Gibson: Euroleague Final Four Preview

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Euroleague bannerThe 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.

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Euroleague Final Four Preview

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Dimitris Diamantidis, PanathinaikosThough it’s trumpeted as a launchpad for great big shiny heroics, playoff basketball’s cruel truth is that the no-shows have a particular, formative role to play in the maturation–or atrophy–of each series, as well.

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Where Are They Now? Visiting the 2013 Euroleague Playoffs

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800px-Juan_Carlos_Navarro_by_Augustas_DidzgalvisWelcome everyone to another edition of Sheridan Hoops presents Where Are  They Now?

This week, we will look at the former NBA and NCAA players that are taking part in the 2013 Euroleague Playoffs. With two teams having advanced and four attempting to join them, there’s no shortage of players making waves overseas.

As outlined by Nick Gibson of Sheridan Hoops, Barcelona of Spain will play Panathinaikos of Greece and Olympiacos of Greece will square off with Anadolu Efes of Turkey on Thursday, April 25. Real Madrid of Spain and CSKA Moscow of Russia have already advanced and await the winners of those games.

So which memorable names are taking part in the postseason festivities?

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Gibson: Olympiacos Wins Euroleague Championship on Buzzer Beater

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ISTANBUL  —  There wasn’t a uniformed soul in Istanbul with as much Euroleague pedigree as CSKA Moscow’s Ramunas Siskauskas.

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.

Nick Gibson, editor of EuroleagueAdventures.com, covers Euroleague and other European basketball developments for SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear weekly. Click here to follow him on Twitter.

Gibson: Euroleague Final Four Preview

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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.

Nick Gibson, editor of EuroleagueAdventures.com, covers Euroleague and other European basketball developments for SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear weekly. Click here to follow him on Twitter.