ELJ’s “Key Five-and-One” Playoff Preview: Real Madrid (1) vs. Darussafaka (8)

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We have five days until the Euroleague playoffs officially begin. Instead of just doing a traditional, all-out analysis on each series, I instead am going to highlight the five key players to each series. Plus, at the end, I will choose one “wild card” factor that could impact the respective series. Hopefully, this gives the playoff preview a different flavor from the rest of the previews out there (not that there is anything wrong with other previews; just want to do something different).

Okay let’s begin with our “Key Five” of the 1-8 matchup: Real Madrid vs. Darussfaka.

Sergio Llull

The likely Euroleague MVP favorite, a solid series from Llull will be required for Los Blancos to move onto the Final Four after missing out last season (they were swept handily by Fenerbahce last year in the playoffs). There are not many players as entertaining in Europe as Llull. The free-shooting, Red Bull chugging, do-everything point guard for Madrid was a key reason why they finished with the best record in the Euroleague at 23-7. While Llull has always excelled as a scorer, his  improvement this year in playmaking, ability to create for his talented roster, and knack for coming through in the clutch has elevated him from “local folk hero” to “European superstar who should be in the NBA” levels.

Llull is averaging a team-high 16.9 ppg, 5.9 apg and 16.7 PIR per game for Los Blancos, and he won multiple MVP of the weeks throughout the season. Thus, it is safe to say that Dacka point guard Scottie Wilbekin will have his hands full trying to contain this Spanish energizer bunny.

Anthony Randolph

Randolph led Lokomotiv Kuban (a team that played in the Eurocup this season) to a Final Four in 2015-2016, his coming out party occurring in the playoffs against Barcelona in Games 4 and 5. This year, Randolph made the trek west to Madrid to play for a loaded Real Madrid roster, and the former NBA lottery pick hasn’t disappointed. He averaged 10.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1 bpg, and a 13 PIR per game despite averaging a little over 20 mpg in the Euroleague (mostly due to Madrid’s crazy depth in the frontcourt). Randolph had probably his biggest performance in Round 28, where he was named MVP of the Week after a 21 point, 4 block performance in a road win in Piraeus over Olympiacos, as evidenced in this video below.

Randolph is on the verge of a three-year extension with Real Madrid, with at least one guaranteed in Spain (he could opt out for a NBA contract in his last two years). And it would be worth it, especially if Randolph continues his hot play and leads Madrid to their second Euroleague title in three seasons.

Luka Doncic

The Slovenian boy wonder has made tremendous leaps as a player in year two with Real Madrid. Despite a primary bench role, Doncic has become one of Madrid’s most important players, both in Euroleague as well as ACB play. And that is incredible when you think about it: he’s only 18 years old (was 17 through a good part of this year), and he plays with former NBA players such as Randolph, Gustavo Ayon, Andres Nocioni, Rudy Fernandez, Jeff Taylor, and Trey Thompkins (I’m sure Jaycee Carroll had a cup of coffee with a NBA team too, but I’m too lazy to research it now). Doncic is probably Real Madrid’s most balanced player, as he is a triple-double threat every time he steps on the floor. And that is impressive potential in the Euroleague, where unlike the NBA (where triple doubles are becoming more and more common fare thanks to Russell Westbrook’s skills) triple-doubles are incredibly rare occurrences (there have only been six triple-doubles in Euroleague history, with the last one being done by Nikola Vujcic of Maccabi Tel Aviv during the 2006-2007 season).

During a MVP of the week performance, Doncic nearly put up the 7th triple double in Euroleague history with a 10 point, 11 rebound, 8 assist performance against Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv in Round 17. Not bad for a teenager, as you can see below.

Dacka doesn’t exactly have the strongest bench in the Euroleague, so it’ll be interesting to see if the wings of Dacka will be able to handle the Slovenian teenage prodigy. If they struggle to, you can almost guarantee that this will be a short series.

Brad Wanamaker

Wanamaker has sneakily become a dark horse candidate for MVP this year. While a lot was made about James Anderson’s decision to turn down a player option from the Kings to sign with Dacka instead, Wanamaker has been the Turkish club’s best signing. Wanamaker, a likely All-Euroleague selection, has been outstanding, especially during the last part of the season where basically carried Dacka to their first Euroleague playoff berth. Head coach David Blatt has transitioned his NBA experience with Dacka this year, and has given Wanamaker the kind of Iso-heavy reign that he gave LeBron James in his one-and-a-half year stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers. And Wanamaker hasn’t disappointed, as evidenced by his 16.2 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 4.7 apg, 17.5 PIR per game line while averaging a team-high 32:56 mpg.

Wanamaker also had one of his biggest performances in Round 29, as he helped fuel a comeback on the road in Bamberg that kept alive Dacka’s playoff hopes. Wanamaker scored 30 points, had 6 assists and put a PIR of 34 in a key win that helped set up their crucial “winner take all” matchup with Red Star in Round 30 (which Dacka won).

Dacka will have a lot of factors going against them in this series, with Madrid’s depth and home court advantage being the primary ones. However, for Dacka to have a chance to pull off the upset, they will need Wanamaker to keep pulling off his “LeBron act” in this series.

Ante Zizic

Since arriving in January, Ante Zizic has been Dacka’s best and primary front court player, giving them the kind of balance they didn’t quite have when Semih Erden was their starting center. In Euroleague play, Zizic is averaging 8.3 ppg, 6.8 rpg, and a PIR of 12.2 in 16 games, while averaging nearly 22 mpg. The 20-year-old Croatian has generated a lot of buzz not just in Europe, but internationally as well, especially considering he was a first round pick of the Boston Celtics in last year’s draft.

Zizic is no stranger to big games, as he had his best performance against Turkish Derby rival Anadolu Efes in Round 19. Against Efes, Zizic scored 16 points, had 18 rebound and posted a PIR of 25. It was obvious, as one can see below, that Efes and head coach Velimir Perasovic just had no answers for the Croatian rising star (though Efes did win 93-81).

The Dacka front court is going to have issues against Madrid’s depth and versatility in the post. Zizic will have his hands full for sure, and it will be difficult for him to experience the wave after wave talent he will face in this series. If Zizic avoids foul trouble, and can step up like he has showed at times this year, then perhaps he can not only fuel a Dacka upset, but will come to the NBA sooner than expected.

Series Wild Card: David Blatt vs. Pablo Laso

Coaching will be a big deal this series. Blatt has a legendary status in Europe thanks to his 2014 title with Maccabi Tel Aviv, but his arrival in Dacka has received mixed reaction. Some have felt that he has disappointed, relying too much on the ISO ball that he utilized in the NBA. Some on the other hand have felt that he has done a good job, helping Dacka become more on the radar in the highly top-heavy European basketball scene. Whatever your thoughts are, it cannot be denied though that Blatt can be one of the more entertaining coaches to watch thanks to his fiery personality.

Laso on the other hand has been one of the best basketball minds in Europe for a while now. Though he doesn’t have the global celebrity of Blatt, Laso has one multiple ACB title, and a 2015 Euroleage championship with Real Madrid. This year may have been Laso’s most impressive campaign yet, as he has been able to manage the depth and egos of this Los Blancos team well in both domestic and European play.

Laso is no “quiet personality” though, as evidenced below:

It will definitely be entertaining to see what both coaches will do this series? Will Blatt out-scheme Laso? Will Laso demonstrate why he should be considered the best coach in Europe and dispatch Blatt and Dacka with ease?

We will know next week.

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A Guide to Following Round 30, a Critical Week for the Euroleague (and Eurocup)

The Euroleague’s switch this season  to the new 16-team, 30-round Regular Season format, in my opinion, has been a resounding success. The continuity of the same teams competing, and same general week-to-week schedule has not only helped Euroleague teams and players gain familiarity with worldwide basketball fans (especially American ones who are just getting acquainted with the European game), but it also has helped the product on the court: teams can prepare better knowing exactly what their schedule is until the end of the Regular season in early April.

