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…

A Quick Preview to the Winner League (Israel) Final Four

On Monday, June 12th, the 2017 Winner League (Israeli Basketball Super League) Final Four will tip off at Menorah Mivtachim Arena in Tel Aviv (home of Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv). What makes this field interesting is that the last four Winner League champions are represented: Maccabi Haifa (2013), Maccabi Tel Aviv (2014), Hapoel Jerusalem (2015) and Maccabi Rishon (2016). Considering the Final Four’s format is akin to the Euroleague and NCAA model, where it only takes two games to win the championship, any of the four clubs have a chance to add another title to their mantle.

Let’s break down each team and what their chances are to be hoisting that Winner League trophy at the end of the championship final.

(All stats from the quarterfinals and not regular season unless noted)

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Maccabi Rishon

Winner League regular season record:

17-16 (7th seed)

Quarterfinals:

Beat Hapoel Eliat (2nd seed) 3-2

Players to watch:

G/F Patrick Richard (14.0 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 13.0 PIR in QF), PG Cameron Long (10.2 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 3.6 apg, 11.6 PIR), PF Elishay Kadir (10.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 4.2 fouls drawn per game, 13.8 PIR).

What you should know about Maccabi Rishon:

Rishon are the defending champions, as they went from a 6 seed, 16-17 team entering the playoffs and went on a fairytale run to their first Winner League championship. Led by former Israel National Team (and now current Maccabi Tel Aviv) coach Arik Shivek, and regular season MVP Darryl Monroe (who averaged a league 25.0 PIR), the underdog club upset third-seed Maccabi Haifa in the quarterfinals 3-2, and then proceeded to upset second-seed Maccabi Tel Aviv 71-68 in the Semifinals, and then top-seeded Hapoel Jerusalem 83-77 in the final. Rishon’s Cinderella run displayed what can happen when a team comes in hot in the postseason, especially with the “one and done” Final Four format.

This season feels similar to last season in a variety of ways. Despite winning a Winner League title, the club wasn’t able to capitalize much on the success, as they went 17-16 in the regular season (only 1 game better than the previous year), fired Shivek mid-season, and finished as the 7th seed, seemingly heavy underdogs to the favored Hapoel Eilat. And yet, in a crazy, topsy turvy series, Hapoel Eilat, much like last season, punched their ticket to the Final Four once again by upsetting the two-seed in five games.

What are their chances to win the championship?

Unlike last season, Rishon doesn’t have that “star” player this year like they did last season with Monroe. Rishon struck out on imports Joe Jackson (who only played 2 games) and Maalik Wayns (who played 16). However, this playoff season, they have been led by the guard combo of Richard and Long, who averaged 14 ppg and 10.2 ppg, respectively in the series against Eilat. Additionally, power forward and Israeli national Kadir had a monster series as well, as he averaged 10.6 ppg on 74.2 percent shooting from the field.

Rishon is playing some of their best basketball this year under head coach Smulik Brenner, who has done a solid job after Shivek left the club during the year. That being said, the big question for Rishon is if they will be able to handle the athleticism and star power of Jerusalem. Jerusalem went 3-0 in the regular season against Rishon and won by margins of 20, 14, and 24 in those contests.

If Rishon wants to have a chance, they are going to have push the tempo, force turnovers (they averaged 6.6 in their quarterfinal series), control the glass (they averaged more rebounds than Jerusalem in the regular season; 38.1 to 34.9), and continue their hot shooting from beyond the arc (they shot 40 percent from 3 against Eilat). As much star power as Jerusalem, they have a tendency to coast or be unfocused at times, especially on the defensive end, an area that Rishon can exploit considering how well offensively they have been playing.

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Hapoel Jerusalem

Winner League regular season record:

19-14 (3rd seed)

Quarterfinals:

Beat Ironi Nahariya (6th seed) 3-2 (down 2-0 and won three straight games).

Players to watch:

SF Tarence Kinsey (14.4 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 3.0 spg, 16.6 PIR), Guard Curtis Jerrells (13.8 ppg, 1.4 spg, 4.4 apg, 14.4 PIR), Guard Jerome Dyson (10.6 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 2.8 apg, 10.2 PIR), PF Lior Eliyahu (8.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 2.4 apg).

What you should know about Hapoel Jerusalem:

Jerusalem gained a lot of popularity this off-season for signing Amare Stoudemire, who also owns a minority stake in the club. However, Stoudemire has somewhat limped to the finish, as he only played in three playoff games, and averaged 13.7 mpg in the playoff series against Ironi. That being said, this is an immensely talented squad beyond Stoudemire, led by Italian national and former Montepaschi Siena head coach Simone Pianigiani, who will be heading to Olimpia Milano at the conclusion of the season.

