Euroleague Power Rankings: Khryapa Picks Up Where Kirilenko Left Off

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Andrei Kirilenko and Nenad Krstic descended upon Moscow last October to steal the headlines and recede the hairlines, and CSKA made it all the way to the Euroleague finals.  Afterwards, Krstic stayed put, but it’s Viktor Khryapa’s sensational year that’s rendered AK47′s presence in Minneapolis a non-factor in the Russian capital.

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Gibson: Euroleague update: For Cantu, Doron Perkins Is a Risk Worth Taking

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BARCELONA — This Thursday in Israel could mark Doron Perkins’ first Euroleague game in over 10 months. As far as Perkins is concerned, it couldn’t come in a better place; Tel Aviv’s Nokia Arena has been home to many of Perkins’ finest moments with Maccabi.

Only this Thursday, he might be sliding into his socks in the visitor’s locker room as a member of Bennet Cantu, a team that bested Maccabi 82-74 Thursday.

Let’s rewind a bit.

Last March in a playoff series against Caja Laboral, Perkins crossed from left to right and exploded toward the cup, Brad Oleson with him step for step. It took just a single dribble for Perkins to get himself even with the rim. For one of the Euroleague’s best and most physical finishers, we all thought we knew what was coming next.

But instead of a shot going up, it was Perkins going down to the floor in a yellow, writhing heap. He tried to drag his limp lower body off the court before signaling for help.

He had torn two ligaments and severely damaged the meniscus in his right knee, and had to watch from the sidelines as Maccabi made it back to the Euroleague finals for the first time since 2008.

Now, the morning after rumors raced in from the Twittersphere of his return, Eurobasket.com senior writer and Sheridan Hoops guest contributor David Pick can confirm their veracity.

Cantu has until February 7 to reach a deal with the former Santa Clara Bronco if they want him to legally suit up for next Thursday’s Euroleague challenge.

If the circumstances of Perkins’ return weren’t peculiar enough for you, consider this: if Cantu beats Maccabi and Barcelona wins at Zalgiris, the Euroleague runners-up will be eliminated from playoff competition. A year after lifting them to championship levels, Doron Perkins could have a hand in Maccabi’s undoing.

Cantu has every reason to be excited.  With help from one of Europe’s rowdiest cheering sections, one of its hottest coaches in Andrea Trinchieri and budding mini-stars like Vladimir Micov and Giorgi Shermadini, the Italians are 2-1 in the Top 16 and second place in Group H. Now with advancement potentially six days and one tough road test away, they are on the verge of adding a point guard that was an awkward landing away from an All-Euroleague team last season (his teammate, the also-deserving Jeremy Pargo, earned the honor instead).

But before Cantu gets too giddy about their chances to bury Maccabi, they should remember who they’ve handed the shovel.

Firstly, it’s not as if Perkins took the last 10 months off to fill holes in his stamp collection. He was hurt, and hurt so badly that a surgeon had to cut him open and fiddle with the same ligaments that used to support some of Europe’s most violent slashes and cuts.

Secondly, Cantu’s system isn’t one that favors stars.  Everyone brings his fair share to the table and then everyone eats.

For instance, Cantu as a team ranks third in assists per game (16.2) and assist/turnover ratio (1.4) behind only the 13-0 CSKA Moscow and 12-1 Barcelona. Yet scan the individual assist leaders and you won’t see the team name Bennet Cantu until the 17 slot, where forward Vladimir Micov is handing out a pedestrian 3.3 dimes per game. Then there’s Gianluca Basile at 25 (3.0 apg) and ex-Oregon Duck Maarten Leunen at 38 (2.4). Cantu’s starting point guard Andrea Cinciarini is all the way down in 42nd place with just 2.08 assists per game.

Much like the passing, the scoring is an abnormally cooperative effort also, with seven players averaging at least 7 ppg while none average more than Micov’s 11.

Now here comes Perkins, a man whose rambunctious style seems at odds with Cantu’s tidy offense, and suddenly a team that entered the season without expectations is in a position to knock off a card-carrying member of Europe’s upper echelon.

Perkins’ mind will be churning 100 miles a minute and his right knee will do its damnedest to keep up, and we will need more than a few minutes of watching him against Maccabi to tell if Doron Perkins is still Doron Perkins.

Maybe Cantu shouldn’t tinker with a system that has run smoothly all season long. Maybe they’re getting greedy. Maybe Perkins’ presence will upset Cantu’s equilibrium and they’ll spiral out of control, and out of the Euroleague.

Maybe. But probably not.

Doron Perkins is a star, and for Cantu, he’s a risk entirely worth taking.

CSKA Still Perfect

Nenad Krstic picked up weekly MVP honors with 20 points and 9 boards in CSKA Moscow’s 85-70 drubbing of Galatasaray. The win moved them to 3-0 in the Top 16 and 13-0 on the season.

In order to go undefeated the rest of the way, they would need to win nine more games: three more in the Top 16, a three-game sweep of the best-of-five quarterfinals (likely against Real Madrid with an outside shot at Montepaschi Siena), then two wins in the single elimination Final Four to lift the crown.

Things just took a nasty turn for the Russians, though, as Viktor Khryapa dislocated his finger and will miss some time. This is one of those moments where having guys like Andrei Kirilenko and Andrey Vorontsevich at the same position comes in handy.

