The Euroleague Final Four is this weekend in London, with the semifinals Friday and the championship on Sunday. We have a ‘classico’ in Game 1 with Real Madrid playing Barcelona, and we have a classic in the second game with perennial powerhouse CSKA Moscow facing defending champion Olympiacos.
With 9.7 seconds left and his team up a single point over Olympiacos, the 34-year-old former MVP strolled to the line, staring at a pair of freebies that would bring the two-time champion two points closer to a third.
He missed the first. Then he missed the second.
Olympiacos secured the ball off the rim, and Vassilis Spanoulis raced upcourt through a frantically scattered CSKA defense that hadn’t had a chance to settle.
Then Spanoulis, often maligned for his tendency to hog all the late game heroics for himself, saw Georgios Printezis alone on the baseline and sent it his way. Without dribbling, the Greek power forward thrust the ball delicately over Andrei Kirilenko’s head and through the net with only 0.7 seconds left on the clock.
Siskauskas tried to call a timeout that CSKA didn’t have—the refs either didn’t notice or didn’t care—and Milos Teodosic chucked the ball nearly the length of the court toward a streaking Kirilenko. As AK leapt for it, it was Olympaicos’ 6-foot-6 center Kyle Hines who jumped with him to poke it away from the MVP and secure Olympiacos their first Euroleague Championship since 1997 with a 62-61 win.
Quickness beating length. Appropriate. Here’s how the final 10.1 seconds looked live from my seat in Istanbul.
That beauty counted for two of Printezis’ 12, but Spanoulis took home the Final Four MVP (that’s how I cast my ballot as well) with 15 points and two assists in the Finals to go with his 21 and six in the semifinal. Kostas Papanikolaou was perfect on the weekend for the Reds, going 3-for-3 in the semis and 5-for-5 in the Finals for 27 points in all (18 of them against Moscow).
Kirilenko’s 12 and 10 went with four blocks and a game-high 25 index rating and Teodosic’s hit four first half 3s before going cold in the second, finishing with 15. His icy stroke was a big reason that CSKA Moscow—after their furious comeback on Friday night against Panathinaikos—let a 14-point halftime lead vanish down the stretch.
Nenad Krstic had just 11 points and a single rebound. It’s the second awful outing of the weekend for the Serbian big man who painted a picture of consistency throughout the season while picking up All-Euroleague honors.
Acie Law, who wasn’t supposed to play for Olympiacos after hurting his ankle in the last minute in the semifinal, caused quite a stir when he warmed up and then checked in at the tail end of the first and it became apparent that Dusan Ivkovic, the wily 68-year-old Serbian coach had pulled the wool over our eyes once more. Ivkovic said after the game that Law hadn’t been able to walk down the stairs “for meals” over the last two days, and made a point to praise his toughness.
That might be why Acie—not Spanoulis, not Printezis, not Papanikolaou—walked off the floor with the net draped around his neck. ith a bumpy NBA career and a short stint in Belgrade behind him, Law talked about what it felt like to win a Euroleague title in his first season across the Atlantic. Also, a message for Mama Law on Mother’s Day.
Even if a limping Law could muster neither a point nor an assist in his 12 minutes of “action,” his surprise appearance on the floor was largely symbolic of the Reds’ season as a whole. While a slashed budget and duct-taped roster should have left Olympiacos vulnerable, it only made them more dangerous.
Dangerous enough to fire back in the face of an AK47, and dangerous enough to become Euroleague Champions.
From the moment they stepped on the floor alongside Milos Teodosic and Alexey Shved, it was clear that it would take a mammoth effort to keep the Russians out of the Euroleague Final Four for a second straight season.
After steamrolling their way to an 18-2 record in the Euroleague, all it took was one enormous comeback against the defending champs—Panathinaikos—to prevail by a pair of points, 66-64, and advance to the Euroleague finals this Sunday at 2:00 EST.
The Greens’ chants sent Sinan Erdem Arena into spastic vibrations before the game even started. Once it did, it seemed like CSKA had heard every note. Sarunas Jasikevicius and Aleks Maric redefined what it meant to pick, then roll and Panathinaikos jumped out to a 29-15 lead after the first quarter.
Unfortunately for the Greens, the rules required them to play the even-numbered quarters, and the Greeks followed five points in the second with 21 in the third and only nine in the closing period as CSKA crept steadily back behind defensive line-ups which evoked more mentions of wingspan than ESPN’s televised coverage of the NBA Draft.
