possible dark horse run in this bracket will be the combo of Vesely and Satoransky, as they are a tough combo to stop when they are on. Satoransky has been a bit up and down though, as he only scored 5 points against Latvia. He will need to improve upon that performance against Serbia if the Czechs want a possible rematch with Latvia. Only this time an Olympic berth could possible be on the line.

Pick: Serbia

Italy Bracket Group

Semifinal 1: Greece vs. Croatia

Semifinal 2: Italy vs. Mexico

Analysis: This is arguably the strongest of the three groups, as you have three legitimate Olympic teams in Greece, Croatia and Italy. Unfortunately for FIBA and International basketball fans, two of these worthy teams will be left out in Rio.

Mexico has been a surprising story, led by NBA journeyman Jorge Gutierrez at the guard position, who is averaging 12.5 ppg, and under-the-radar guard Francisco Cruz, who plays for VEF Riga in Latvia. However, the lack of Ayon in the post is a serious hinderance for this Mexican club, and though Lorenzo Mata is serviceable, they are going to have issues defending Italy’s long and outside-oriented bigs.

Speaking of Italy, no team has looked better than this country over the past month, in both OQT and in international friendlies. Coached by former CSKA Moscow and Real Madrid head coach and current San Antonio assistant Ettore Messina, Italy cruised through group play with their meticulous, outside-oriented style. Italy is not known for playing a physical style of ball, but they have hurt teams with the 3-ball, as Marco Belinelli, Andrea Bargnani, Gigi Datome and Danilo Gallinari are all threats to hurt opponents from beyond the arc. The big question though will be how they fare in the post, as Bargnani isn’t exactly the kind of physical player to bang with the potential posts from either Greece or Croatia.

Greece is probably the deepest team in this group, and arguably the whole OQT in general. With Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ioannis Bourousis, Thanasis Antetokounmpo, Efstratios Perperoglou, Kosta Koufos and Nick Calathes leading the roster, Greece is a squad chock full of NBA and Euroleague pedigree. They don’t have the shooting depth of Italy, but the length they have will give Croatia fits, and Italy in the Championship, should they get past Croatia.

However, don’t count out Croatia, who bounced back from a 7-point loss to Italy with a 20-point win over Tunisia. This isn’t the kind of “strong” Croatia team we have seen in the past with Toni Kukoc or Dino Radja or Drazen Petrovic, but the talent on this team is young and capable of pulling the upset. Bojan Bogdanovic has carried the young squad, as he is the group’s leading scorer, averaging 25.5 ppg in group play. And Darko Planinic and Dario Saric (who will be going to Philly next year) have been holding things down in the post, though they still have room to grow as players. And lastly, don’t count out Mario Hezonja, who’s struggled this tournament, but has the potential to light it up from beyond the arc. I think this Croatia team is probably a couple of years away from being a real contender on the global scene, but they have a puncher’s chance against Greece.

Pick: Greece.

Philippines Bracket Group

Semifinal 1: Canada vs. New Zealand

Semifinal 2: France vs. Turkey

Analysis: A bit of a blah group, as Turkey and New Zealand should be easy fodder for France and Canada, respectively. However, don’t count out Canada’s history of inconsistency on the big stage, as evidenced last year where they dropped a semifinal game against Venezuela that cost them the FIBA Americas 2nd automatic berth.

Athletically, Canada could compete with anybody in the OQT field. Their average height is 6’6 and they are a young team with an average age of 25 (and this is without Andrew Wiggins). However, sans Corey Joseph, who is averaging a team-high 17 ppg, this Canada team has struggled. Thompson has added NBA experience and defensive versatility to Canada’s roster, but has gone through efficiency issues on the offensive end, as he is shooting 31 percent from the field and averaging only 8.5 ppg. Brady Heslip, who lit up the D-League with the Reno Bighorns a year ago, has hit a cold streak so far in the OQT, averaging only 3 ppg while shooting 18 percent from the field. The talent is there for Canada: Anthony Bennett, Melvin Ejim, Khem Birch, Tyler Ennis, etc. However, they have not been able to mesh at times, as evidenced in their 58-55 win over a Senegal team they were much better than on paper.

Canada should make it to the Championship game of this tournament (most likely against France), but they should not take New Zealand lightly. The Tall Blacks pulled a big win in front of a passionate pro-Filipino crowd in Game 2, winning 89-80 in a game which they won every quarter but one (they tied the third quarter). They key to the Tall Blacks’ to qualifying for the bracket round has been guard Tal John and Corey Webster and forward Reggie Abercrombie. New Zealand doesn’t possess a ton of athleticism or highly skilled or big-name players in comparison to their competition, but they play well together, and they run a lot of different looks on defense to give teams fits. If Canada shows up to play like they did against Senegal, it would not surprise me to see the Tall Black add another upset to their OQT resume.