Tarence Kinsey, who played last year with Crvena Zvezda, has emerged as Jerusalem’s best all-around player this postseason. He average 14.4 ppg, and shot not only over 60 percent from 2-pt shots, but also on 3-pt shots as well. And if that wasn’t enough, he averaged 3.0 spg, a key reason why Jerusalem turned things around against Ironi despite facing a 2-0 deficit.

In addition to Kinsey (who averages 29.2 mpg), Pianigiani relies heavily on guards Jerrells (who averages a team high 34.8 mpg this postseason) and Dyson (who averages 23.8 mpg) and post players Eliyahu (27.4 mpg) and center Richard Howell (24.2 mpg). This is not a deep team by any means, and the fatigue certainly has certainly showed up on occasion not only in the regular season, but post-season as well (hence, why they went down 2-0, with both losses coming at home). Yet despite their lack of depth, Jerusalem’s top talent stacks up with any club in the Winner League.

What are their chances to win the championship?

Jerusalem is looking for revenge, as they were upset by Rishon in the championship a year ago, thus being denied a back-to-back title run. It will be hard for Rishon to handle the athletic and quick trio of Jerrells-Dyson-Kinsey, and Eliyahu has emerged as the team leader in the frontcourt as Stoudemire has struggled through injuries and fatigue. If Jerusalem can keep the pace slow, get in their pick and roll actions in the half court (Pianigiani is known to rely heavily on the pick and roll as a coach), and minimized the damage on the glass, then Jerusalem should be able to handle this contest easily.

One big issue for Jerusalem though, other than their rebounding disadvantage as explained earlier, is their porous free throw shooting this postseason. Jerusalem shot 54.4 percent from the charity stripe in their five-game season against Ironi, with awful performances coming from their post players: Eliyah shot 36.4 percent and Howell shot 36.8 on free throws. Even their perimeter players didn’t fare too hot in the series, as Dyson shot 53.3 percent on free throws in the series. This is key because it bit them in the butt in games 1 and 2, as they shot 51.7 and 42.9 percent from the line in their losses in games 1 and 2, respectively. They improved their percentages in games 3 and 4 (54.5 and 68.2 percent, respectively), which resulted in wins, but they regressed back in game 5 (50 percent). Luckily for them, the game was out of reach so it didn’t hurt them. But if Jerusalem wants to get their second title in three years, they have to be closer in free throw shooting to their season average (70.6 percent) and not their playoff one.

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Maccabi Haifa

Winner League regular season record:

16-17 (8th seed)

Quarterfinals:

Beat Hapoel Holon (1st seed) 3-1 (won three straight games)

Players to watch:

PG John Dibartolomeo (22.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 3.8 apg, 67.9 3-pt percentage, 22.7 PIR in QF), PF/C Kevinn Pinkney (10.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 18.3 PIR in QF), PG Gregory Vargas (10.3 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 6.3 apg in QF), PF Oz Blayzer (14.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 13.3 PIR in QF)

What you should know about Maccabi Haifa:

Haifa is a team who’s better than their record indicates. Yes, they were 16-17 during the regular season, but they had a +128 point differential, which was the second best mark behind Holon. Thus, this was probably a team that should have won 18-20 games, not one that only won 16 and had a losing record. (I talk about pythagorean W-L a bit in my previous post on Brose Bamberg who also had a differential between expected and actual record.)

Despite being the eight-seed, Haifa came out and utterly steamrolled the top-seeded Holon three-games to one. While the team got expected production from leading scorer Vargas, who averaged 10.3 ppg and 6.3 apg in the four-game series, it was the breakout of American point guard and University of Rochester product Dibartolomeo who ended up breaking the back of the top-seeded Holon. The young guard scored an incredible 22.5 ppg and shot nearly 68 percent from beyond the arc, all career numbers considering he only averaged 9.9 ppg during the regular season. Another breakout star was Pinkney, who averaged 13 ppg and 7.3 rpg in the four game series, while providing muscle and energy in the paint that neutralized the favored Holon.

What are their chances to win a championship?

Head coach Offer Rahimi coached under Mickey Gorka during their 2014 title run, so he understands the culture of this Haifa club and what it takes to win. Haifa plays an all-out style, as they don’t have the most size out of the clubs in the Winner League, but they can score buckets, push the pace, and get hot from beyond the arc. This has led to a high variance in their scores (hence the reason why they went 16-17), but it’s entertaining, and when they are feeling it, they can seem unbeatable.

