Euroleague Playoff Preview
Maccabi, Montepaschi and Madness across the pond.
by Nick Gibson / @euro_adventures
Drew Nicholas ran frantically to his right and launched up a prayer. By the time his body was squared to the rim, the ball had splashed its way through the net and Maryland had yanked themselves from the clenches of UNC-Wilmington’s upset bid. Nicholas left his hand up long enough for everyone to know who had ended the Seahawks’ tourney before running off into the tunnel.
He kept running all the way to Italy, Turkey and now Greece, where he will lead Panathinaikos into the Euroleague playoffs starting March 22. Once your brackets are sufficiently wrinkled and red penned, take a breather with the Euroleague.
The home team is listed first, and the playoffs follow a 2-2-1 format. Winners advance to the Final Four to be held in Barcelona from May 6-8.
Game 1: Tuesday, March 22
Game 2: Thursday, March 24
Game 3: Tuesday, March 29
*Game 4: Thursday, March 31
*Game 5: April 6 0r 7
Caja Laboral (9-7) vs Maccabi Electra (12-4)
Key to the Series: Sofoklis Schortsanitis vs. Tempo.
Sofo was fresh off his summer routine. Hit up the States for a Summer League tour with the Clippers as analysts scrounge the cliché wells for a novel new nickname (sorry; Baby Shaq and Summer Shaq have run their course). After flattening a healthy portion of D-Leaguers and undrafted mid-major graduates, Sofo’s off to Greece to hang with the national team. And once he’s helped Hellas through the requisite FIBA event, Piraeus usually beckons with promises of a hefty dose of Greek gaming sprinkled with a little Euroleague. But this September, for the first time since 2005, he was assigned to a different venue: Tel Aviv. Even in Israel, Sofo couldn’t evade the elephant in the room.
-Looks like he lost weight.
-Nah. Helped himself to one too many Whoppers over there in America.
-Let’s hope he can stay on the court this year.
-I wouldn’t count on it. Same old Sofo.
And so the dialogue goes, year after year. And in Maccabi’s EL opener, Sofo looked heavy against a light-footed Caja Laboral team, putting up 9 points and 2 boards in a loss. That game still stands as Sofo’s worst in a Maccabi jersey, and the Israelis won their next nine contests, led by Chuck Eidson and a rejuvenated Schortsanitis.
Sofo proved to David Blatt he could handle the minutes and keep the fouls at a minimum, all without inhibiting the league’s highest-scoring offense. Doron Perkins and Jeremy Pargo are grateful for the double teams he sucks in, and Coach Blatt’s defense isn’t as intimidating with Richard Hendrix anchoring the middle. At 25 years old, it’s time for Sofo to figure out how to factor into uptempo ballgames. If one of the EL’s top talents sits on the bench for more than half of this series, then it’s good news for Caja Laboral.
And at 340 pounds, that would be very, very bad news for the bench.
Maccabi will lose if… Lior Eliyahu and Jeremy Pargo creep back into their first half shells. If those two click like they have over the past month and a half, then Doron Perkins and Chuck Eidson can settle into their natural roles: tailback and point forward, respectively.
Caja Laboral will lose if… Mirza Teletovic ignores his rebounding duties. Mirza takes the “Stretch Four” to a whole new level, chucking seven threes per game, most in the EL, and Dusko Ivanovic has evidently switched the green light on for him. It will remain aglow if he keeps hitting 36 percent from deep; however, every minute he’s out there is a minute Esteban Batista or Stanko Barac sits on the bench not grabbing boards. At this point, nobody’s talking Mirza off the ledge, but Caja fans should be screaming for him to saunter inside every once in a while.
Prediction: Maccabi in four.
Regal FC Barcelona (13-3) vs Panathinaikos (11-5)
Key to the series: Panathinaikos finding an effective rotation of bonus contributors.
Antonis Fotsis might grace us with his extended presence. Maybe Romain Sato can turn it on for one epic week. Or will Milenko Tepic shake loose and drop bombs on Barca?