In the end, it was the legendary Dimitris Diamantidis with the rock with his Greens down two and the final 8.3 seconds ticking away. As he dribbled once, twice, three times at the top of the key, the entire arena leaned forward in anticipation of the do-or-die three we all knew was coming. A made triple and Panathinaikos would have a shot at defending their title. If Diamantidis drew either iron or air, Zeljko Obradovic’s pursuit of a ninth European title would have to wait until another year.
There was no make. There was no miss. There was only a scramble for a ball that Diamantidis had dribbled off a CSKA leg, and an arena full of people baffled by the 2011 Euroleague MVP’s indecision. A game and season that should’ve ended with a smoking gun finished with a finger still resting on the trigger.
Krstic had his quietest statistical game of the season with eight points, two boards and three blocks, while Kirilenko was as Kirilenko as he’s ever been: 17 points and 9 rebounds to go with his four swats.
To top it all off, Kirilenko was named the Euroleague MVP less than 24 hours later.
But Kirilenko says that even if CSKA can’t bring home the title tomorrow night, he has no regrets about coming to and then staying in Russia. He got to play in front of friends and family, and says he feels incredibly close with this group of guys, many of whom will join him this July at a tournament in Venezuela as Team Russia tries to qualify for the Olympics.
Is this CSKA team closer than any he ever played for during his 10 seasons with the Utah Jazz? I asked him just that.
We also talked about nerves: “We are not robots. We have feelings, we have emotions,” Kirilenko said. I don’t buy it. The full interview:
In Sunday’s final, Moscow will be up against another Greek side, Olympiacos, who upset a lackadaisical Barcelona bunch despite undeniable talent and size deficits. Vassilis Spanoulis outscored Juan Carlos Navarro 21 to 18 for a 68-64 win, setting the Reds up for a shot at the Euroleague crown. It would be their first since 1997.
Whereas Krstic and Kirilenko’s successes were damn near certainties, Acie Law and Joey Dorsey owe theirs to serendipity.
Law, the former Hawks lottery pick who played for more NBA teams (five) than he had years in the league (four), started the season with Nikola Pekovic and Partizan before Olympiacos scooped him up midseason in desperate need of a point guard.
Acie gave the Reds exactly what they were looking for, handing out 4.5 assists to only 1.5 turnovers in Olympiacos’ playoff series against Montepaschi Siena. Unfortunately, Law hurt his ankle late in Friday’s game, and Ivkovic says it will be “very, very hard” for him to suit up against Moscow.
Law did not practice with the team on Saturday.
Dorsey’s Eurotrip started off with Caja Laboral in Spain before injuries, inconsistent play and a rocky relationship with notorious taskmaster Dusko Ivanovic made him expendable. Since coming to Piraeus to play for Dusan Ivkovic, he’s been anything but.
In our conversation yesterday, Dorsey talked about the similarities between his and Acie’s winding roads here, and the rough start he experienced when he first touched down in Europe.
Dorsey’s season has been a tale of two halves, and his Euroleague semifinal wasn’t much different. After the first two quarters, the former Memphis Tiger had only pulled down two rebounds against Erazem Lorbek, Fran Vazquez and Barcelona’s usually intimidating frontline.
“We came in at halftime and [Coach Dusan Ivkovic] got on me very hard,” Dorsey said after the game. “He said ‘Joey, you’re not giving us enough.’”
Well-rested after sitting much of the third quarter, his man Ivkovic unleashed a faster, more ferocious Joey Dorsey onto the floor for the fourth. He snatched four huge offensive rebounds—Olympiacos only had 11 the entire game to Barca’s 19—and gave Olympiacos the energy they’d been lacking on the interior.
Now against CSKA Moscow, Dorsey will be up against a CSKA Moscow battery of Kirilenko, Krstic, Viktor Khryapa and Sasha Kaun whose linked arms could stretch across the Bosphorus.
Joey’s mate Kyle Hines, a power forward slash center who is generally listed at 6-foot-6, says that since CSKA is longer, Olympiacos needs to be quicker.
Kyle’s “low man wins” philosophy sounds nice enough, but to crack CSKA’s defense it will take more than a little quickness. Spanoulis will need to be sharp, Dorsey will need to duplicate Friday’s second half in Sunday’s first, and one or both of Olympiacos’ young guards, Evangelos Mantzaris or Kostas Sloukas, will have to step it up if Acie Law is a no-go.
As Barcelona found out, underestimating a Dusan Ivkovic-led side is a losing proposition. CSKA Moscow won’t be foolish enough to think their heights printed on paper will earn them a Euroleague championship; they will have to scrap for it. With CSKA’s worst quarter of the season behind them, Olympiacos will have to dig in and and lunge low if they want to uproot CSKA Moscow and their forest’s worth of trees.
