After a fantastic season of Euroleague basketball, one weekend of mayhem in Milano will decide the champion. While the seven-game series format leading up to the Final Four has proven undeniably exciting (and profitable), there is a special charm to the Euroleague’s one-and-done Final Four format that gives off a very comparative feeling to the NCAA Final Four.
For the first time since 2006, neither of the Greek powerhouses – Olympiacos and Panathinaikos – will be represented in the Final Four.
Instead, Russian squad CSKA Moscow will take on Maccabi Tel-Aviv, while top Spanish clubs Real Madrid and Regal Barcelona duel it out Friday for the right to play in Sunday’s championship game.
Here are previews of the Final Four games.CSKA MOSCOW VS. MACCABI TEL-AVIV
With the biggest budget in Europe and easily the strongest team on paper, CSKA should be the heavy favorites against Maccabi Tel-Aviv. The Russians are stacked at every position and loaded with size. However, after dropping the first two games in the playoffs to fellow Euroleague squad Lokomotiv Kuban, CSKA will be coming into the tournament without momentum on their side.
Their frontcourt combination of Nenad Krstic, Sasha Kaun and back-to-back Euroleague champion Kyle Hines is any European coach’s dream, allowing them to match up well against any style of play. Specifically, the proficiency of Hines in switching defenses makes him probably the best defensive big man in all of Europe.
In the backcourt, former Euroleague MVP Milos Teodosic leads the way, although he has been coming back from injury lately and has been a major part of CSKA’s struggles in the past two weeks. They have some other great options however, with Aaron Jackson, who has been playing at a very high level this season, and Jeremy Pargo, who sometimes can barely get off the bench but probably would be a Euroleague MVP candidate if he had gone to Maccabi Tel-Aviv (for a little less dinero).
At the wings, they have Victor Khryapa and Sonny Weems, two NBA-caliber players who stuff the stat sheets.
CSKA is led by Italian coach Ettore Messina, who rightfully has had his name in the mix for several NBA positions after working as an assistant for Mike Brown with the Lakers.
Almost more importantly for this game will be Israeli assistant Dan Shamir, who has worked with David Blatt in the past at Maccabi Tel-Aviv before becoming a head coach in Israel. As someone who covered Shamir’s Bnei Hasharon team in 2010-11 and lived in the same building, I can say with 100 percent certainty that Shamir has uncovered any possible tactic Maccabi can think of. The man dubbed “the laptop coach” will surely prepare a counter to anything Maccabi can come up with.
However, momentum can be a tricky thing. Unlike CSKA, Maccabi Tel-Aviv is the Cinderella team, with one of the smallest budgets of the Top 16 Euroleague squads that overcame insurmountable odds to make it to Milan. When Maccabi lost a couple of games early in the Israeli league, people questioned whether Blatt deserved to keep his job and whether Tyrese Rice, Joe Ingles or Alex Tyus were the type of players to get you to the Euroleague Promised Land. Jump forward to May, and it’s obvious the answer is a resounding yes.
Blatt has taken a team that is far weaker on paper than its Euroleague counterparts and gotten it to embrace and combine two distinctively different brands of basketball to near perfection. Maccabi typically starts the game with Sofoklis Schortsanitis, focusing the offense around early post-ups, and looking again to Sofo late in the shot clock. When Sofo heads to the bench, Tyus comes in to play the role of Amar’e Stoudemire in a Suns-style offense, running many pick-and-rolls with shooters spreading the floor.
The common theme of these distinctive styles is the constant presence of outstanding 3-point shooters. Playing without a traditional power forward, Maccabi has David Blu, a guy who has nailed so many clutch 3-pointers in his career that basically every Israeli coach has had at least five nightmares caused by him. Blu may be one of the nicest guys off the floor, but the second the ball goes up, he is a ferocious competitor with absolutely no conscience. He is exactly the type of player to come into a game and make a bunch of deep 3-pointers to grab a Cinderella win.
In addition to Blu, Maccabi has All-Euroleague guard Ricky Hickman, a dynamic backcourt player who rose from UNC-Asheville and playing in small leagues to one of the top guards outside the NBA. The dynamic play of Hickman will be a big key for Maccabi to advance.
An X-factor for Maccabi will be the play of Sylven Landesberg.
Landesberg has barely gotten any run in Euroleague this season but managed to break the 20-minute barrier once in the Top 16, scoring 10 points. Landesberg gives Maccabi another wing player with size who can penetrate and get out in transition, and there have been times where they looked very strong as a team when they gave him extended run. It would be understandable if Blatt decided to go with the vets, but it will be interesting to see if he can sneak Landesberg into the game early to make some noise.