I wouldn’t bet on that last Tepic part, but precedents suggest we’re due for outbreaks from the other two over the course of the series, and they would welcome company. Kostas Kaimakoglou was good for 16 in week 11 and Stratos Perperoglou has been known to dominate a quarter here and there. Toss it into Kostas Tsartsaris or Ian Vougioukas every third or fourth possession and they’ll balance the floor for you. Really, Dimitris Diamantidis and Mike Batiste will stick any supplementary production in their back pockets and cherish it. They can handle the rest, and the name on the back of the jersey blurs in Zeljko Obradovic’s eyes as long as the final product starts with the letter W. Against Barcelona’s unrivaled depth, the Greens can’t afford inconsistency from their role players.
Barcelona will lose if… Ricky Rubio and Victor Sada can’t contain Diamantidis on the pick and roll. Barcelona’s bigs are quick on both the hedge and the recovery, but Zeljko Obradovic Sharpies in more wrinkles to his offense than the average bear. Bottle up Diamantidis and the playbook shrinks.
Panathinaikos will lose if… they are content to shoot threes the whole week. The Greens take more free throws than anyone on the continent; they can’t let Barcelona’s length rattle their resolve.
Prediction: Barcelona in five.
Real Madrid (11-5) vs Valencia (8-8)
Key to the Series: Nando de Colo’s flexibility within the offense.
Omar Cook has reined in his erratic play and emerged as a rock on this team, so this team’s pulse now undulates with Nando’s performances. With Cook incapable of manning the 2 spot, de Colo has struggled to get cozy off the ball, resulting in a turnover-infested mess during the Top 16. But when things come together like they did in a playoff-clinching win over Fenerbahçe Ülker, Valencia is dangerous.
Real Madrid will lose if… Emanuele Molin tries to over coach his team. With such weapons at his disposal, it will undoubtedly be tempting. But taking over midseason for a legend like Ettore Messina requires a set of icy nerves. He’d be best off letting Sergio Llull create from the top while orchestrating the Tomic/Reyes/Mirotic/Fischer carousel in the post.
Valencia will lose if… they can’t replace Victor Claver’s production at forward. Jeremy Richardson is finally healthy and gelling with his teammates, but he’s an apple to Claver’s orange. Richardson is out there to hit threes and space the floor, but Claver would have been the guy sliding through the gaps and finishing loudly. Dusko Savanovic doesn’t have the feet to guard athletic forwards like Carlos Suarez or Novica Velickovic. This will be a problem.
Prediction: Madrid in four.
Olympiacos (12-4) vs Montepaschi Siena (12-4)
Key to the Series: Fronting Rasho Nesterovic in the post.
Ioannis Bourousis broke his hand and Rasho assuaged all Greek grief with a shiny February MVP trophy. Replacing the league’s most efficient big man with… the league’s most efficient big man is far from fair, and makes one question if it’s the system which facilitates such incredible success in the paint. Rasho is shooting an inhuman(e) 68 percent for the season and 76 percent in the Top 16 (that’s 37-49), and the madness won’t stop until somebody keeps him from touching the basketball inside of eight feet. Shaun Stonerook is quick enough for the job, but Milovan Rakovic is tough enough to muscle him off early in possessions. Simone Pianigiani needs to get creative if he wants to keep Rasho quiet and hold Teodosic and Spanoulis in check.
Olympiacos will lose if… they play try to grind their way past Siena. Not that Olympiacos can’t win in the halfcourt, but I’d rather see double digits on that shot clock when the shots go skyward.
Montepaschi Siena will lose if… Ksistof Lavrinovic misses shots. Tactically I’d give Montepaschi the edge, especially at home. But the hard truth is that Siena doesn’t have the ammunition the Reds have, so when Siena’s Lithuanian assault rifle loads up, he’d better hit the target.
Prediction: Olympiacos in five.