Unfortunately, they will be facing a tough challenge in Tel Aviv, who also play a run and gun style and have a similar team composition, though Tel Aviv is slightly more talented and athletic on the perimeter. One of Tel Aviv’s weaknesses this year is on the glass, as they don’t rebound well, and don’t have the size to keep teams off the offensive glass either. Haifa thrives in this area, as they like to crash and get up second and third-chance attempts. Haifa will be giving away a lot of advantages to Tel Aviv, but if Haifa crashes the glasses, wins on 50-50 balls and can transition their hot shooting stroke, then they have a puncher’s chance to continue their Cinderella run to the Finals and perhaps into a championship.

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Maccabi Tel Aviv

Winner League regular season record:

19-14 (4th place)

Quarterfinals:

Beat Enei Herzliya 3-0

Players to watch:

Guard Andrew Goudelock (14 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 3.7 apg, 16 PIR in QF), Forward Victor Rudd (15.3 ppg, 6 rpg, 3.3 apg, 19 PIR in QF), Forward Quincy Miller (17.3 ppg, 6 rpg, 22.7 PIR in QF).

What you should know about Maccabi Tel Aviv:

I have already gone in length about Maccabi Tel Aviv’s playoff run in a previous post so I won’t go too much into this. But I will say that the combination of Arik Shivek’s arrival (though most likely temporary, as the courtship of David Blatt, whether they get him or not, is a sign that they are looking to upgrade with a big name hire) and Quincy Miller’s resurgence (after suffering through injury most of the year) has helped Maccabi turn a 180 after a season finish that included a 2-8 record in their last 10 games and the firing of Ainars Bagatskis (who was their third coach this year). That being said, this Maccabi team has been hot and cold all year and has gone through big ups and then tremendous downs with the various coaching changes this year (Rami Hadar and Bagatskis all had moments where it seemed like they would be the solution for the remainder of the season). So while this Maccabi team looks good now, that is no guarantee that they will continue such a performance in the Final Four.

What are their chances to win a championship?

Their matchup with Haifa is beneficial to the Winner League power. Haifa, as solid as they are, play a similar style to Tel Aviv, which doesn’t really exploit Tel Aviv’s weaknesses. In order to beat Tel Aviv, you need to be a solid rebounding team, you need to beat them in the post, and you got to make them play a half-court, slow it down game. Unfortunately, while Haifa is a slightly better rebounding team, but it’s not a considerable advantage, and it is debatable if Haifa can do those other two factors with any confidence. Tel Aviv won the season series 2-1, and when they did lose to Haifa, they were going through that horrid stretch where the club was embroiled with internal turmoil. Those days look to be gone (as of now).

If Tel Aviv does take care of business, it could result in a matchup with rival Jerusalem, who most likely will be looking for revenge after losing the Israeli Cup to Tel Aviv. While I have discussed about Miller before, one key to this series could be the offensive AND defensive performance of Andrew Goudelock. Goudelock missed considerable time to injury and was deemed less of a problem than Sonny Weems, who was released mid-season after a disappointing tenure in Israel. There is no question that Goudelock can put up buckets, as he has been known as one of the most dynamic one-on-one scorers in all of Europe. But he can be a black hole offensively at times, and can take plays off defensively as well, not necessarily a plus for a club that struggles with team defense in general.

And yet, this Final Four may be a “tryout” of sorts for Goudelock. Miller may have earned the second year of his contract with his quarterfinal performances, but Goudelock’s future seems less secure. Many have blamed him for the team’s inconsistencies, especially on defense. But, Goudelock, when motivated, can be a game-changing force, as he showed in past Euroleague stops as well as the NBA and D-League. If he can rekindle that force in the Final Four and lead the Blue and Gold to another title, it could result in him being back in Tel Aviv under the new coaching regime.

A disappointing Final Four performance though? Well, it’s safe to say his first season in Tel Aviv will be his last (much like Weems) if that should happen.

Does Valencia have a chance against the Real Madrid juggernaut?

Since 1983, the Liga Endesa (ACB) has been dominated by three clubs: Real Madrid, FC Barcelona and Saski Baskonia. Every final since the league began has involved one of those three clubs, and though this year continues that trend (Real Madrid), the top-heavy stranglehold has been challenged a bit. For the first time since 2010-2011, we will not see an “El Clasico” (Barcelona-Real Madrid) ACB Final, as Valencia Basket punched their ticket to the Final after beating Baskonia 3-1 in the semifinals.

For Valencia, this ACB Final is another crowning achievement on what has been for the most part a stellar and historic season in a variety of ways, as they have reached the Eurocup and Copa del Rey championships this season. Unfortunately, they haven’t been able to capitalize on the championship opportunities, as they fell to Unicaja Malaga in the Eurocup final, and Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey championship. Despite being heavy underdogs to one of Spain’s premier clubs, Valencia is hoping that their third shot at a trophy will be the charm.