Now, we are in Round 30, the last game of the regular season. Many Euroleague purists who didn’t support the new format worried that the last few weeks may be worthless, especially if the competition was too top heavy, as has been the case in years past. However, Round 30 will prove to be a crucial week for a majority of the Euroleague squads, as playoff positioning, as well as the remaining 8th spot will all be on the line April 6th-7th.

And if that’s not enough, a Eurocup champion (and hence ,automatic Euroleague berth for 2017-2018) will be determined as well on April 5th. This is a huge week in European basketball, and it will be tough as a fan to navigate through it (after all, no one wants to be late to big news, though as an American, it happens to me quite frequently).

Thankfully, here’s a guide of what to know, what games to watch, and what to watch for during this incredibly important week for basketball in the European continent.

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April 5th-Eurocup Championship Round 3

Who punches their Euroleague ticket?: Valencia Basket vs. Unicaja Malaga

Both teams have held serve in this All-ACB Liga Endesa final, as Valencia took the first game in Valencia, thanks to a 14 point, 8-rebound performance by center Bojan Dubljevic, who also hit a dagger 3-pointer with 31 seconds left to clinch a 68-62 win. With a chance to clinch the title and win a record fourth Eurocup championship, Valencia fell short, as the rabid Malaga fans, a 22-point performance by Jamar Smith, and a 12-point, 10-rebound double-double by Alen Omic helped Unicaja pull out game two in a 79-71 win.

Both teams have been extremely good at home, as both teams also went undefeated at home in the semifinal rounds as well. With that being the case, the advantage appears to be in favor of Valencia, who not only has the homecourt advantage, but the Eurocup championship experience that Unicaja sorely lacks (this is their first year in the Eurocup after being a long-standing participant in the Euroleague previously).

The player to watch in this game may be Fernando San Emeterio, who has not had a strong Finals after playing well in the previous rounds of the playoffs, especially in the semifinals against Hapoel Jerusalem, where he had two games with a PIR over 20 (both at home). In game 1, San Emeterio only scored 4 points on 2 of 5 shooting for a PIR of 4. In game 2, even though the points went up (he scored 9), it was an extremely inefficient game for the Spanish veteran, as he shot 2 of 10 from the field (1-of-6 from three point land), and posted a PIR of 1. San Emeterio has had a big home game every round of the playoffs so far (in the Quarterfinals against Khimki, he had 17 points, 8 rebounds and a PIR of 29 in game 1 at Valencia). If he can produce that in game 3, Valencia’s fourth Eurocup championship is as good as sealed. That being said, if Unicaja can neutralize him for a third-straight game with the combo of Jeff Brooks and Adam Waczynski, then Unicaja could pull off the game 3 upset, and their first Eurocup championship.

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April 6th-Euroleague Round 30 games

Watch it on replay: Brose Bamberg vs. Galatasaray Odeabank

What if Brose hadn’t lost so many close games this year? What if Galatasaray could play any semblance of defense? Both teams have showed flashes of being a postseason threat, but unfortunately for them and their fans, they often fell short this season. This should be an exciting game, not to mention a high-scoring one. However, both teams were out of the playoff picture weeks ago. If you have the time, watch this one on replay, as it may have a chance to break the 100 point mark for both teams. Bamberg post savant Nicolo Melli should have a field day against the Galatasaray frontcourt, which has been inconsistent all year on the defensive and rebounding end.

Worth watching sporadically: Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv vs. Panathinaikos

Pana has the fourth spot pretty much locked up after a huge 85-80 home win over CSKA Moscow in Round 29, and thus may be tempted to rest key players in preparation for the playoffs (they won’t improve or worsen their positioning, win or lose, according to this chart courtesy of Overbasket). They have been one of the hottest teams in the Euroleague since James Gist returned to the lineup (and consequently, after Alessandro Gentile was released). The athletic frontcourt combo of Gist and Chris Singleton has made Pana one of the most formidable and flexible frontcourts in the Euroleague, as they can switch with effectiveness on the perimeter defensively, and damage inside and out on the offensive end. Pana has not lost since Gist returned in Round 26, a big reason why they clinched the fourth spot in that time span. And with Gist in the lineup, Singleton has been even more effective individually as a player, and has made a case during this end-of-the-year stretch as a darkhorse MVP candidate.

Maccabi is trying to avoid the 20-loss mark and salvage something of what has been an extremely dysfunctional and disappointing season thanks to multiple coaching and roster changes. While this game may not mean anything in terms of postseason, a big win over the heavily favored Athenian club good be good momentum for Maccabi in the Winner League as well as next season (proving that they still deserve an A license despite two sub-par years). To Maccabi’s credit, Ainars Bagatskis has done a decent job, getting the most out of a less-heralded roster (such as Gal Mekel and Joe Alexander) and making Maccabi tough competition on a round-by-round basis. Sylven Landesberg has especially thrived under Bagatskis, which makes one wonder how Maccabi would have done this year had they relied on him instead of flameout Sonny Weems and the injury-ridden Quincy Miller.

An interesting dilemma: Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz vs. Zalgiris Kaunas

Baskonia is looking for a win in their home Euroleague Regular Season finale, as this game could determine their playoff position, which could range from 5th-to-8th depending on whether the Basque clubs wins or loses, and what else happens in the other games. What’s interesting is if Baskonia beats Zalgiris, and gets the fifth spot, that would mean a matchup with Pana, who swept Baskonia during the Regular Season, including two weeks ago, where Pana absolutely shut down Baskonia’s offense 72-63 in Vitoria. It may be tempting for Baskonia to “tank” this game against Zalgiris, especially since Baskonia has split with CSKA and Real Madrid in the Euroleague this year (they also got swept by Olympiacos, so they might want to avoid the sixth spot as well).

Baskonia on paper is better than Zalgiris, as Baskonia will have distinct advantages at the point guard position (thanks to Shane Larkin) as well as in the frontcourt, where Toko Shengelia has been a key cog in Baskonia’s late-season resurgence. However, Baskonia’s desire to get out of matchups with Pana and Olympiacos (5th and 6th), as well as Zalgiris head coach Sara Jasikevicius’ subtle auditioning for a more high-profile coaching job next season (Barcelona seems to be the one most talked about as a destination for Saras) could factor in a potential upset at Fernando Buesa Arena on Thursday. It may be the fan in me over-thinking it, and I can’t imagine head coach Sito Alonso will want to lose the last game of the year going into the playoffs.

But hey, you never know…perhaps the Gregg Popovich “resting” players strategy of the NBA could pop up in Round 30 in Vitoria.

Meltdown in Istanbul?: Fenerbahce vs. Barcelona

If Fenerbahce loses, it’s entirely possible that they could get the 8th seed in the playoffs. Yes, that’s right. This club was one basket away from a Euroleague championship a year ago, and was widely heralded as the favorites to return to the Final Four and win it with it being hosted in Istanbul. Now, it’s plausible that Fenerbahce could be entrenched in a brutal first round matchup with Real Madrid, the Euroleague’s top seed.

It’s amazing how head coach Zeljko Obradovic has not killed someone from Fenerbahce this year (maybe he has and we just don’t know). This year has been a perfect storm against Turkey’s premiere club: Bogdan Bogdanovic and Luigi Datome have all been injured down the stretch and missed time; former All-Euroleague player Jan Vesely has declined significantly; they have some questionable losses, including getting swept by Darussafaka in Euroleague play. Other than Ekpe Udoh (who has put in a MVP case of his own), and Bogdanovic (when healthy), Obradovic has struggled to get any consistent productivity from his club that entered the season as heavy Final Four favorites.

