BARCELONA — Eleven men dressed in red and blue knelt to the floor and then rocked onto their backsides, some grabbing a heel, others a toe as they stretched.
But Barcelona’s Juan Carlos Navarro remained standing, his heels and toes right behind the 3-point stripe. Unlike the others, he wore long black pants and a matching long-sleeved shooting shirt, and all it took was a raised eyebrow for the ball boy to get the hint; he fired one out as Juan Carlos stepped into the shot and launched a rotating rainbow.
He rewound his steps then popped the net with another.
A group of 40 or 50 kids sat with their legs crossed on the sideline, cheering louder with each made bucket. A third went in. Cheers. A fourth. Now the little ones got restless, clapping their hands beneath teethy smiles as a few of them leapt to their feet.
A fifth, a sixth, and as the seventh traveled toward the rim, the arena held its breath, only exhaling once it hit back rim and bounced over near the kids’ corner of the court.
Now La Bomba turned around casually and joined the others. He had held our attention hostage for those last 30 seconds and he didn’t plan on releasing it until the final buzzer sounded. We were his for the next two hours, and even though retired soccer jerseys hung from the rafters of Palau Blaugrana, this was his arena.
And whether 24 or 240 NBAers weathered the lockout in Europe, this was still his Euroleague, still his continent until somebody pries it away from him.
The 2011 EuroBasket MVP and gold medal winner with Spain put up 14 points — most of those early — and Slovenian big man Erazem Lorbek had 20 as Barcelona cruised past Asseco Prokom 88-61. The Polish champs got 10 from Cleveland Cavaliers swingman Alonzo Gee and only nine from Lithuanian seven-footer Donatas Montiejunas, now property of the Houston Rockets after the Minnesota Timberwolves sent him south with Jonny Flynn this past June for Brad Miller and, ultimately, Cleveland State guard Norris Cole.
For the first three and a half quarters, Montiejunas showed us why, despite his immense talent, he slid out of the lottery and coasted down to number 20. He looked disinterested, even aloof at times, handing the ball off to guards without even glancing at the hoop and barely breaking into a jog as his teammates hustled back on defense.
When he missed a defensive rotation in the second quarter, his coach and countryman Tomas Pacesas exploded out of a crouch and yanked a replacement from the bench, giving Donatas a heaping earful when he returned to the sideline with his hair gelled up and his tail between his legs.
One man who probably couldn’t tell you what a Euroleague bench feels like is Nicolas Batum. After playing all 40 minutes in a Week 1 loss at Bennet Cantu, he sat only one minute and 12 seconds this week as Nancy took down the Spanish side Bilbao Basket 87-73 at home.
Apparently, that little bit of rest paid off: Batum threw up a ridiculous line of 26 points, seven rebounds and eight assists with a pair of steals and a ranking of 36 (think of ranking as a poor man’s PER, without the per-minute and pace adjustments). Those stellar numbers were enough to earn him the Euroleague’s Week 2 MVP award.
Week 1’s MVP, Andrei Kirilenko, delivered another unassumingly dominant performance, racking up a ranking of 23 despite taking just four shots as CSKA Moscow defeated Brose Baskets Bamberg 94-74 to stay undefeated in the young season. Ex-Celtic, Thunder and Nets center Nenad Krstic was perfect on the parquet, nailing all nine shots he attempted to lead the Russian powerhouse with 19 points.
Aside from Kirilenko’s CSKA Moscow and Navarro’s Barcelona squad, four other Euroleague teams will enter their third games with an unblemished record: Real Madrid, Montepaschi Siena, Panathinaikos and Caja Laboral.
Madrid took down Danilo Gallinari’s Olimpia Milano team 85-78, led by 21 from former Utah State standout Jaycee Carroll and another 17 from Rudy Fernandez as the Spaniards held Gallo to an uncomfortable-looking 12 points.
But the biggest news out of the Spanish capital this week flew in on Air Congo, as Oklahoma City’s swat specialist Serge Ibaka joined Real Madrid on a two-month contract to fill in for Novica Velickovic, a Serbian forward out at least six weeks with a bad knee.
Already fairly stacked down low with Jazz draftee Ante Tomic, Bulls’ 2011 first rounder Nikola Mirotic, Eurobasket champion Felipe Reyes and the towering Mirza Begic, Madrid might not have had their fill of NBA bigs just yet, as reports have linked them to Marc Gasol in the past few days.
Getting a little greedy, are we?
Montepaschi Siena also shook things up this week, reeling in three-time scoring champ Igor Rakocevic to play alongside one of the world’s most explosive guards, Bo McCalebb, in the backcourt. However, Siena only needed seven scoreless minutes out of Rako to wallop Union Olimpija Ljubljana 79-57.
Panathinaikos embarrassed KK Zagreb 81-62 in their own gym, leading to concerns about the diminishing quality of the Croatian League. As the country’s Euroleague representative last season, Cibona went winless in 10 regular season games, and now it looks like KK Zagreb is trickling into that same abyss.
The final and least impressive of the six spotless ball clubs is Caja Laboral, which outlasted a fiery but overmatched Bennet Cantu team 81-69 in Vitoria, Spain on Wednesday. This was all no thanks to the Warriors’ Reggie Williams and the Raptors’ Joey Dorsey, who both missed the game due to illness and a dislocated thumb, respectively. Washington Wizards center Kevin Seraphin flashed more signs of improvement with 10 points and seven boards in 17 productive minutes.
One of the more intriguing stories in European basketball right now is the transformation of Caja Laboral’s Mirza Teletovic. Formerly a 6’10” Bosnian softie with no concept of a shot clock or teammates, Mirza has mutated overnight into a post player who actually strolls into the post on occasion. (To get a better idea, just pop in a tape of Rasheed Wallace’s career and watch it in reverse.)
Teletovic’s 22.5 PPG is second in the Euroleague and his 21.5 is tops in Spain’s ACB. (Another familiar face on that Spanish list: Duke’s Kyle Singler, sitting pretty at number four with 19 per game for Lucentum Alicante.)
And finally, take cover; more Euroleague’s on the way. Earlier this week, CEO Jordi Bertomeu announced the 2012-13 season would feature a Top 16 phase with two groups of eight teams instead of four groups of four. What does that mean, exactly? That we get a 14-game session instead of the usual six, and the champion could play a maximum of 31 games instead of the current 23.
In essence, it means more basketball. Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?
Nick Gibson, editor of EuroleagueAdventures.com, covers Euroleague and other European basketball developments for SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear each Friday. Click here to follow him on Twitter.