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Valencia finished 23-9 during the ACB regular season, tying for second-overall, but ceding to the third spot due to a tie-breaking loss to Baskonia. Valencia has thrived at home at Fuente de San Luis, as they went 18-2 at home in the regular season, and 4-0 during the playoffs. Though they were nearly a .500 team on the road in the regular season (10-9), they did win a huge game 1 against Baskonia in Fernando Buesa arena that ended up being the difference in the tight, competitive series.

The No. 1 seed Madrid had the easier path to the Finals, as they beat a young, but inexperienced 8th seed Andorra in the first round (2-1) and then swept Eurocup champion Unicaja 3-0 in the semifinals. On the other hand, Valencia had a “more difficult than you think” route, as they beat a Barcelona team that was desperate to salvage a disappointing season (2-1) and beat a Baskonia team that not only had an edge in terms of talent, but also got a late-season reinforcement who happened to be one of the best 1-on-1 scorers in the Turkish BSL this year (Ricky Ledo).

That story has been a familiar one for Valencia this off-season, both in ACB as well as European play. On paper, Valencia doesn’t really jump out at the casual basketball fan. They had to face VTB MVP Alexey Shved and Khimki in the Eurocup playoffs, and Valencia came out on top. They had to face former NBA All-star Amare Stoudemire, Euroleague Final Four coach Simone Pianigiani and Hapoel Jerusalem and they came out of that series victorious. Valencia was also considered heavy underdogs in the semis, as many figured Ledo was just the cherry on top that Valencia couldn’t handle, and yet it’s the Southeastern Spanish coast team that’s in the Finals, not the Basque club.

The same situation will be true in the ACB finals against Real Madrid. Valencia didn’t have much success against the top-seeded club this year, as they lost 94-75 in Round 2 at home and 85-71 in Madrid in Round 18. They fell short again in the Copa del Rey, but were a bit more competitive, as they lost 97-95. To imagine that Valencia can win three games against the King of Spanish basketball when they weren 0-3 against them in 2016-2017 seems like a tall, if not impossible task.

That being said, don’t expect this Valencia club to go down without a fight.


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Valencia is a team that is as strong as the sum of the parts. In other words, they really depend on the “team” rather than one individual player. They don’t have that star guy who can take over a game. They don’t have a Sergio Llull or Anthony Randolph or even Luka Doncic like Madrid. But, they play incredibly polished team basketball on both ends of the court, as I have chronicled about after their loss to Unicaja in the Eurocup final. That is a credit to head coach Pedro Martinez, who has had tremendous success not only at Valencia, but in the past with Gran Canaria.

If Valencia is going to depend on a player, that honor would go to either center Bojan Dubljevic or forward Fernando San Emeterio. Dubljevic really is the heart and soul of the team in many ways. The Montenegrin post led the team in points (12.4 ppg), rebounds (5.6) and PIR average (14.7). Furthermore, Dubljevic’s impact goes beyond the court, as he connects with teammates and fans alike. He garnered a lot of fans beyond Valencia for his “Will Griggs”-inspired performance in front of the Valencia faithful after their clinching game 4 victory.

San Emeterio doesn’t have the “big” personality of Dubljevic, but nobody came up bigger in game 4 than the 33-year-old Spaniard. In game 4, he scored 19 points, and had 3 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals in the deciding victory. What made his performance even more impressive was his perfection from the field. Yes. He was completely perfect, as he went 4-4 on 2-pt shots, 3-3 from beyond the arc, 2-2 from the charity stripe. That is some Christian Laettner-esque shit right there.

San Emeterio’s hard-nosed defense will also be needed to neutralize Madrid’s wings, especially sharpshooter Jaycee Carroll, who can get hot from three quickly, and Doncic, who can be a do-everything playmaker. But for Valencia to have a shot at all this series, they will need their posts to have big series’ in order to neutralize Madrid’s depth in the frontcourt. Madrid has not only the best frontcourt in Spain, but in all of Europe, with Randolph, Gustavo Ayon, Felipe Reyes, Othello Hunter, and Trey Thompkins playing in the paint. Obviously, Valencia can’t match up with that kind of star power on paper. However, if they can get physical with the Madrid frontcourt, force them out of the paint, and get them out of rhythm, they’ll have a shot. Teams who have beaten Madrid have been able to employ that strategy, whether it’s forcing Ayon or Hunter off the block, or forcing Reyes, Randolph or Thompkins to be jump shooters. If Valencia wants to win, they will need to to outwork and outhustle the more talented Madrid posts with Luke Sikma, Will Thomas and Pierre Oriola, while also getting some offensive production on the other end.