On paper, Fenerbahce should take care of things against Barcelona in Round 30. Barcelona has gone through it’s own horrendous season, plagued by injuries and down seasons by key players (Ante Tomic being the main culprit). Barcelona is 12-17, and it’s already been widely rumored that there is going to be significant changes roster and coaching-wise this off-season. In many ways, this Barcelona team is a dead-man walking, which should be a softball for a Fener team looking to get some momentum heading into the postseason.

But this Barcelona team is not going out quietly. They’ve won their last two games, beating Crvena Zvezda (hurting their playoff chances in the process) in Round 28 and then beating Maccabi Tel Aviv in Round 29. Brad Oleson, who’s been widely criticized for declining the past couple of years, is coming off a 13 point game where he posted a PIR of 19, and Tomic showed he had some left in the tank with 15 points and a PIR of 23 in their home finale. Give it to this Barca squad: they don’t have much to play for (other than ACB, which they are still in the hunt), but they aren’t going to quit and lay down.

Will Barca win one for Georgios Bartzokas in what could be his Euroleague finale with the Catalan club? Obradovic and the Fenerbahce players and fanbase certainly hope not.

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April 7th-Round 30 of the Euroleague

Probably don’t bother: Olimpia Milano vs. UNICS Kazan

It’s a battle to see who avoids the Euroleague cellar. After flirting with competitiveness in the middle of the season UNICS has lost 12 Euroleague games in a row. Without an A license and after a subpar showing this year, they are probably destined back for the Eurocup, unless they can rally in VTB play. Other than Keith Langford challenging for the Euroleague scoring title, and head coach Evgeny Pashutin’s turned up talks to his team, there really hasn’t been any reason to pay much attention to this team during the last third of the season.

The same can be said of Jasmin Repesa and his Milano squad. They are playing hard despite being out of the playoff pictures weeks ago, and they are doing well enough in Italian League play that they will probably be back in the Euroleague in 2017-2018. Furthermore, fellow countryman Andrea Cinciarini has been worth watching during this end-of-the-year stretch, highlighted by his 17 point performance in a 88-84 win over Zalgiris last week which ended a 13-game losing streak in Kaunas. But neither of those reasons, much like the UNICS one above, should merit this game as worth watching, be it live or replay.

The great, but nothing to gain or lose matchup: CSKA Moscow vs. Olympiacos

CSKA’s home finale in Moscow will certainly be a challenge: this could be a potential Final Four or Championship game matchup. All season long, these two clubs have been the two of the best three teams (along with Real Madrid) and it seems fitting that they will play in a mega-matchup which will be April 6th’s Game of the Day.

Unfortunately, neither CSKA or Olympiacos has anything to gain in this Round 30 game. Real Madrid clinched the No. 1 spot after a win over Fenerbahce last week, and Olympiacos can’t go any higher or lower than their No. 3 spot. Olympiacos could use the week to rest players, especially considering key players such as Vassilis Spanoulis, Georgios Printezis and Matt Lojeski have had various injury issues throughout the season. CSKA could also benefit from such a strategy, as head coach Dimitris Itoudis may want to make sure his combo of Nando de Colo and Milos Teodosic is 100 percent by Game 1 of the Playoffs.

Nonetheless, I think this will be a competitive game, as both teams are looking to bounce back after losses the previous week, and do not want to enter the playoffs on losing streaks. That may be enough to at least force both CSKA and Olympiacos to play their full rosters (momentum going into the postseason is always huge), which should produce a highly entertaining game between the Euroleague’s two premiere clubs.

Efes Strikes Back?: Real Madrid vs. Anadolu Efes

After a 19-point Round 25 loss in Istanbul to Brose Bamberg, many Euroleague fans wondered if Anadolu Efes was going to even make the playoffs. They were 13-12, and had a tough four-game schedule down the stretch that included a road game in Kaunas against Zalgiris (who at the time was also competing for the 8th spot), a home game against Fenerbahce (which isn’t really a home game), a home game against Olympiacos, and a road game against Real Madrid in the season finale. It seemed entirely plausible that Efes could have gone 0-4, and missed the playoffs for a second straight season.

Instead, since the Bamberg loss, Efes has gone 4-0, winning the first three out of their “death stretch”, with a chance to win all of them in the season finale. Efes is now 17-12, and not only have they clinched a playoff spot, but they are also shooting for a chance at the fifth position, which would match them up with Pana, whom they have split with this season. Efes has plenty of weapons, with Derrick Brown as an inside-outside frontcourt threat, and Bryan Dunston controlling things down in the paint. But the biggest resurgence has been at the point guard position, as Jayson Granger put up his best performances of the year during the final double week of the season, helping Efes clinch their playoff ticket thanks to an incredible 25 point performance in Kaunas, and then following it up with a 13-point, 5 assist performance against derby rival Fenerbahce. And what’s amazing is that despite Granger’s presence, he is not even the best point guard on the team, as Thomas Huertel from France has carried this Efes team for the most part this season. That kind of depth makes Efes a scary playoff foe for any top seed.

As for Real Madrid, their depth is unparalleled both in the back and frontcourts. Anthony Randolph, who will be signing an extension with Madrid, is finally playing the best basketball of his career (including NBA), making him a scary matchup for opposing post players, and boosting the depth of an already loaded Los Blancos frontcourt which includes Felipe Reyes, Gustavo Ayon, Othello Hunter and Trey Thompkins. However, one of the biggest progressions this year may be Sergio Llull, who may be the frontrunner (and deservedly so) for the Euroleague Regular Season MVP award. The combination of Llull’s improved efficiency, and knack for carrying Los Blancos during big moments at the end of games puts him over other competitors such as de Colo and Milos Teodosic of CSKA, Udoh of Fenerbahce, Printezis of Olympiacos (though he certainly has his share of big game moments) and Singleton of Panathinaikos.

The tempting pick may be for Real Madrid to rest their starters and with their depth they could afford to do so. But I think Madrid is aware of Efes’ surging, and they know Llull’s challenging for that MVP award. This Efes game could be a signature moment/game for Llull to cement his legacy as the Euroleague’s best player of the 2016-2017 season, and I think head coach Pablo Laso will play him on that alone.

A surging Efes team looking to garner the fifth spot? A Los Blancos team looking to seal Llull’s award as the Euroleague’s best player? This should be a hell of a game.

Win or go home: Darussafaka vs. Crvena Zvezda

I have already gone into many reasons why Red Star should make the playoffs in my previous post.  So I am going to keep this section short. After their controversial win over Bamberg in Germany last week, Dacka forced the do-or-die matchup in Istanbul in Round 30. On the flip side, Red Star beat UNICS as expected, giving them a bit more playoff flexibility if they win (they could get a 7 seed).

This is the game of the week. Period. It will be a dogfight. It probably won’t be pretty. There will probably be a lot of shitty calls in favor Dacka (as we saw last week against Bamberg). But clear your schedule, put a reminder on your phone or whatever.

This is the game you need to watch in Round 30. And you need to be cheering with the whole of Belgrade and Serbia for Red Star as well.

Why Euroleague fans should hope Crvena Zvezda holds off Darussafaka for the last playoff spot

“It’s like picking between one of the signature clubs…the very essence of what makes European basketball what it is…and basically like the Mr. Burns’ family picnic.”

-Rob Scott on this week’s Euroleague Adventures

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After the last double-round week of the season, the Euroleague playoff picture is nearly complete. Anadolu Efes punched their ticket to playoffs with the combo of a massive road win in Kauans over Zalgiris in Round 27, and a derby upset over Fenerbahce in Round 28. While the seeding is still yet to be determined, Real Madrid, CSKA Moscow, Olympiacos, Fenerbahce, Panathinaikos, Baskonia and Efes are all making plans for Euroleague basketball beyond Round 30.

However, there is one spot remaining, and these final two weeks will be a battle between two clubs who faced off against each other in Round 1 (who will also meet up against each other in what could be a playoff, “winner-take-all” game): Crvena Zvezda (Red Star) of Serbia and Darussafaka (Dacka) of Turkey.