ISTANBUL — It’s a city so massive that it spans two continents, and even the taxi drivers have to stop and ask for directions. The five daily calls to prayer give Istanbul a conservative soundtrack, while folks who flock to Istiklal Street by the thousands soak up a nightlife that dares even the most adventurous party-goers to keep up.
Venders hawk you through the halls of the Grand Bazaar, clamoring for your business in whichever language you’re willing to bargain; still, other locals have mastered the art of relaxation, leaning back into cushioned seats for hours at a time and pulling slowly on flavored tobacco through a water pipe (or nargile in Turkish).
This Friday, the last four Euroleague teams standing will venture within eyesight of Asia to settle the score. Their journeys here are as unique and varying as the Turkish megacity that’s hosting them.
CSKA Moscow bolstered their roster with NBA defects like Andrei Kirilenko and Nenad Krstic while stealing the at-times-dazed-but-never-confused, shaggy-haired assassin Milos Teodosic to run the point. All three were voted onto either the All-Euroleague first or second teams as CSKA plowed their way to 18 wins in 20 tries.
The reigning champs, Panathinaikos, dug their heels in as the NBA signing cyclone swirled around them, trusting their core of Mike Batiste and Dimitris Diamantidis to coaching mastermind Zeljko Obradovic, the owner of eight European titles.
If you’re expecting the Greens to cower at the sight of big, bad CSKA, you’re out of luck. Even if Moscow did take both of their regular season meetings.
Olympiacos hops the Aegean Sea to attend their first Final Four in two years. Of the 12 players who lost to Barcelona in the championship in Paris, only Panagiotis Vasilopoulos—who hasn’t appeared in a Euroleague game this season—remains.
With their budget hacked off at the knees thanks to Greece’s economic woes, they retained a single star, Vassilis Spanoulis, around which lesser talent has aligned. With Spanny (my pick for Euroleague MVP) carrying the load and Dusan Ivkovic monitoring the ups and downs through his thick spectacles, the Reds have landed right where nobody thought they would.
Finally there’s Barcelona, who held opponents to an historically miniscule 61.5 ppg, making them the stingiest Euroleague defense this millennium has ever seen while Juan Carlos Navarro, Erazem Lorbek and Pete Mickeal provided the offense.
And if it looks like these guys have been here before, it’s because they have.
Of the 44 Final Four teams in the last eleven years, 22—exactly half—have been named either CSKA Moscow, Olympiacos, Panathinaikos or Barcelona. For eight of those 11 seasons, one of those teams has hoisted the trophy, with Olympiacos the only one of the four left stranded at the threshold.
The last four league MVPs will all be in Turkey this weekend, too: CSKA’s Ramunas Siskauskas (2008), Barca’s Juan Carlos Navarro (2009), CSKA’s Milos Teodosic (2010 as a member of Olympiacos) and Panathinaikos’ Dimitris Diamantidis (2011).
Navarro has a Euroleague Final Four MVP to his name as well, Diamantidis has two, his teammate Sarunas Jasikevicius picked one up back in 2005 with Maccabi Tel Aviv and Vassilis Spanoulis of the Reds earned the same honor playing for his Greek rivals, Panathinaikos, in 2009.
(Think things might heat up if the two Greek teams meet in the finals? Nah, doubt it.)
Yes, this bunch boasts some experience. Yet no man is immune to the encumbrance of a single elimination format where every mishandled dribble, errant pass or blown layup is magnified a thousand times its original size. There’s no bouncing back from a game one loss; there’s no shot at redemption outside of those 40 minutes, each one oozing with a little more pressure than the last.
CSKA Moscow vs. Panathinaikos (Friday at 11:00 AM EST)
Kirilenko, Khryapa and Krstic have all been magnificent and Teodosic has lived up to his reputation as a maker of big shots and agitator of everyone, always. But let’s not forget Alexey Shved, the revelation we’ve all been waiting for.
Twenty-three years old with wiry limbs and a bright red shooting sleeve on his left arm, the holes in his game have started to fill up just as quickly as those in his once-wispy goatee. He’s still a little too casual with the rock, but his creativity and ability to hurt you off the bounce have reached a level where you live with the mistakes.