Valencia has accomplished a lot. Appearances in the Eurocup, Copa del Rey and now ACB finals are nothing to shrug off, and they have apparently qualified for the Euroleague next season as well (though the EL does have a provision preventing more than 4 teams from one country being represented in the competition). And even if they don’t pull off an upset against Madrid, they should not be disappointed. Nobody outside of the city of Valencia is expecting this club to pull this upset off. Madrid has too much depth, too much talent, and too much pedigree to lose this series.

But you never know. No club has won the ACB outside of the Madrid, Barcelona, Baskonia triumvirate outside of Unicaja in 2005-2006, and before that, Manresa in 1997-1998. Will Valencia join that small, but illustrious group?

We’ll know Valencia’s chances of pulling the miracle off after Game 1 on June 9th.

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.

 

Is Maccabi Tel Aviv salvaging their season? (And build on it for next year?)

This season hasn’t been necessarily one to remember for the officials, players, and fans of Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv, one of the most prestigious clubs not only in Israel, but in all of Europe.

The 2016-2017 campaign was a rock-bottom of sorts in the newly revised Euroleague. They finished the season 10-20, placing them 14th overall in the standings (out of 16). Not only did they finish miles out of playoff contention, but were out of the discussion early, as their playoff hopes seemed doomed by Round 20 or so of the regular season. Compounding this lack of success in 2016-2017 is the fact that two years ago they were coming off arguably their worst Euroleague campaign in the history of the club, as they failed to qualify for Top 16 play in the “old” format, and failed to make the postseason in the Eurocup as well.

Things haven’t been much better in the “Winner” League (i.e. Israeli Basketball Super League, BSL for short). Tel Aviv finished 19-14, good for fourth place in the standings. Granted, a playoff berth and finishing in the upper quarter of the Winner League may be good for most Israeli clubs. But for a club with the kind of history as Tel Aviv, those results “disappointed” fans and management alike.

Because of the lackluster results in Euroleague as well as Winner League play, the organization has been a hurricane roster and coaching-wise. Since David Blatt left for the Cleveland Cavs after winning a Euroleague title in 2014 (he now is with Darussafaka but should be leaving after Dacka lost the Dogus sponsorship and will be regulated to the Eurocup), Tel Aviv has gone through six different head coaches (Guy Goodes, Zan Tabak, Erez Edelstein, Rami Hadar, Ainars Bagatskis, and now Arik Shivek). Only Goodes (a long-time assistant under Blatt and former Tel Aviv player) lasted a whole season (he was fired early in his second season). Player-wise, Tel Aviv has swung for the fences on big-name free agent, American players, only to strike out more often than not. Jordan Farmar flamed out two seasons ago. Sonny Weems failed to live out his promise to be “Maccabi’s LeBron”. Maik Zirbes ended up getting loaned out to Bayern Munich mid-season. And though Andrew Goudelock has put up big scoring numbers, it’s questionable if he will be back next year considering his defensive liabilities.

And yet, despite these problems, and finishing the Winner League by firing Bagatskis, who seemed like a dead man walking nearly a month ago, things have turned around in Tel Aviv. They were the first team to qualify for the semifinals by sweeping Bnei Herzliya 3-0, and they could luck out in their semifinal matchup if Maccabi Haifa pulls of the upset against top-seeded Hapoel Holon. Add that with the problems of other big-time club Hapoel Jerusalem on the other side of the bracket (Jerusalem is one game away from being eliminated by 6th-seed Ironi Nahariya), and it appears that Tel Aviv may be on their way to another Winner League title run, something that seemed unthinkable a couple of weeks ago when morale was at an all-time low.


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Tel Aviv has been helped by two major developments: the hiring of Shivek, and the emergence of Quincy Miller, who finally is fully healthy and has been given a real opportunity to shine for the first time all season.

Shivek was hired on after the Bagatskis firing to somewhat keep the ship afloat at the conclusion of what was originally seen as a “lost” season. Shivek, at 60 years old, is an Israeli coaching basketball veteran, who previously coached the Israeli National team (2009-2014) and Maccabi Rishon. At Rishon, Shivek found a lot of immediate success, as he won the Winner League title last year in first season with the club, and also helped club qualify for the quarterfinals in the FIBA Europe Cup as well. Shivek also has coached beyond Israel as well, with brief coaching stops in Antwerp and Amsterdam.

Though he doesn’t have much big-name recognition with European basketball fans, he is quite respected in coaching circles. Most notably, he is quite active on the clinic circuit, known for his theories on developing young guards. In fact, there is a video sponsored by FIBA of him conducting one of his clinics on the subject. Considering the pedigree of coaches who have appeared in such videos (from NBA to European coaches), the clinic below shows that Shivek has some clout in the European coaching community, which should explain some of his early success with Tel Aviv this postseason.