It is highly likely that most fans outside of Istanbul will (or should) be pulling for Red Star to hold onto the Euroleague’s final playoff spot (they currently have the inside edge as they sit at 15-13 in the eighth spot; Dacka is 9th at 14-14). With one the lowest payrolls in the Euroleague, Red Star favors playing young Serbian talent developed within their youth system rather than filling their roster with expensive veterans.  (Red Star has had one of the best U18 squads in Europe as of late; as they finished second in last year’s Adidas Next Generation Tournament and won their region again this year.) While this certainly didn’t win them a lot of headlines in the off-season from the European basketball media, it definitely helped win them over their fanbase, who could easily rally around a team that was populated primarily by their own countrymen, not always the case with European clubs. The approach has had its peaks and valleys of course, as head coach Dejan Radonjic has had to be patient this year in watching his young guys develop, especially on the offensive end (they started the year 4-7). But the core of young Serbians such as Stefan Jovic, Nemanja Dangubic, Marko Guduric, and Luka Mitrovic, playing along with more seasoned Serbian vets such as Ognjen Kuzmic, Branko Lazic, Marko Simonovic, and Milko Bjelica and foreign imports such as Charles Jenkins, Deon Thompson, and Nate Wolters has produced a club that has managed to be once again competitive with bigger clubs despite being dwarfed in terms of payroll and resources.

Red Star certainly doesn’t play the prettiest style of basketball in the Euroleague, as they rank second-to-last in offensive rating (only Barcelona is worse), and last in points per field goal, according to Overbasket.com. This is mostly due to the streakiness of Red Star’s offense, as well as their shooting, which is led by Simonovic, Jenkins and Wolters off the bench. When those three are hitting shots, they can beat anyone in the Euroleague. If they are not…well, it tends to be a rough night, as we saw in their last game against Barcelona, where Red Star posted a true shooting rate of 35.3 percent and 0.84 points per field goal (highlighted by Simonovic posting a 0.63 in that category). That is not to say Red Star is inept in putting the ball in the hoop. They have some players who can have big scoring nights and carry their team to victory, as Kuzmic, Simonovic, Jenkins and even Guduric (who played crazy well against Olympiacos) have proven. The unfortunate issue though is Radonjic and the Red Star fans have no idea where it’s coming from game to game (and if it will come at all).

So how has Red Star been successful? That can be mostly credited to Red Star’s defense, which ranks as one of the best in the Euroleague. They have allowed the fewest points per game at 73.3, just a shade better than Olympiacos, who is third overall in the Euroleague. Radonjic has his guys play incredibly hard on both ends, as they contest shots well, don’t give up easy baskets, and are able to switch for the most part pretty well off the pick and roll thanks to the all-around tenacity and sneaky athleticism of their players on the defensive end. Kuzmic has even become an average to slightly above defensive player with Red Star, something that was thought to be unthinkable last season when he played with Panathinaikos and was mostly regulated to limited minutes. As long as the offense is good enough, Red Star has come out victorious because of their stingy and tough defense. Case in point: If you look at their schedule this year, when they score more than 1.00 PFG, they are 13-2 this year (only losses came to CSKA in Moscow and Dacka in RD 1); when they score less than 1.00, they are 2-11. 1.00 is about average, so that just goes to show that when Red Star can muster “average” (not even good) offense, they will be on the winning side more often than not because they are so effective at preventing points on the other end.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t been easy to muster “average” offense as of late, thanks to guard Stefan Jovic missing multiple games due to injury. Jovic, who is talked about as a target of Barcelona this off-season and is struggling with a nagging back injury, missed Rounds 24-27 and only played 3 minutes in a Round 28 loss to Barcelona. The result? A 2-3 record and some missed opportunities to clinch a playoff berth. Jovic’s statline isn’t impressive: he’s averaging 7.5 ppg and is shooting only 42.9 percent and 0.95 PFG. However, when he’s on the court, the offense hums, as their true shooting rate is 48.6 percent and PFG is 1.05 when he is on the floor. When he’s not? Their true shooting rate dips to 43.8 percent and PFG sinks to 0.95. Without a doubt, the health of Jovic down the stretch, and how much he plays, will be a big factor in Red Star’s playoff chances. His playmaking, passing, and ability to lead the offense in high-leverage situations makes Red Star a slightly above average offensive team when he’s on the floor, and considering their defense, that should be enough to get them in the postseason.

The only question is IF we’ll see him on the floor in the next two rounds. Unlike some injuries to key players this year (mostly Bogdan Bogdanovic of Fenerbahce), it has been hard to determine when Jovic will be back seeing major minutes again.

We’ll find March 31st against UNICS Kazan.


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While Red Star’s local talent and high energy crowd have made them the darlings of the Euroleague fan-o-sphere, Dacka may be their evil twin of sorts: they really haven’t been all that good until the past few years, after the wealthy Dogus group acquired their club, intent on making them a contender with traditional Turkish powerhouses such as Fenerbahce, Efes and Galatasaray. This season, qualifying despite the format downsizing from 24-to-16, there seemed to be signs of Dacka taking that step forward to become one of Europe’s elite clubs. They signed David Blatt, who coached the Cleveland Cavaliers for a season and a half (and took them to the NBA Finals). They acquired big-name American talent in Brad Wanamaker (coming off a solid season with Brose Bamberg) and James Anderson (who played last year with the Sacramento Kings); and they also picked up in the middle of the year, Ante Zizic, a Croatian national who was a highly lauded draft pick by the Boston Celtics in the latest NBA Draft. And lastly, after a 73-70 win in Belgrade (a very difficult thing to do considering those fans) in Round 1, it appeared Dacka was ready to make the transition into the upper division of the Euroleague after making the Top 16 a year ago.

But, this Dacka team just hasn’t lived up to the hype (or the hype the club wanted European basketball fans to believe). Other than Wanamaker and Zizic, nobody on this team has really performed all that well this year. They don’t seem to have much chemistry on the court, and while they certainly have a collection of talent like Anderson, Scottie Wilbekin, and Will Clyburn, they tend to thrive not so much within the offense, but more as individual 1-on-1 players. When they are on, sure it’s entertaining, but it hasn’t been consistent, and thus, not as fun to watch. It’s kind of shocking to see, especially when considering that Blatt, who made his name as a bit of an offensive wizard as a coach with Maccabi, has not been able to orchestrate much with this team (on both ends really, but glaringly on offense), despite some really talented pieces. Whether he’s making an adjustment back to Europe or trying to get over the “ISO-heavy” experience of coaching the LeBrons…(I’m sorry, Cavs) it’s safe to say it hasn’t really worked all that well for Dacka, and that Blatt hasn’t duplicated the success he had in Maccabi with Dacka in year one. (Rob Scott, Austin Green and George Rowland also reiterated this point more eloquently on their latest Euroleague Adventures Podcast.)

So take all that into consideration when it comes to rooting for Red Star or Dacka over the next two weeks. And take into consideration that Volkswagen Arena, where Dacka plays their home games, tend to be lifeless contests unless they are playing Fenerbahce or Galatasaray, who can have their fans flood the building (the Efes game was pretty lifeless). And take into consideration that Dacka’s status in the Euroleague is unknown, as Dogus is rumoured to become a primary sponsor of Fenerbahce next year, and make Dacka a “developmental” club to Fenerbahce that will primarily compete in the Eurocup next season. And take into consideration that if that regulation does happen, Wanamaker and Blatt are as good as gone, making this club a shell of its current self (and you can bet the fans will go as well).

It’s pretty simple. For newly christened European basketball fans like myself who are growing more in love with the European game everyday; for those seasoned Euroleague veteran fans and bloggers who want solid, exciting playoff basketball; for those who care about the health of the sport in Europe and it’s future; for those that cheer for the underdog not just in basketball, but any sport…the decision is really simple when it comes to whether or not Red Star or Dacka should claim the last playoff spot.