The Turkey-France matchup is one that would have been good four years ago, but will most likely be a blowout in favor of the latter. Turkey has a solid mix of NBA and Euroleague stars in Omer Asik, Bobby Dixon, Semih Erden, and Furkan Korkmaz.  However, the absence of real big NBA stars like Enes Kanter and Ersan Ilyasova makes this Turkish squad feel a bit second-rate in comparison to teams from past international competitions. And it has shown on the court, as Turkey not only hasn’t been impressive in group play, but they didn’t impress either in many of their friendlies leading up to the OQT competition.

On the other hand, though they are missing Rudy Gobert, and with Nic Batum sitting out (but on the bench), France is loaded with star power who play well together. They mix of NBA veterans like Tony Parker and Boris Diaw have meshed well with Euroleague stars like Nando de Colo and Thomas Huertel. The absence of Gobert and Batum has left France a bit fragile in the post, as Joseph Lauvergne and Kim Tillie haven’t been able to duplicate Gobert’s presence, as evidenced their 93-84 shootout against the Philippines. But, France can score from all over the court and in a variety of ways, and the presence of two highly skilled and polished playmakers like Parker and de Colo makes France one of the smoothest offensive teams in the OQT, which should carry them to victory in this group, and a spot in the Olympics.

Pick: France.

Was Lokomotiv Kuban’s Victory over Panathinaikos a Fluke or Sign of Things to Come?

Ryan Broekhoff (right) and Lokomotiv got the best of Sasha Pavlovic and Euroleague mainstay Panathinaikos in the first Euroleague game of the year for both teams.

There was plenty of upsets in Week 1 of the Euroleague regular season, including a shocker where defending champion Real Madrid seemed to come out flat and was lost 84-70 to  Eurocup champion and new Euroleague participant Khimki Moscow . (Though to be fair, it was on the road, and Khimki’s crowd seemed especially amped with the defending Euroleague champions coming to Moscow.) However, while Khmki’s domination, as well as CSKA Moscow’s 100-69 blowout of 2014 Euroleague champion Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv were all big stories, one of the biggest surprises was Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar’s upset over Panathinaikos 81-70 in Krasnodar, Russia. Considering Panathinaikos is an A license team and regularly contending for a Euroleague Final Four and Championship, the loss to the wild card participant (meaning there on a 1-year license in the Euroleague and can move back down to the Eurocup division if they do not finish in the Top-4 in their group in the regular season) Lokomotiv generated a lot of discussion in Euroleague fan and media circles.

Dominating Early, but Finishing with a Whimper

Lokomotiv and head coach Sergey Bazarevich started the year well, but finished with a disappointing quarterfinal exit in the Eurocup to UNICS

Last year, Lokomotiv, who had been demoted to the Eurocup after failing to get out of the second round in the regular season the previous year, started off 2014-2015 scorching under first year coach Sergey Bazarevich, who assembled primarily an American-laden roster. Relying on players such as point guard Aaron Miles, wings Derrick Brown and Malcolm Delaney, and former lottery pick Anthony Randolph, Lokomotiv crusied through their group, going 10-0 and led all teams in point differential (+142) after the regular season ended. With their combo of elite talent as well as strong depth (they also got solid contributions from bench players such as Richard Hendrix, Krunoslav Simon and Nikita Kurbonav), it seemed like Bazarevich had assembled the kind of roster that would cruise to a Eurocup championship.

Things continued as usual in the Round of 32, as Lokomotiv dispatched Valencia of Spain, Asesoft Ploiesti of Romania and Nancy of France with ease, finishing 6-0 in their group with a point differential of +76. In the knockout stage though, they struggled to find the rhythm that made them the B Division’s best team all season. In round 1 of the Knockout stage against Brose Bamburg, they only won the initial game 80-78, a far cry from the dominance they displayed in the first two rounds of Eurocup play. Then, things just fell apart in round 2 against fellow Russian club UNICS. After winning the first game 87-78, Lokomotiv unraveled in the second game, losing 79-58. The 21-point differential resulted in a 157-145 combined score, and instead of advancing to the championship, they were out in the second round, forced to watch the rest of the knockout round from Krosnador. It was the only loss all season for Lokomotiv, but it was so damaging that it ended their season prematurely and put a damper on what was a superb campaign.

Back in the Euroleague, but Cleaning House

Former Los Angeles Clipper and Washington Wizard Chris Singleton was a key signing for Lokomotiv this off-season.