But how has Shivek been different from Bagatskis, Hadar and Edelstein this season? Mostly on the defensive end, as Tel Aviv has been a much better defensive unit under Shivek this postseason. Though they scored a league high 84 ppg, they also gave up 80.6 ppg, which would put them in the lower half of the league. In their 3-game series against Ironi, they only gave up 68 ppg, while scoring 93 ppg. (A differential of 25 points!) While it is just one round, Shivek is doing some things with this club that none of the three previous coaches could do on the defensive end and that could be key to whether or not they take back the Winner League title.

While Shivek’s arrival has been a breath of fresh air this postseason, the return of a healthy Quincy Miller has been key as well to Tel Aviv’s playoff success. Miller, who was coming off a stellar European debut with Crvena Zvezda last year, was expected to be a key player that club could depend on along with Weems. However, an injury in the off-season during pickup sidelined Miller for most of the season, which proved to be a huge blow to the club. Though Miller did try to make comebacks at various points in the season (both in Euroleague and Winner League play), he hasn’t really been a 100 percent until now.

Of course, just being healthy is one thing. Miller made his  Winner League debut in Round 27, and Bagatskis rarely utilized him when the forward returned. He only played more than 20 minutes once (A Round 30 loss against Nahariya where he played 22 minutes and scored 9 point), and even when he was in, it was obvious that Bagatskis wasn’t comfortable with him in the rotation, preferring other options like Sylvan Landesberg and Victor Rudd instead.

However, Shivek has loosened the reigns on Miller, allowing him to be the athletics and at times dominating two-way player that he was in Belgrade a season ago. Miller has averaged almost 23 MPG in the three game series, along with 17.3 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 1.7 spg, and a PIR average of 22.7. Miller showcased his stroke in the three game series, as he shot 70 percent from beyond the arc (7 of 10). While it is not expected that he will shoot that good a percentage again in the following rounds, it is a good sign that Miller is once again thriving and finding his rhythm as a scorer this postseason, something that never really came into fruition at any point for him during the regular season under Bagatskis.


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There still is a lot of playoff basketball to be played in the Winner League and in Tel Aviv. Though this three-game stretch has been a godsend for the club and fans who have experienced nothing but turmoil until this point, it is still a small sample size. Maccabi Haifa, if they pull off the upset, is no regular 8th seed, as their +128 point differential was actually the second-best mark in the Winner League. (And better than Tel Aviv’s). And while Tel Aviv is clicking on all cylinders now, it has been a common theme this year for this club to click for a few games, only to fall back to mediocrity. Hadar and Bagatskis both showed signs that they had this club on the upswing, only to fail after a few games. The same could happen under Shivek.

Whatever happens, it will be interesting to see if the positive momentum Tel Aviv has built so far can be built upon for next year. While the club has maintained continuity with Israeli players like Guy Pnini and Yogev Ohayon, and foreign vets like Devin Smith and Landesberg, it is obvious that this club has to make some changes to make this club better in the long-run, as those vets are starting to show signs of their age (well…maybe not Landesberg, but he may need a fresh start somewhere else). Tel Aviv has tried to go with big-name signings, but they have failed to mesh chemistry-wise, and they either were jettisoned by the club or left on their own accord in a season or less. If Tel Aviv wants to recapture the glory they had before (or at least be competitive in the Euroleague again), they will need to settle on a style and system, and try to find players that will fit that ideal, rather than just go with big names who put up big numbers (i.e. Weems, Goudelock, etc.).

However, will Tel Aviv management settle on Shivek and Miller to lead that new movement? Shivek is only signed through the remainder of the season, and Tel Aviv is holding out hope that they will be able to sign a big name such as Zalgiris coach Sarunas Jasikevicius, Blatt or perhaps Georgios Bartzokas, who may be on his way out after one disastrous season in Barcelona. But is ANOTHER coaching change really what this club needs? And if so, will any of those big names actually consider Tel Aviv after all the coaching turnover the past two seasons?

As for Miller, he is signed for one more season, and he may be their best building block, as he offers two-way versatility that no other player on the roster possesses. Will Tel Aviv try to build around him, with good complimentary players, or will they continue to do their reckless approach to team building which has produced nothing but mediocrity the past couple of seasons?

There are a lot of questions facing this Tel Aviv club this offseason. With only 16 spots, there are so many pressures on clubs on an annual basis to remain in the Euroleague. There is pressure to keep high attendance. There is pressure from fans to win. There is pressure from fans to make the playoffs. There is pressure from fans to make the Final Four. These all are stark realities with a club like Maccabi Tel Aviv, and these realities are reasons why Tel Aviv is always seeking change as an organization, even if it is to their detriment, as it has been the past two seasons.