Let’s go Red Star…and let’s go Brose Bamberg (who play Dacka in Round 29). Let’s start planning for a playoff game in Belgrade by April 1st.

A Quick Preview to the Eurocup Semifinals

This blog focuses on the Euroleague and little else. While I have thought about going into Eurocup, Champions League and European domestic league play, as an American, I do not have the time nor resources to go that in-depth into the full scope of European basketball. And thus, second-tier competitions like the Eurocup have gone mostly ignored by me during the regular season. It’s just one of the realities you have to accept when you’re running a blog powered by passion and interest in a subject rather than dollars.

However, we are hitting the home stretch of the Eurocup, as the quarterfinals have officially finished, and the semifinals begin Tuesday. With a champion earning an automatic spot in the Euroleague, the remaining four teams will be battling it out fiercely to gain one of those coveted positions in Europe’s top competition.

So, who should European basketball fans pay attention to? What are the matchups? Who should be favored, and why? Let’s take a quick look at the Eurocup Final Four, and their respective Best-of-3 series’.

Lokomotiv Kuban vs. Unicaja Malaga

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Loko took care of business in the quarterfinals, sweeping VTB rival Zenit St. Petersburg with relative ease. They won 77-52 in Kuban in game 1, and then cruised to a 88-77 win on the road in the deciding game. After an uneven regular season in Eurocup play, where they went 3-5 in the opening round, Loko has been on a roll, going 5-1 in Top 16 play and winning 7 of their last 8 games. One of the big reasons has been the change in personnel, as Sasa Obradovic, the former coach of Alba Berlin, took over for Fotsis  Katiskaris in November. Loko, coming off a Final Four appearance in the Euroleague season fired Katiskaris after a 1-3 start in Eurocup play, and the move has paid off, as Loko has gone 10-3 under the Serbian head man.

Obradovic has a fiery reputation (as evidenced by him nearly coming to blows with Alex Renfroe during a timeout while coaching Alba Berlin), but his personality has rubbed off on Loko in a good way. This team is certainly not as loaded as the Final Four squad a year ago. Anthony Randolph, Dontaye Draper, Victor Claver and Chris Singleton are playing for other Euroleague squads, and Malcolm Delaney is currently in the NBA. However, though they lack the star power from a year ago, there is a grit and toughness with this Loko squad that Obradovic has been able to find success with. Former Temple star Mardy Collins is a two-way player, who is able to do damage both in the post and the perimeter on the offensive and defensive end. Guard Taylor Rochestie this year with Loko has been able to recapture some of the luster he once had as a player with Nizhny Novgorod a couple of seasons ago (he suffered a bit of a down season with Maccabi Tel Aviv last year). And lastly, Matt Janning has added some much needed outside shooting and scoring, while Andrey Zubkov, Kevin Jones and Ian Vougioukas have provided versatility and production in the frontcourt.

Yes, on paper, this team is a lot less impressive than last year’s Euroleague squad. That being said, this Loko teams plays a lot differently from the 2015-2016 team…and that’s a good thing. While former head coach Georgios Bartzokas (now with Barcelona) had Loko humming as one of the Euroleague’s best defensive teams a year ago, offensively, they struggled to find cohesion. They relied heavily on the trio of Randolph, Singleton and Delaney, mostly in Isolation and Pick and Roll, and though it could be successful at times due to the talent of those three, it often could stagnate and be brutal to watch, especially against the better-coached defensive teams in the Euroleague. Obradovic definitely has utilized this Loko roster more creatively, as they seem to flow a lot better in the motion offense Obradovic has installed in Krasnador. And, they haven’t lost much on the defensive end from last year either, as evidenced by Loko absolutely suffocating Zenit St. Petersburg in the quarterfinals.

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Obradovic doesn’t have the talent that Bartzokas had last season, but this team hasn’t lost much, and may be a bit more enjoyable to watch on a game-to-game basis in terms of chemistry on the court. That being said, advancing to the title game won’t be easy. Unicaja Malaga is playing in their first Eurocup ever, but it’s a dubious honor: Unicaja has been a mainstay in the Euroleague prior to this season. While Unicaja didn’t have the talent depth of Loko, they also were hurt in the demotion to the second-tier competition, as star player Mindaugas Kuzminskas ended up going to Darussafaka before eventually making his way to the New York Knicks of the NBA (Dacka got the money from the Knicks for Kuzminskas’ rights).

Much like Loko, Unicaja had to go through a bit of a rebuild in 2016-2017. However, head coach Joan Plaza has seemed to right the track of a club that struggled immensely down the stretch a season ago. Wing Kyle Fogg has been the leader on the perimeter and go-to-scorer for this group (though primarily off the bench), as he averaged a team-high 12.8 ppg on 55.1 percent shooting from inside the arc and 43.2 percent from beyond the arc during the Eurocup regular season. Fogg was not alone though, as Alberto Diaz, Jamar Smith, Oliver Lafayette, and Nemanja Nedovic all added much-needed production and scoring at the guard position for Unicaja. In the paint, center Dejan Musli has brought some much needed production over from Manresa, as he averaged 12.1 ppg and 3.9 rpg during Eurocup play. Additionally, Alen Omic has brought physicality and relief for Musli at the center position, while forward Jeff Brooks had added some needed athleticism and inside-outside scoring ability.

Plaza plays a bit of a different style from Obradovic. He prefers a slower pace, is a bit more methodical on the offensive end, and utilizes a deep bench. Much like Obradovic though, Plaza is a fiery coach who will get after his players when needed, but they have responded to him frequently on occasion, as evidenced by getting his team to come back after losing game one and win two straight games against Bayern in the quarterfinals (including the clinching game in Munich). Now, can Unicaja keep up the magic? Will they have enough left in the tank after the slog of not only a Eurocup campaign, but an ACB one, which is much tougher than the VTB slate that Loko faces domestically? It will be interesting to see, as Obradovic and Plaza will be holding nothing back on their squads, especially with the opportunity to return to the Euroleague on the line.

Valencia Basket vs. Hapoel Jerusalem

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While Loko and Unicaja will be a fierce matchup, they are pretty close in composition to each other: animated coaches; rosters of overlooked, overachievers; both one year removed from the Euroleague. The other Eurocup Final Four matchup on the other hand is a battle between two remarkably different teams, not only in terms of style of play, but roster and philosophy as well.

Valencia, coached by Pedro Martinez, has been one of the strongest teams in Eurocup competition this year, highlighted by a 15-2 campaign leading up to the Semifinal. Valencia is an offensive machine, as evidenced by their 84.4 ppg. However, they score points with an incredibly efficient, spread the wealth motion-offense, which utilizes a full bench and multiple people scoring the ball. In many ways, Valencia exuberates the definition of a basketball team: multiple players contribute, they move the ball around unselfishly, and they communicate and frustrate opposing teams on both sides of the ball. The kind of culture Martinez has built in Valencia, and his ability to get his teams to compete with bigger, more financially-loaded Spanish clubs like Barcelona and Real Madrid the past couple of seasons are coaching accomplishments that should be appreciated this year by more European basketball fans (they will be if they win the Eurocup and return to the Euroleague).

Valencia’s unique success is demonstrated in the numbers. During Eurocup play, only one player averaged double digits ppg (Bojan Dubljevic) and only three players averaged over 20 mpg (Dubljevic,  Fernando San Emeterio, Joan Sastre). That kind of versatility and depth had made Valencia a tough team to scout and game plan for, as any player from Valencia can beat opposing teams on any given night. Additionally, they also have multiple players who can play both inside and outside, as evidenced by them ranking 4th in the Eurocup in 3-ptrs made. Hence, it should be no surprise that with that kind of depth, Martinez’s squad has only lost twice in 17 Eurocup games.