In recognition of their dominance, Lokomotiv earned license to the Euroleague as a wild-card participant for 2015-2016. Knowing that this is a crucial year, the Krosnador-based club cleaned house , letting nearly everyone but Delaney and Randolph (though his status is in the air as he did not play in Game 1) go as well as head coach Bazarevich after only one season (though he did go 19-1 in Eurocup play). Now installed as head coach is Greek national Giorgios Bartzokas who coached Olympiacos from 2012-2014 and led them to a Euroleague title in 2013 and earned Euroleague coach of the year honors that season as well.

As expected, Lokomotiv added a lot of athletic-American based talent, with the standout being Chris Singleton, who has played in the NBA and mostly spent time in the D-League last season (he played for the OKC Blue, the Thunder’s developmental program). However, there is also a lot of local, though older, talent on this roster, including Spaniard Victor Claver (who helped lead Khimki to a Eurocup championship last season) and Ukranian Kyrylo Fesenko, who has played in the NBA with the Utah Jazz and played last season with VTB squad Avtodor Saratov. Though not possessing as many big-names or as much high-end talent as a year ago, it is obvious that they are hoping that the mix of athleticism, veteran talent, and an established Euroleague coach will be the recipe for success in 2015-2016.

Starting Slow, but Finishing Strong against Panathinaikos in Game 1

One has to think that Bartzokas had a little extra motivation for this game, as he coached for Panathinaikos’ rival for 3 seasons. However, Lokomotiv struggled out of the gate, as they were down 21-17 and looked a little out of sorts as a team, struggling to find the right rhythm with the newly revamped roster. But in the 2nd quarter, they hit their stride, as they outscored the Greek power 28-20 in the second quarter to take a 45-41 lead into halftime.

After trading punches in the 3rd quarter, and the game 63-61, things looked prime for Panathinaikos to make a run and pull off the road win in the season opener. However, thanks to the athleticism of Singleton, the strong perimeter defense of Draper and Delaney, an efficient shooting night from Claver (he scored 13 on 5 of 6 shooting, including 2 of 3 from beyond the arc), and inspiring post play off the bench from Fesenko, who finished with 8 points on 4 of 7 shooting and 7 rebounds in less than 15 minutes of play, Lokomotiv outscored Panathinaikos 18-9 in the 4th and won 81-70 in a game that was a lot closer than the final score indicated.

What sealed the deal for Lokomotiv in the 4th was the strong perimeter defense, thanks to their athleticism and length on the wings. Panathinaikos, led by newly acquired guard Nick Calathes, relies heavily on the 3-point shot, as evidenced by their 22 attempts (36.7 percent of their total field goal attempts). However, beyond Calathes (who shot 2 of 4 from beyond the arc) and Dimitris Diamantidis (who shot 3 of 5), the rest of the squad shot poorly, as evidenced from their 2 of 13 mark from 3-point land (including Sasha Pavlovic, a long-time NBA player who shot 0 of 4), good for 15 percent (Panathinaikos shot 31.8 percent from 3-point land, not good considering their emphasis on the 3-point shot offensively). That low percentage is a credit to the Lokomotiv perimeter defenders and Bartzokas’ aggressive defensive principles, as Panathinaikos simply didn’t have a lot of open looks, especially in the 4th quarter with game on the line.

Lokomotiv doesn’t have a lot of pure size in the post (Fesenko is their only 7 footer and they don’t start anyone over 6’9; that being said, they have three 6’10 players in Igor Kanygin, Nikita Balashov and Nikita Zverev, but they are young, with Kanygin and Zverev 21 and Balashov 24, and raw, as they didn’t dress on the active roster for the game), but their aggressiveness and ability in the post was evident on the rebounding end. They out-rebounded the Greek club 42-26 total, and 12-8 on the offensive end (which is one of Dean Oliver’s four factors to winning a basketball game). With Lokomotiv getting plenty of second chances, and preventing the smaller, less physical Panathinaikos squad, it makes sense that Lokomotiv generated more 2 point field goal attempts (44-38) and shot a better 2 pt FG percentage (54.5 percent to 47.4 percent), which contributed greatly to their victory (as eFG percentage is the strongest portion of the 4 factors; eFG percentage accounts 2-pt and 3 pt FG percentage and Lokomotiv shot better in 3-point percentage as well).

(In a tangent central to Panathinaikos, Serbian center Miroslav Raduljica had only 5 total rebounds, the same amount as Calathes, and no offensive boards; those numbers need to improve if they want to be more serious contenders this Euroleague season).

Can Lokomotiv Build on the Momentum from this Win?

Singleton’s 16 point, 9 rebound and 2 block performance will need to be regular if Loko wants to make it into and past the 2nd round.