Motiejunas on the Move?

Houston’s first round draft pick Donatas Motiejunas might be on the move again, as the Lithuanian 7-footer has drawn interest from several European clubs (Anadolu Efes, Khimki Moscow and Avozmash Mariupol among them).

Motiejunas is in Poland at the moment playing for Asseco Prokom, who was knocked out of the EL after a 1-9 regular season but still competes in the Polish League and the VTB United League. For the time being, Montiejunas’ next destination—if there is one outside of Gdynia, Poland—is unclear.

Montiejunas did not take the opportunity to shine on a lesser team for granted this season, as the 21-year-old averaged 12.5 points and 7.9 boards against the continent’s best competition.

Don’t be surprised to see him in a Rockets uniform as soon as next season. We’ll keep you posted on his whereabouts until he makes his way to Texas.

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.

 

Eurobasket: Kirilenko like “a wild horse”

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By Chris Sheridan

KAUNAS, Lithuania — You never quite know what will come out of David Blatt’s mouth, but it is always interesting, often controversial (such as what he said last summer about the Soviet Union rightfully winning the 1972 gold medal game against the United States at the Munich Olympics in 1972), and sometimes right on point.

Emphasis on sometimes.

Two examples from his post-game comments after Thursday night’s 77-67 victory over Serbia put Blatt’s Russian team into the semifinals of EuroBasket.

_ “Viktor Khryapa was the best player in the game for us tonight.” Now, no offense to Khryapa for his 11-point, five-rebound, four-assist performance in 34 minutes. He was a major, major factor. But maybe Blatt didn’t get a better look at the boxscore, which showed Andrei Kirilenko with a line of 14 points (10 in the fourth quarter), 11 rebounds, six assists, four steals and two blocks.

_ On Kirilenko: “Have you ever been a horse trainer? Andrei is like a beautiful, wild horse. He’s best when he’s roaming around and running free. We ask him to play within the system, but honestly his best moments are when he’s doing what his heart and his instincts are telling him to do. Most of his great plays, they come not from the structure, but from the mind and the beautiful kind of talent he has. The lucky thing is that’s he’s not a selfish man, he is not a greedy player, he plays for the team.”

Blatt’s team remained the only unbeaten squad in this Olympic qualifier, moving on to a semifinal match against France on Friday night that will determine one of the two Olympic berths to be awarded at this tournament.

And while France undoubtedly has the better talent and athleticism at every position, Blatt has a knack for game-planning and exploiting matchups that cannot be overlooked. And that’s why it says here that the Russia-France semifinal should be an instant classic that could go either way. (Gun to my head pick: Russia, with Sergei Monia hitting the game-winner).

Against Serbia, the tactic Blatt focused on was ball pressure against Serbia guard Milos Teodosic, who he knew would be forced to log heavy minutes and would be gassed as a result. That pressure helped force Teodosic into nine turnovers, negating the team-leading 20 points he put on the board for a Serbian team that made it to the semifinals of the World Championship a year ago and came within a whisker of defeating Turkey and making it to the gold medal game.

It’ll be a different challenge to try to force Tony Parker into such a frazzled game, and France has plenty of other NBA players whose raw talent easily exceeds that of their Russian counterparts.

But Blatt is as wily of a coach as there is in the business, a superior tactician to France’s Vincent Collet, and Russia cannot be dismissed simply on the basis of name recognition.

They would not be undefeated if they weren’t doing a whole host of things correctly, and they’ve pulled off the improbable before when they defeated Spain on Spain’s home court in Madrid four years ago to win that version of EuroBasket.

“Victory is sweet, but the joy is short because we play tomorrow in the semifinal, and there is very little time to prepare, and very little time, if any, to celebrate. And we will not,” Blatt said. “Our record speaks for itself, and tonight’s victory is significant, but tomorrow’s game is more important.”

Count on Blatt having his team ready to exploit what is probably France’s biggest historical weakness — its confidence level in the fourth quarter of close games. And be prepared for a final 10 minutes that should be riveting. This was only a four-point game with 6 minutes left, but Kirilenko put it away in an eyeblink with a sequence that included two foul shots, a steal leading to a breakaway layup by Aleksey Shved (maybe the best player in this tournament that you’ve probably never hard of), an offensive rebound following two missed free throws by Khryapa, and a jumper from the corner that made it a 10-point game in the space of just 41 seconds.

When Kirilenko drew Nenad Krstic’s fifth and final foul by boxing him out for an offensive rebound with 2:01 left, Kirilenko’s two free throws made it a seven-point game and gave the Russians all the cushion they needed to finish off the Serbs.

You can dislike Blatt for what he said about the 1972 gold medal game last summer in Istanbul, but you have to respect him for what he’s done with his Russian team here in Lithuania.

They are the only ones who are 9-0, and they are not the ones who will be under the most pressure Friday.  That is why they are only a 1 1/2-point underdog against a team with Parker, Joakim Noah, Nicolas Batum, Boris Diaw and Nando deColo on the roster (Mickael Gelabale may be available, too, if his sprained ankle is sufficiently healed.

Given Russia’s record and their coach’s history, that line should probably be pick ‘em. And given he fact that Spain should have a relatively easy time defeating Macedonia in the other semifinal (my pick is Spain by 13), the Russia-France match will be the one to watch.