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On the flip side, Hapoel Jerusalem and head coach Simone Pianigiani have opted for a different approach to Eurocup success. While Valencia has excelled with a spread-the-wealth, utilize-the-bench method, Hapoel has preferred a more NBA-like, star-studded approach. Without a doubt, Hapoel may have the most talented starting lineup in the Eurocup, with former NBA All-Star Amare Stoudemire and European mainstays Curtis Jerrells, Jerome Dyson, and Tarence Kinsey leading the way. And Pianigiani hasn’t shied away in his usage of his quartet of talented stars: in the playoffs, Jerrells, Dyson and Kinsey are averaging over 30 MPG, and Stoudemire is averaging over 26 MPG. That kind of playing load is typical of NBA teams, not European ones balancing a European and Domestic season at the same time. To compare, Valencia had only one player (San Emeterio) average more the 25 MPG during their playoff series with Khimki Moscow.

Pianigiani is a lot less complicated on the offensive end than his counterpart Martinez. Hapoel looks to get the ball to their playmakers off the pick and roll and in isolation, and that means letting their playmakers like Jerrells, Dyons, Kinsey and Stoudemire be creative in terms of getting buckets at the basket. For the most part, the strategy has been successful, as Hapoel averaged 86 ppg against Gran Canaria in the quarterfinals. However, they are extremely dependent on those  four, as the highest ppg average beyond the four is forward Travis Peterson, who averaged 7 ppg and 23 mpg during the quarter finals. If any of Hapoel’s big four struggles from the field or is hitting a cold streak, they get in trouble, as they don’t have many options in their 9-man rotation to really step up and take the scoring mantle. Additionally, due to the freedom and fatigue caused by heavy minutes, it is common to see their stars make bonehead mistakes from time-to-time, sometimes killing the momentum they build on offense. That being said, they haven’t seen those issues often in either Eurocup or Winner League play thus far, but Valencia will be a significant upgrade from what they have faced for the most part in 2016-2017 in either league.

What’s funny about this situation is that both teams’ respective previous rounds provided good practice for their semi-final match up. Hapoel beat a Gran Canaria team that was well-disciplined , depended on a lot of different players for scoring, and played a deep lineup. Valencia bested a Khimki team that was loaded with athleticism and stars such as Alexy Shved, Robbie Hummel and Marko Todorovic. Hence, both teams should come ready on Tuesday after such competition in the quarter finals, though this semi-final match up will still be a major step up from both Gran Canaria and Khimki.

The big question to this series is this: who is more prepared? Will Valencia’s depth and discipline  be enough? Or will Hapoel’s talent and explosiveness win out? Whoever wins, they will enter the Eurocup final as the favorite.

Brose Bamberg and Crvena Zvezda surprising…but will it last?

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As the Euroleague season heads into Round 17, the performances of German club Brose Bamberg and Serbian club Crvena Zvezda (Red Star) Belgrade have certainly turned the heads of many Euroleague fans and experts. While both had good campaigns a year ago (Brose made the Round of 16; Red Star made a surprise playoff appearance where they were swept by CSKA Moscow), it was expected that these two would be battling to avoid the cellar in “revamped” 16-team Euroleague format. Both teams had lost key players in the off-season (Brose lost star scorer Brad Wanamaker to Darussafaka; Red Star lost explosive wing Quincy Miller and post mainstay Maik Zirbes to Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv), and didn’t necessarily replace them with any “big-name” signings. Thus, it was easy to dismiss that both teams would give some fight, but were far from serious contenders for a playoff spot.

And yet, here we are, with Red Star currently in the 7th position at 8-8 and Brose on their tail in the 9th position at 7-9. Both teams have won their last three games, each with quality wins over playoff-contenders on the resume in the recent stretch (Brose has beaten Olympiacos and Barcelona by double digits; Red Star did the same to Real Madrid and CSKA Moscow). Considering how wide-open the playoff situation is beyond Real Madrid, CSKA and Olympiacos, both under-the-radar clubs have to be taken seriously not only as playoff contenders, but perhaps Final Four dark horses to boot.

That being said, we are only one week into the second-half of the regular season. Are Brose and Red Star for real? Or are they simply riding hot stretches of play, about to be exposed in the coming weeks or toward the end of the season? Let’s take a look at both clubs, and their outlook over the remaining 14 regular season games in the Euroleague in 2017.

Melli and the Brose offensive machine.

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Niccolo Melli was named the Euroleague MVP for December and for good reason. After a buzzer-beating 90-88 loss to CSKA Moscow, Brose was 2-8 and in the Euroleague basement on December 1st. Since then, the Bamberg-based club has been 5-1, their lone blemish a loss to Real Madrid in the Spanish capital. And the spectacular play by Brose’ Italian star has been a major reason for the turnaround. Melli is averaging 13.1 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 2.2 apg on 55.6 shooting from the field, which includes a 57.5 true shooting rate. All this has helped Melli accumulate a PIR average of 20.3, not only the highest on the team (the closest is newcomer Fabien Caseur with 12.1), but also the second-best mark in the Euroleague (behind only UNICS’ Keith Langford).

Yes, Melli success’ has been largely responsible for catapulting Brose back into the playoff hunt. That being said, what this roster has been able to do despite the lack of “big-name” star power has also been a marvel to witness since week 10. Brose has become a three-point gunning team, similar to NBA clubs like the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors. Though they are only 5th in the Euroleague in total 3-point attempts, they have made the 3-pointer an effective weapon. 37.5 percent of their points come from three-pointers, according to Overbasket.com, which is the top mark in the Euroleague. And furthermore, this has worked to the advantage of their overall offense, as evidenced by their points per field goal mark of 1.19, which is best in the Euroleague as well.

One of the most interesting aspects of this 3-point heavy assault is that it is mostly utilized when Melli is on the bench. Melli leads the team in MPG at 30.8 per game, and when he is on the court, 49.5 percent of their points come from 2-point attempts, and 36.3 percent come from beyond the arc, according to Overbasket. However, when he is on the bench, that 2-point percentage drops to 47.1 and 3-point attempt percentage rises to 41.5. Now, a higher share of points doesn’t necessarily mean success, but their 42.1 percent 3-point make rate with Melli off the floor shows how well head coach Andrea Trinchieri utilizes his lineups not only when his best player is on the floor, but resting on the bench as well.

Brose probably can light it up with anybody in the Euroleague on the perimeter. Darius Miller is averaging a team-high 13.3 ppg and is shooting 43 percent from beyond the arc, even though he has only started 8 games this year. Caseur, who served a reserve/complementary assignment on Baskonia’s Final Four squad a year ago, has emerged as a valuable shooting/point hybrid for the Euroleague’s lone German squad, as evidenced by his 10.3 ppg and 12.1 PIR. And lastly, Janis Strelnieks and Maodo Lo have also provided crucial spark to this Brose team as well on both ends of the court, both in the starting lineup and off the bench.

So the question is this: can Brose parlay their hot play as of late to a playoff spot? Right now, it’s hard to see them not unless they cool down considerably from the field, which is possible, as it did happen to them in the Round of 16 a year ago. As effective as their offense is, they still offer up some size and physicality to opponents, and against more bruising teams, Brose could find trouble not just scoring points, but pulling off wins. The recent return of Elias Harris helps with some of those issues, and Daniel Theis has stepped up big time this year, but they don’t have the post depth of clubs like Olympiacos, Panathinaikos, Real Madrid, or Baskonia.

And yet, maybe it doesn’t matter. Trinchieri has always been regarded as one of the finer coaching minds in Europe, and he has probably done his most masterful job yet. He has made this team one of the most effective offensive clubs in the Euroleague even though they don’t have that one “superstar” go-to guy (though Melli certainly is becoming that, if he’s not at that level already). This Brose team could have packed it in after losing eight of their first ten, but while clubs in similar positions at the time like Olimpia Milano and Galatasaray have seemed to fallen off by the wayside, Brose has become one of the scariest and most dangerous teams in Europe.