While the Russians surely have every plausible advantage over Maccabi, I think Maccabi has momentum on their side at the moment and will find a way to pull off an upset against CSKA.
Blatt has done some remarkable things in his career and has had consistent success everywhere he has been. But for some inexplicable reason has been under constant criticism in the Israeli media. I wonder if beating CSKA will help some of the doubters realize what the rest of the world has and acknowledge Blatt as one of Israel’s top all-time coaches.
REAL MADRID VS. REGAL BARCELONA
This has to be a dream matchup for the Euroleague. Probably the two strongest teams in Euroleague this season, and two of the most beloved sports clubs worldwide, going head-to-head in a one-and-done playoff game.
Real Madrid, with their fast paced freewheeling style, is easily my favorite Euroleague team to watch. With a backcourt featuring 2013-2014 Euroleague MVP Sergio Rodriguez, and another top-five European point man in Sergio Llull, Real easily has the best backcourt this side of the Atlantic.
At the wing, Rudy Fernandez provides exciting dunks, clever backdoor cuts and deep 3-point shots. While he was never much more than a sixth man in the NBA, Fernandez is beloved in Real Madrid, and it would come as a surprise to no one if he dominated in the Final Four.
Off the bench, Madrid has sharpshooter Jaycee Carroll, who has struggled since returning from a February injury, but as the best spot-up shooter in Europe, his health and production could be a big key.
In the frontcourt, future Chicago Bull Nikola Mirotic brings a lot of versatility as a 6-10 player who can shoot, rebound, run the floor like a deer and be a playmaker in transition. It won’t be long before Bulls fans will be debating whether Toni Kukoc was better than Mirotic, although many Bulls fans probably can’t grasp just how dominant Kukoc was during his time in Europe.
What is very unique about Real Madrid is coach Pablo Laso’s decision to sit American guard Dontaye Draper the entire first half, then start him and play him the entire third quarter. This is a very unique concept to have in your system, and it wouldn’t surprise me if other teams will pick up on this trend and start having a third-quarter guy. Maybe Draper will be to the third quarter what John Havlicek was to the sixth man.
Barcelona is led by Euroleagues all-time leading scorer Juan Carlos Navarro, fondly known as “La Bomba” due to his knack for knocking down bombs in the big moments. Navarro has been limited by injuries in the last month but undoubtedly will be an important factor with his experience, range and nifty floater if Barcelona will have a chance to come away with a W.
Joining Navarro in the backcourt is master playmaker Macelinho Huertas, a member of the Brazilian national team who serves as the quarterback for Barca’s offense. Behind Navarro is former Kansas State guard Jacob Pullen, who sees inconsistent minutes but set a Spanish ACB record by going 12-of-15 from the arc on his way to 42 points earlier this season.
In the frontcourt, Barcelona is flanked by 2008 Utah Jazz draft pick Ante Tomic, who probably is the top center in the Euroleague at the moment. Tomic lines up alongside Erazem Lorbek, who may be more famous to NBA fans for being a throw in to the Kawhi Leonard–George Hill trade but is known as one of the most creative scoring big men in Europe.
At the wing, Barcelona has former New Jersey Net Bostjan Nachbar, a guy who always can find a way to get buckets, but the real player to keep an eye on is Kostas Papanikolaou. In the past two years, Papanikolauo has won two Euroleague titles, been drafted to the NBA, been traded twice in the NBA, then made the move to Barcelona.
There are rumblings that Papanikolaou will be heading to Houston if he feels he will be given enough of a role to make a contribution, and if he comes away from this weekend with a third Euroleague trophy in three years, it would seem that he deserves a shot. Keep an eye on Oklahoma City 2013 second-round pick Alex Abrines, an athletic wing with a great outside shot who provides valuable hustle that could be an X-factor.
While both teams are loaded with talent, Real Madrid has two top-five guards in Europe and has consistently played the best basketball on the continent. This surely will be an exciting game, but Real Madrid likely will come out victorious.
AJ Mitnick is an American living in Israel and working as an Assistant Coach for Maccabi Rishon Lezion of the Israeli Basketball Super League. A graduate of IDC Herzliya, Mitnick is in his third season with Maccabi Rishon, where they have made the Israeli League Final Four, and have twice made the Final Four of the Israeli State Cup . Follow him on Twitter.