There is no question that this is a solid Lokomotiv squad. Their group isn’t easy, but they have the talent and coaching to compete with favorites in the group such as Panathinaikos, FC Barcelona and Pinar Karsiyaka. Singleton is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenders on the perimeter, as he can shoot over and post up smaller wings, but he has the speed to beat bigger and slower wings to the rack. Claver is a proven vet, whose ability to stretch out more traditional power forwards and shoot well from beyond the arc makes up for his lack of rebounding and physicality. And Fesenko is a solid bench option, though his stamina issues will probably prevent him from starting over Ryan Broekhoff (though his 4 point, 4 rebound, 3 turnover game certainly wasn’t encouraging).

When Lokomotiv is in the fast break and using their athleticism, they may be one of the best teams in Europe, especially with Delaney, Singleton and Claver on the floor. But taking care of the ball may be an issue for this squad, as they made a lot of errors, turning the ball over 18 times, 3 more than Panathinaikos in the game. A lot of their turnovers stemmed from Lokomtoiv relying too much on isolation plays as well as lack of communication off the pick and roll as well as limited ball movement (which stemmed from the communication issues). Singleton will most likely be their best player considering his scoring ability (he led the team with 16 points) and multiple ability skill set (he had 9 rebounds, including 4 offensive boards and two blocks). But, there were times when the pick and roll that featured him stagnated, because there was a lack of communication and chemistry when it came to responsibilities on the initial ball screen.

Let’s take a look at a possession which was an early microcosm of their early struggles, poor communication and lackluster choices in the offense.

Screenshot 2015-10-18 at 9.15.24 PM

Singleton begins the play from up top. He looks to pass the ball to the wing to set up the side pick and roll play, a staple of professional basketball. But after he passes it, look what happens on the play as he goes to set the ball screen.

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He sets the screen and the other post (Zubkov) doesn’t initially see it, and they are unsure who is supposed to be setting the screen here. Look at the congestion this causes. The wing (Bykov) doesn’t know where to dribble to because he doesn’t know who has the screen responsibility, and 3 Panathinaikos defenders are in the area taking away any free lanes to the hoop. The pick and roll is a free-flowing offensive staple, but when there is lack of communication when it comes to ball screen responsibility, then it kills time, congests the lane, and makes things easy for the defense (since they don’t have to move much because everyone is so close together).

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And then this happens. Because the defense senses the hesitation, they hedge the screen well, and Zubkov can do is give a halfhearted screen that is more of a push than anything. Bykov was lucky he got out of this and was able to find Singleton with the lag pass, because there was a strong possibility he could have gotten trapped here (which Sasha Pavlovic is trying to do on the right).

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After the lag pass to Singleton, Singleton dribble handoffs to Draper on the opposite wing and then does another ball screen. This one is much better and shows much better communication and awareness by the Lokomotiv players on the floor. Draper has much more room to dribble penetrate to the rack and he has a matchup advantage with the much bigger defender switching off the screen. As expected, Draper gets to the rack area, where Calathes has to help stop dribble penetration (along with Pavlovic, in the bottom left, who doesn’t need but sags in anyways).

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Draper then fires it into the corner for Delaney who is sitting wide open for what should be a high-percentage 3-point attempt. Now, this should be a successful corner 3 but look what inexplicably happens next.

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Delaney instead swings it back to Bykov who takes a contested 3. Though Delaney is covered in the image here, on tape, he had enough time to hit the corner 3, as Pavlovic, in the image above this one, had his back to Delaney and would have had a difficult time to block or contest the shot. Delaney was a 36 percent shooter from beyond the arc in Eurocup and VTB play last season. Passing on that shot really is unacceptable, especially considering Bykov’s defender was a lot closer to him than Pavlovic was to Delaney.

Despite this lackluster and frustrating to watch possession, it was still the first game, and you have to remember that this squad is pretty much entirely new from a year ago. Add that with a coach who is in his first year in the club, and growing pains, as seen in the possession above, are inevitable. That being said, this Lokomotiv team has the potential to not just make it to the second round, but maybe be a dark horse to go further (how much though, I don’t know). Singleton is a real building block for them, and they can match player to player with any club in the Euroleague. Furthermore, if Randolph does come back and play with the team, they will be even deeper and more dangerous, as Randolph, while a volatile personality, is multi-purpose talent who can take advantage on the perimeter and in the post when he is on and focused.

The main question with this team is chemistry, not talent. Can they mesh? Can they adjust to Bartzokas’ system and coaching style? Can they come together and finish strong at the end of the year and not fade like they did in the Eurocup a year ago? There certainly are a lot of questions surrounding this Lokomotiv team, who is facing a “win or go back to the Eurocup” situation and don’t have the kind of market or fanfare of CSKA Moscow or even Khimki (who is also in Moscow). Nonetheless, a win in the Euroleague, especially over an established club like Panathinaikos, is a promising sign for the second-round chances (Barcelona and Stelmet Zielona Gora can’t boast the same feat in their group) and should build some confidence for their remaining 9-game slate in the regular season.