Yes, it’s a long season, and on paper, there are some flaws. But the combination of Melli and Trinchieri’s coaching and system makes me confident that they’ll have a good shot to be one of the last eight teams remaining after round 30.

Red Star’s “ugly” but “potent” style of ball

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Unlike Brose, this Red Star team looks horrendous on paper. They are dead last in points per field goal ratio at 0.99, and they are worst in the Euroleague in true shooting rate at 45.8, both according to Overbasket. Their 74.5 points scored per games is the second-lowest mark in the Euroleague (only FC Barcelona is lower at 71.7). And lastly, young Serbian standout, Luka Mitrovic, hasn’t really recovered after missing most of last year due to injury, as he is averaging only 14 minutes per game, 3.1 ppg and a PIR of 1.9 despite starting 13 games.

And yet, how is Red Star, pretty much seen as an afterthought going into the year, competing for a playoff spot, and knocking off teams like Real and CSKA in sound fashion?

Mostly due to defense, a revitalized Ognjen Kuzmic and their bench.

Give a lot of credit to Dejan Radonjic and what he has been able to do with this Red Star club in the newer, more competitive Euroleague. Even though offensively has been a challenge, this team really earns its bread (i.e. wins) on the defensive end. Their 73.6 ppg allowed mark is best in the Euroleague, and they have been extremely potent as of late. They held high-scoring, superstar-laced squads like Real Madrid and CSKA to 70 and 67 points per game, respectively, in wins in Belgrade (which probably has been the toughest place to play in the Euroleague the past two seasons). And last week, despite playing on the road in a tough Kaunas environment, they held Zalgiris to 61 points, which included a 7-point first quarter for the Lithuanian club to start the game. With athletic perimeter defenders like Charles Jenkins, Stefan Jovic, and Branko Lazic making things tough on opposing guards up top, and post players like Kuzmic and Dangubic cleaning things up below, Red Star has emerged as one of the best, and most underrated defensive squads in the Euroleague. It’s not a pretty style of ball, and their offensive numbers can attest to that. If Brose is more like the Rockets and Warriors of today, Red Star is more like the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks of the Mid-90’s (i.e. brutal, tough, defensive-oriented basketball). However, Radonjic has given this team a defensive-mindset and focus, and that has not only helped the Serbian club emerge with an identity in Euroleague play, but also wins.

Speaking of Kuzmic, one could argue that he could be a “comeback player of the year” of sorts, similar to Ioannis Bourousis in Baskonia a year ago. Kuzmic was primarily stuck to the bench last season in Athens with Panathinaikos, especially down the stretch and in the playoffs after Sasha Djordjevic was fired. He averaged only 5.1 ppg on 48.7 percent shooting from the field, and played  a reserve role behind Miroslav Raduljica and James Gist. After losing front court star Zirbes to Maccabi in the off-season though, Red Star took a flyer on the former NBA player and Serbian national, and he has made the most of the chance. He is averaging 9.5 ppg on 57.1 percent shooting, 7.8 rpg, 1.1 spg and a team-high PIR average of 15.1. Once thought as burly and unsuited for the faster modern game, Kuzmic has been not only a force below, but especially in the pick and roll. While he only scored 8 points in over 14 minutes of play, he scored six points out of the gate off of pick and roll plays, which helped Red Star get off to a start they wouldn’t relinquish for the remainder of the game.

Kuzmic has seen a rejuvenation in his game, as has Jenkins, who returned to Belgrade after a short tenure with Olimpia Milano a season ago. However, what has also been remarkable is the effectiveness of their bench. Lazic, Milko Bjelica, Marko Guduric, Marko Simonovic, and Nate Wolters have all helped not only keep Red Star competitive games, but perhaps have helped their bench squad be more effective on the floor than the starting lineup. Simonovic is leading the team in scoring at 12.9 ppg. Wolters, a former South Dakota State Jackrabbit (got to shout out to my former home as much as I can) and Milwaukee Buck, has been effective at 37 percent beyond the arc, and is getting better from three-point land as he grows more accustomed to Europe. Bjelica and Guduric have their off nights (Bjelica is shooting a miserable 14 percent from three-point land), but they have showed some flashes of brilliance throughout the season. Much like Trinchieri, Radonjic has made the Red Star bench a genuine asset to this squad, even if it isn’t as pretty offensively as the Bamberg club.

Now, can Red Star make it to the playoffs in back to back seasons? Their defense is solid, yes, but they will need to get more consistent on the offensive end if they want to keep their position in the 7th spot. The addition of Deon Thompson from Galatasaray should help, especially in the post. Their horrendous offense at times though makes me more skeptical of this club as a playoff contender in contrast to Brose. That being said, their defense is already playoff-caliber, and Radonjic has demonstrated his playoff chops as a coach, not just this season, but last season as well. If they can improve just a little when it comes to putting the ball in the basket, that may be enough for this Serbian club to clinch a second-straight playoff berth down the stretch.

Will Barcelona or Lokomotiv Take the Last Final Four Spot?

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After today’s slate of games, we now know who three of the four Euroleague Final Four participants will be on May 13th: Fenerbahce Istanbul, Laboral Kutxa (Spain) and CSKA Moscow. All three squads swept their opponents (with each one winning the decisive game on the road) in their respective series, and can begin the celebration and preparation for the Final Four event in a couple of weeks.

However, there is still one spot to be determined and that is being decided between long-time Spanish power FC Barcelona and the relatively Euroleague novices Lokomotiv Kuban from rural Russia. After their 82-70 Game 3 win in Spain, Barcelona is one game away from punching their ticket to Berlin for a chance at the Euroleague championship, but don’t count out Lokomotiv, the higher seed going into the series, who holds home court advantage should they be able to equalize and win on the road in Game 4 on Thursday.

Let’s take a look at each team and what is on the line for the in a crucial Game 4 later this week.

 

Barcelona Looking to Finish Strong

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Barcelona has had one of the weirder seasons in their history this year, as they haven’t found much consistency in terms of wins and losses. Statistically speaking, Barcelona has been one of the strongest teams, as they are the fourth-best team in the Euroleague this year in terms of net rating over the full season (6.8), but only had a 14-10 record through the Regular Season and Top 16 to show for it. Despite some big wins in the year over teams like Lokomotiv and a Top 16 season sweep over Spanish rival Real Madrid, they also had head scratching losses to Pinar Karsiyaka in the Regular Season opener and to Brose Baskets Bamberg during the Top 16 (a team they later beat by almost 20 in the second to last game of the year). In fact, due to all this inconsistency (they finished the Regular Season with three straight losses and lost five of their first seven in Top 16 play), it took until the final week of the Top 16 for Barcelona to clinch a playoff berth, as their win over Lithuanian power Zalgiris Kaunas on the road (and they were down at halftime) earned them one of the final playoff spots.

However, despite their meager record, this Barcelona team is loaded and peaking at the right time, though they certainly have their issues that could rear their head in the Final Four should they win on Thursday. First off, Barcelona has playoff leadership and experience with Juan Carlos Navarro being their primary option on the perimeter, along with complimentary wings players like Alex Abrines, Tomas Satoransky and Pau Ribas, who have been effective as of late, especially in the Top 16 and Playoff rounds (Abrines shot 6 of 10 from beyond the arc and scored 25 points total). In the post, Justin Doellman, a former Xavier product, has proven to be an excellent stretch 4 type, and they have depth in the post with Ante Tomic, Samardo Samuels and Joey Dorsey, whom they acquired during the Top 16 round. Dorsey especially has given Barcelona a physical presence, as his ability on the glass (his 16.8 percent offensive rebounding rate is second best in the Euroleague this year behind only Trevor Mbakwe of Maccabi Tel Aviv) and ability to body up opposing teams’ centers has made him an invaluable member of this Barcelona squad despite his relative lack of experience with the team and in Europe in general.

