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.

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Unicaja and Joan Plaza Bounce Back; Pouring one out for Valencia

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Much like the NCAA National Championship, it was a grind-it-out, defensive oriented affair in Valencia in the deciding game of the Eurocup Finals. Despite Valencia’s tough home-court environment, Unicaja proved to be road warriors again, winning 63-58 in the deciding game on the road for the second time this postseason (they won game 3 in the quarterfinals against Bayern Munich). Unicaja was led by Eurocup Finals MVP guard Alberto Diaz, who scored 12 shots on 4 of 6 shooting, had two assists, and provided some great defense at the guard position throughout the series.

It was not a pretty contest by any means in the deciding game, as Diaz was only one of two players to reach double figures scoring for Unicaja (Jamar Smith being the other). However, the defense of Unicaja was the underrated star of the series, as Unicaja held Valencia to only 4 points in the deciding 4th quarter (though part of it was Valencia not making open shots; props to Mark Titus and his “if they don’t make shots, they don’t win” theory). The Malaga-based club also quieted two of Valencia’s best offensive players, Rafa Martinez and Fernando San Emeterio, throughout the series, and especially in Game 3, as Martinez scored 3 points on 1-of-7 shooting, and San Emeterio scored 7 on of 1-of-9 shooting (this also resulted in Martinez having an epic meltdown at the end where he got a technical for jawing with Nemanja Nedovic and made the game go on five minutes longer than it should have; I thought he was going to fight every Unicaja player on the floor). The big concern going into the series was if Unicaja would be able to handle the offensive precision and depth of Valencia, but in the most crucial moments, Unicaja’s perimeter defense, led by Diaz, Smith, Nedovic, Jeff Brooks, and Adam Waczynski, came up big and willed the underdogs to victory. As you can see in the highlights below, Brooks’ huge block on Martinez in the closing seconds was a moment that Malaga fans will remember for a long time.

The win helps Unicaja return to the Euroleague after a one-year hiatus. Unicaja was one of the more entertaining clubs in the regular season last Euroleague, thanks to Mindaugas Kuzminskas, who is now playing for the New York Knicks. However, they nose-dived a bit in Top 16 play, didn’t make the playoffs, and didn’t perform well enough in the ACB to generate an at-large berth, thus pushing them to the Eurocup for the first time ever this season.

Thankfully for the Malaga-based club, they didn’t have to spend too much time away from Europe’s top, and most lucrative competition.

The win also was a bit of redemption for head coach Joan Plaza, a fiery and intense coach who has also coached for Real Madrid and Zalgiris prior to arriving in Malaga. This is the second Eurocup title for Plaza, as he won one in 2006-2007 (then the ULEB Cup) with Real Madrid (in addition to an ACB title). However, he wasn’t able to build on that success for long in the Spanish capital. Lackluster finishes in the ACB and Euroleague in consecutive seasons after his dual-title campaign resulted in him being replaced by Ettore Messina, who achieved Euroleague Final Four success in Plaza’s wake, thus dwarfing Plaza’s Madrid legacy in the record books a bit.

However, Plaza bounced back this year with Unicaja, and it is a bit satisfying to see on Plaza’s behalf. He gets forgotten in Spanish coaching circles among fans as of late, as he doesn’t have the credentials of a Messina, former Barcelona and current Panathinaikos coach Xavi Pascual or Pablo Laso, the current Madrid coach. And there was some speculation on how long he would stay in Malaga after being demoted to the Eurocup this season. Despite all that, not to mention not having home court advantage or Dejan Musli, who was lost to injury prior to the Finals, Plaza was able to add another championship to his underrated legacy. You could see in the interview below how much the victory meant to him, and how much he knew it meant to the community of Malaga as well.

Good for you Joan. We need more of your profanity-laced timeouts in the Euroleague.


 

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Not living in Spain or having much access to ACB games (other than random YouTube uploads), I did not have much familiarity with this Valencia team leading up to this Eurocup playoffs. However, once I started watching the Eurocup, Valencia was one of the teams I fell in love with quickly.

American Luke Sikma and Romain Sato were a couple of my favorite players when they were in college, and it was nice to not only see them again, but still being just as effective as professionals in Europe. I remembered Sikma being an efficiency machine in the WCC when he played at the University of Portland, and I have fond memories of Sato torching A-10 foes from beyond the arc when he played at Xavier. Neither has changed much in terms of game. Sikma remains a versatile and efficient post player, and Sato is the hot-hand off the bench that could swing momentum for this Valencia club at any given moment.

But while I had some prior fondness for Sikma and Sato, I grew to appreciate all of head coach Pedro Martinez’s Valencia squad with each and every playoff game. I loved Rafa Martinez’s heat-check 3’s and abrasive personality that made Sasha Vujacic look like a choir boy in comparison. I sunk in the in-depth post moves and beard of Bojan Dubljevic, who was probably Valencia’s best player this series (he had 16 points, 6 rebounds and a game high 19 PIR in Game 3). San Emeterio and Joan Sastre were crafty wings, who gave up many athletic disadvantages throughout the playoffs (especially in the last two rounds against Unicaja and Hapoel Jerusalem), but were able to be effective on the offensive and defensive in positive ways for this Valencia club.

And the fans? Well, when things were going well, as they were in Game 1 of the Finals, you could appreciate how turned up they got, often times boosting their team on the floor.

Valencia was like that good college team that didn’t have five-star recruits, or one tremendous star player, but relied on great chemistry and depth to win games. Martinez played a 10-plus rotation where multiple guys received double-digit minutes, even in the postseason, something that seems crazy to think about it in retrospect (whether its college or NBA, most teams are playing an 8-man lineup). And Martinez, while intense, always seemed focused in the moment, looking more like a seasoned college coach than the professional one you would see in the NBA (though to be honest, I would say Euroleague coaches are closer in spirit to college ones than NBA).

If I had to compare Valencia to any college basketball team, it would be a Gonzaga, of sorts: good, but not great players; a head coach who isn’t necessarily as widely-heralded as others in Europe (he had a lot of success with Gran Canaria as well); and a small, but rabid fanbase that makes Fuente de San Luis one of the more underrated (and perhaps toughest) venues in Spain, maybe Europe.

I am happy for Unicaja and Plaza. I am happy that more basketball fans will get to see Alberto Diaz in the Euroleague next year. The Malaga fans are some of the better ones you will see in European basketball circles.

But I wanted to see Valencia a bit more. I wanted to see the “Pedro-ball” and Rafa Martinez going at it with CSKA’s Milos Teodosic in a “who has the better half-assed beard and is more combative” contest. I wanted to see a potential Zalgiris Kevin Pangos and Sikma cross-match, akin to their Gonzaga-Portland days in the WCC.

However, with the cap of country teams in the Euroleague at four (meaning there can’t be more than four teams from one country), it is probably all but certain that Valencia will be back in the Eurocup in 2017-2018 (along with Malaga, Real Madrid, Baskonia and Barcelona will most likely be in the Euroleague; Barcelona was not good this year, but they have an A license).

Pour one out for Valencia. Let’s hope they show more Eurocup games (other than just the playoffs) next year on Euroleague TV.

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.

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.