If Shved ever finds himself checked by Diamantidis, CSKA should swing the ball his way and let Alexey attack the six-time Defensive POY. By no means is DD a weak link on Panathinaikos’ protective armament, but the 32-year-old has lost some lateral quickness in the past few years and Shved’s about as tough a cover moving forward as anyone not named Vassilis Spanoulis or Bo McCalebb.
In CSKA’s first win against Panathinaikos—an overtime affair—Dimitris collected five fouls and was sent to the bench as his team lost by two. Force the Greens’ leader to defend the drive, and CSKA just might finish the season sweep.
What about Panathinaikos’ plan to stop Andrei Kirilenko? That’s a quandary for which not even a mastermind like Obradovic possesses a solution. They don’t make kevlar for the bullets AK loads in the clip.
Even when the Greens held Kirilenko to a season-low nine points in CSKA’s 78-76 OT win back in November, AK15 peppered them for 10 boards, three steals, and five blocks.
And while some are nominating Diamantidis or Steven Smith to be AK’s moving target, there’s one man that I think is built to shake off a few stray rounds from AK: Romain Sato. His long, sinewy arms are nearly twice as thick as Andrei’s tentacles, and the former Xavier Musketeer has drawn tough defensive assignments all season long, from Bojan Bogdanovic to Danilo Gallinari to Sonny Weems.
Kirilenko is longer (and better) than all those who have fallen before him, but only Sato possesses the strength and singular will to keep this wild horse from ambling about unimpeded, lurking in corners and creeping in for putbacks. Sato is a potential threat on offense—far less of one since the Top 16—but Obradovic would be thrilled with a scoreless Sato if that meant an AK with a faulty trigger.
Barcelona vs. Olympiacos (Friday 2:00 PM EST)
Trying to stop Kirilenko is like throwing a net over a ghost; getting Vassilis Spanoulis out of his rhythm is not as tricky.
Stick an extra defender up top or drag your bigs in to stop penetration once he gets into the lane (which, believe me, he will if you don’t do that first thing) and force the guys around him to hurt you and you’re in business. In Olympiacos’ playoff match-up with Montepaschi Siena, the Italians crammed the interior and forced Spanoulis into looks that were contested and uncomfortable, even for him. It worked wonders: Spanoulis averaged just 1o points in those four games, six below his season average.
What makes Spanoulis’ season so impressive is also what makes the Greeks vulnerable; Vassilis’ shoulders bear far too much weight. In Panathinaikos, he played with Diamantidis and Jasikevicius; last season with Olympiacos he had Teodosic and Theo Papaloukas; this year he has…Acie Law and Kostas Sloukas?
Not exactly murderer’s row.
Yet somehow, some way, that duo’s done the trick in the season’s second half, giving the team’s leader a little bit of relief out front. But ‘doing the trick’ and ‘a little bit of relief’ won’t be enough to shock Barcelona. Law will have to duplicate the sort of ball he played in the playoffs while Sloukas reaches in his back pocket for the skills he wielded during the Top 16.
Taking turns being decent won’t be good enough, either. The Reds must dominate the battle of the backcourt—dominate it—if they want a chance because there’s no way Georgios Printezis, Pero Antic, Joey Dorsey and Kyle Hines are besting Lorbek, Boniface N’Dong, Fran Vazquez and Kosta Perovic in the paint. Ain’t happenin’.
For the scales to tilt in Olympiacos’ favor, Law and Sloukas need to be Spanoulis’ left and right hand, respectively.
Watching Barcelona play offense is like putting salt in your coffee. It’s easy enough to mistake those savory little crystals for sugar on a bleary-eyed morning, and either way that caffeine’ll do the trick. Just don’t expect it to go down smoothly.
The man responsible for the brown, salty leftovers at the bottom of the mug is Marcelinho Huertas, the Brazilian point guard who arrived from Caja Laboral to replace Ricky Rubio. Huertas has clearly been an upgrade over Rubio—that’s not up for debate—but Barcelona Coach Xavi Pascual has shackled the creative spirit that makes Huertas one of the world’s most artistically gifted passers.
Those are the same shackles that kept Ricky from flourishing under Pascual, as Barcelona’s well-ordered offense expects its point guards to take care of the ball and nail open threes to keep defenders from packing the paint. In his final year with Barcelona, Rubio couldn’t buy a bucket. Huertas, with his 2.4 assist/turnover ratio and 43 percent success rate on threes, was just what Pascual was looking for.
As for the viewers frustrated with Barcelona’s business-like ball, we’re simply left to wonder how dynamic ingredients like Juan Carlos Navarro, Erazem Lorbek and Pete Mickeal would all taste if Pascual let Huertas spoon in some sugar and stir.