However, Dorsey hurt himself in Game 1, and his status seems to be questionable going forward as he missed games 2 and 3 in the playoffs. This hasn’t hurt Barcelona too badly, as their post depth, hot outside shooting, and the lack of a physical presence in the post or much post player depth in general from Loko has helped Barcelona be effective in his absence. That being said, the 3 final four teams have excellent players in the post, especially Fenerbahce, which is seeing a resurgence from newly acquired Ekpe Udoh, who has stepped up after Jan Vessley was lost for the season due to an Achilles injury in the Top 16 round. If Barcelona makes it to the Final Four and doesn’t have the services of Dorsey, it could make things very difficult in terms of having a serious shot at the Euroleague crown.

Another issue with Barcelona is their point guard play, as the squad hasn’t relatively gotten much from Carlos Arroyo, who was expected to be a playmaking catalyst for this squad. Arroyo only played little over 5 minutes in Game 3, and he only averaged 14.6 minutes in 7 games during Top 16 play, a downgrade from the 18.6 mpg he was seeing  during the 10-game regular season. This puts more pressure on Satoransky, who is the team leader in assist rate over the full season, and Ribas, who was 2nd in assist rate during the Top 16 round. Both those two are effective, but they do not have the dynamic athleticism that other Final Four teams have, and that could present issues, especially if Barcelona cannot transition their hot shooting from the playoffs to the Final Four (should they close it out).

Head Coach Xavi Pascual has done a phenomenal job considering the circumstances his team has faced this year, especially early on when they looked like they would miss the playoffs. He has a methodical, half-court oriented approach, as evidenced by their 70.3 pace this year, which is the slowest rate of any Euroleague team this season. However, that has been effective in the playoffs, as they have gotten Loko to play out of sorts in the slower pace of the last three games. Furthermore, his defensive plan has worked, as he has held the 3-point chucking Loko squad (their 0.48 3PT/FGA rate was highest in the Euroleague this year) in check, as evidenced by their 21.7, 33.3 and 28.6 percentages from beyond the arc, which are all below their season 3-point average of 36.6 percent. For Barcelona to close this out on Thursday, Barcelona has to continue to follow Pascual’s plan of relentlessly hounding Loko’s shooters and force them to win in the post, which is not exactly a strength of Loko’s on the offensive end.

 

Loko looking to make a comeback

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Loko has been one of the most balanced teams in Euroleague play this year. They are the top team in the league in net rating at 11.4, higher than even fellow Russian squad CSKA Moscow, who has been far and away the most dominant team over the course of the entire season. Loko’s heavy 3-point attack on offense, and risk-taking and aggressiveness on defense (their 10.8 steal rate leads the league) has been a key reason why Georgios Bartzokas’ squad went 17-7 in the regular and Top 16 season combined.

Bartzokas can thank the two-headed combo of point guard Malcolm Delaney and Forward/Center Anthony Randolph for Loko’s success, especially during the Top 16 round. Everything runs pretty much through those two, as they lead the team in possessions per game with 15.89 and 15.8, respectively (the next highest rate is Chris Singleton with 9.25, and Singleton primarily comes off the bench). When those two are on, Loko has proven to be one of the toughest teams to play in the Euroleague on a nightly basis.  Delaney is the classic hybrid point guard, who can score at will as well as create offense for his teammates. His 2.08 assist to turnover rate is tops on the team, and over half of his shots come from beyond the arc (0.52). Add that with a strong true shooting percentage (60.1 percent) and a surprising defensive rebounding rate for a point guard (10.9) and it makes sense why Delaney is so crucial to Loko’s success. Delaney plays all out and is their engine on the floor on both ends, which makes sense why he leads the team in minutes during the playoffs (106). In the playoffs, Delaney is certainly doing his share to will Loko to a Final Four berth, as he leads the team in minutes, and is showing his effectiveness on the offensive end by scoring 1.03 PPP and posting a highly respectable 5.00 Assist to Turnover rate.

Randolph is second on the team in minutes, and is also a unique talent who has been critical to Loko’s success. Randolph isn’t always efficient: his 45.2 effective field goal percentage is not good, especially when you consider his 32.2 usage rate, which is tops on the team. Furthermore, a knock that has dogged him from his days at LSU is Randolph’s inconsistent motor on the floor, and that continues to be an issue. Randolph doesn’t bang down low with opposing bigs (his 2.8 offensive rebounding rate really is just flat out pathetic for a near seven-footer), and he has spurts where looks unfocused and disinterested, which leads to lapses on defense and the killing of ball movement and spacing on offense. With Dorsey out, one would think Randolph would be making his bread on the block and with his back to the basket to take advantage of Barca’s less physical post players. Instead, he settles in the mid-range and tries to create offense off the dribble, which seems to bail out Barcelona’s defenders, who don’t have the physicality of Dorsey.

That being said, Randolph, when he’s on, is not just the most dangerous player on Loko, but perhaps in Europe. On the defensive end, he is Loko’s best post defender, as evidenced by his 4.2 block rate. Offensively, he has a decent and versatile touch around the rim (though he probably settles for fade away mid-range shots too often), but he can also step back from beyond the arc and shoot with some effectiveness, as he did game 2 where he shot 40 percent from beyond the arc. He is also an effective free throw shooter, as his 76.8 free throw percentage is pretty solid for a big man, and his 10.3 assist rate shows that he can also create offense from the post for his teammates. Randolph has the tools and skills to really dominate in this series, but he has to flip on the switch and get more physical, or Loko will be most likely heading back home for the Euroleague season after Thursday.

Loko does have some good supporting players that can help turn things around for Bartzokas’ squad. Singleton, who started out the regular season as a starter before Randolph arrived in the Top 16 round, is very much like Randolph, though a bit less skilled (however he makes up for it by being more physical than Randolph, especially on the offensive glass). Also Ryan Broekhoff and Victor Claver are effective “glue” stretch players (not quite guards, but not quite pure posts) who are highly efficient despite their relatively low usage rates, as they lead the team in Points Per Possession at 1.14 and 1.09, respectively. But make no mistake, if Loko wants to win two in a row and punch a historic first trip to the Final Four, then they will need more effective production from Delaney, and especially Randolph, who has to take advantage in the post with Dorsey either absent or not 100 percent. If Randolph can do that, and if Delaney can continue his hyperactive production as the team’s  main playmaker, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that Loko can win two in a row against Barcelona.

Final Verdict?

I am pulling for Loko, though having to win one in Barcelona to force game 5 seems like a tall task. As much I respect Pascual for the job he’s done turning this team around in time for the playoffs, Barcelona has been to the Final Four before countless times. While that may be good for Spain, who would like to have two teams on the big European stage May 13, I do not think Barcelona is built all that well to compete for a title against the likes of Fenerbahce or CSKA Moscow. A healthy Dorsey gives them a better shot, but I do not think they can keep shooting like they are against Loko in the Final Four and I don’t know if their post players can compete with Fernerbahce nor do I think their guards could compete with CSKA Moscow.

Now, does that mean that I think Loko will do much better? No, not at all. In fact, I think Loko would be an auto 4th place finisher should they make it to Berlin. However, they have been a nice story this year, as they were regulated to the Eurocup, Europe’s second-tier league, a year ago, and have really impressed in Bertzokas’ first year at the helm. Yes, they are a bit too dependent on Delaney and Randolph, but they are an entertaining squad, and it would be good to see them on the big stage, especially considering they are one of the more rural teams in the Euroleague, and their contests have a “small town” feel to them. Them making the Final Four would be akin to Hickory High in “Hoosiers”…

Unlike the Huskers however, Loko would not win it all. Doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be a good story though, not to mention a foundation and marketing tool to build on for next year in terms of upgrading their talent for the future.