However, if Miller and Shivek can continue this Tel Aviv postseason success, and perhaps capture an unexpected Winner League title, then maybe the solutions to “rebuilding” Maccabi Tel Aviv won’t be as difficult as initially imagined.

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.

ELJ’s “Key Five-And-One” Playoff Preview: CSKA Moscow (2) vs. Baskonia (7)

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Onto part two of the ELJ “Key Five-And-One” Playoff Preview. If you missed out on part 1, check it out here, as I look at the key five players to the Real Madrid-Darussafaka series.

Now, let’s take a look at the 2-7 matchup between CSKA Moscow and Baskonia Vitoria-Gastiez.

Milos Teodosic

Nando de Colo is the more polished player and scorer, but nobody is probably more important to his squad than Milos. When Teodosic is humming, swinging the ball around to open men, and hitting it from deep, you can almost guarantee a CSKA win, as has been the case on frequent occasion the past few seasons.

Teodosic leads CSKA in minutes per game at 29, and is also their leading assist man at 7.2 apg. Additionally, he also scores 16.1 ppg and has a PIR average of 17.5. While the latter mark is second to de Colo, Milos has gotten to his high marks mostly coming off the bench, as he has started only six games this season (mostly in de Colo’s absence, when he was out for a little bit in the middle of the year due to injury).

De Colo has been a consistent force, especially on the scoring end, and it is expected that de Colo will get his during this series. But nobody controls or orchestrates the CSKA offense more or better than Teodosic…and that has its positives and negative (though mostly positive). Teodosic has a flair for the dramatic, and can make beautiful passes and assists look effortless. At the same time, he can also turn the ball over with just as much ease, and his defensive effort can wane on occasion. Considering Baskonia has some high-effort guards in Shane Larkin, Jaka Blazic and Rafa Luz, Teodosic can’t lose his concentration in this series, as Baskonia will make him and CSKA pay if they allow Baskonia to score in transition off of turnovers.

But the bad news for Baskonia? Look below

34 points, 10 assists and a ridiculous 43 PIR in 112-84 beatdown of Baskonia in Round 9 in Moscow. Considering the first two games will be in Russia, I’m sure Baskonia is hoping they don’t see that Milos again in the playoffs.

James Augustine

Augustine comes off the bench for CSKA, much like Milos, and he may not be their best big (you could argue for Kyle Hines or Nikita Kurbanov). However, the CSKA newcomer has been a bit of a polarizing figure this year for the Moscow-power, and his performance in this series could not only determine a Final Four spot, but perhaps whether or not they repeat as Euroleague champs.

Coming over from a Khimki Moscow team that barely missed the Euroleague playoffs a season ago, Augustine has put up good numbers: he leads the team in rebounds at 4.5 per game and he is averaging 5.8 ppg on only 16:28 mpg. However, the biggest question mark with Augustine has been defense, as he has a reputation of getting exposed in the pick and roll or outmaneuvered in the block by more skilled post players in the Euroleague. This is a huge issue considering Baskonia’s depth and talent in the frontcourt. Will Augustine be able to handle Johannes Voigtmann, Ilimane Diop, Toko Shengelia, or Kim Tillie, who all do different things from the post position? Augustine has been inconsistent this year, but he has risen to challenge in big moments before, as evidenced by him hitting this big game winner against CSKA a few seasons ago.

CSKA utilizes their posts in many different ways, but without a doubt, they will need a prime Augustine in this series. If he gets brutalized on the defensive end by Baskonia’s weapons, it will put even more pressure on Milos, Nando, and the CSKA perimeter to have an even bigger series on both ends of the floor.

Adam Hanga

The Hungarian forward is most likely going to the NBA next year, probably following in the steps of former teammate Dairis Bertans who left to play for the Spurs at the conclusion of the 2016 campaign (the Spurs also own Hanga’s rights). It is fitting that Hanga may play with the Spurs next year, as Hanga is almost a “lite” version of San Antonio star Kawhi Leonard. Hanga is an incredibly athletic, defensive oriented wing that can nearly guard anyone on the floor, and when he’s on offensively, he can carry this Baskonia team to victory more often than not (much like Leonard with the Spurs).

Hanga has improved his offensive game from a year ago, much more comfortable as a scorer than he was during their Final Four campaign in 2015-2016. This year he put up a line of 10.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg and 2.3 apg, good for a 13.5 PIR average, the third-best mark on the team (behind Shane Larkin and Johannes Voigtmann who both had a PIR average of 14.9). That kind of triple-slash potential, along with his defensive prowess may have Spurs salivating that Hanga is indeed a Hungarian version of Leonard. But, Hanga’s scoring prowess can go hot and cold from game to game. He is only shooting 33.3 percent from beyond the arc and around 67 percent at the line, and he can be a “ghost” on the offensive end in some games, as evidenced in Round 30 where he scored only 6 points and put up a PIR of 3 in a crucial loss to Zalgiris that made them drop to 7th in the playoff standings.

But he’s also capable of games like below against Barcelona, where he put up 14 points, 3 assists and had a PIR of 21.

Which Hanga is going to show up? If the good, Leonard-esque Hanga does, Baskonia’s chances of pulling off a legendary upset, and making a return to the Final Four, will look a whole lot rosier.

Shane Larkin

Larkin’s first year with Baskonia has for the most part been a success. After relying on the two-headed combo of Darius Adams and Mike James a season ago, Baskonia took a flyer on the former Brooklyn Net and University of Miami star. So far, Larkin hasn’t disappointed: he is averaging 13.1 ppg, 5.7 apg and is tied for first on the team in PIR average at 14.9 (with Voigtmann). And with little depth at the point position (Nico Laprovittola and Rafa Luz offer some good things and effort, but are probably average to slightly below backup options), it makes sense that head coach Sito Alonso has relied so heavily on the first-year guard (29 mpg, a team-high).

Larkin is explosive, competitive, and not afraid of the moment. That was evident in Baskonia’s 79-78 win over CSKA at Fernando Buesa where Larkin not only hit an ice-cold go-ahead shot with about 30 seconds to go, but also stole the ball on the defensive end to seal the game. If you look at the clip below, it’s impressive how Larkin commanded the moment on the offensive end with the swagger and confidence of a Euroleague veteran.

Considering CSKA’s strength is in the backcourt, this series will be a challenge for Larkin. In addition to de Colo and Teodosic, Aaron Jackson and Cory Higgins are also solid perimeter players who undoubtedly will try to make Larkin’s life difficult on both ends of the court. Larkin has had mixed results against CSKA as well: despite hitting the game winner, he only had a PIR of 8, and for the most part was neutralized until the game’s closing moments.

That being said, this will be Larkin’s first taste of the postseason as a professional, and it’ll be interesting to see if Larkin can rise to the moment like he did at times in the Euroleague regular season. Considering Baskonia’s lack of options at the point behind him, the Basque club’s Final Four future may heavily depend on Larkin’s adjustment to the playoffs.

Toko Shengelia

Voigtmann may have the best numbers of any Baskonia big, but no post player is more important to this squad than Shengelia. The Georgian missed some time during the middle of the season to injury, and in that time span, Baskonia swooned, going 1-5 in Shengelia’s absence from Round 18-23. When Shengelia returned to the lineup in Round 24, Baskonia finished 5-2, and saved a playoff spot which looked in dire shape after a Round 23 loss to Anadolu Efes.

Unlike Voigtmann or off-season pickup Andrea Bargnani, who has missed most of the year due to injury (a blessing in disguise since Bargnani was such a defensive liability), Shengelia is a physical, rugged back-to-the basket post player. Yes, Shengelia can step back and hit the occasional three. However, where Shengelia really flourishes is in the blocks, as he is physical and crafty on both the offensive and defensive end, and gives this Baskonia team a sense of toughness that they miss when he’s not on the floor.

His physicality was on full display, as you can see in the video below, in a crucial Round 27 game on the road against Brose, and Nicolo Melli, an All-Euroleague-caliber player. Shengelia put up a line of 16 points, 12 rebounds and a PIR of 22 in a 96-71 victory in Bamberg that helped Baskonia secure a spot in the postseason.

Toko is playing some of the best basketball of his career this season with Baskonia, and they will need him to continue this hot stretch to take advantage of CSKA’s lack of depth in the frontcourt.

Series Wild Card: CSKA’s Backcourt vs. Baskonia’s Frontcourt

nikita-kurbanov-cska-moscow-eb16

This series will be a contrast between two very different teams: CSKA has incredible depth in the backcourt with Milos, Nando, Jackson and Higgins, but they really lack a true go-to guy in the post; Baskonia on the other hand has so much versatility in the blocks, with rim runner Diop, the physical Toko, and Voigtmann and Kim Tillie who can beat you inside and out, but they lack playmaking beyond Larkin and Hanga.

So the question is, who’s going to give first?

Who wins this series could hinge on which of those two aspects cracks first. What if Nando shoots poorly? What if Milos is turning the ball over and giving up points off turnovers? What if Voigtmann is neutralized and made a non-factor? What if Toko gets in foul trouble?

My gut says Baskonia’s frontcourt is more likely to crack than CSKA’s backcourt, but we won’t know for sure until the games begin April 18th. As a fan, I’m pulling for Baskonia, but they’re going to need the frontcourt to be in full force to have a chance to return to the Final Four.