This year's semi finals in the Euroleague Final Four saw two interesting and hard fought games on Friday in the O2 World Arena in Berlin that got very physical in the final minutes. It featured everything that makes European basketball interesting to watch despite sometimes a lesser talent level than in the NBA: Fast action up and down the court, a lot of ball movement, continuous movement off the ball, almost everybody able to hit from outside, agitated coaches, excited fans, etc.
See my preview of the event here. In this recap I'll focus a bit more on team and individual performances, and skipping along my notes for a little "play by play" recount of how the games went. Also what this all could mean for players potentially coming (back) to the NBA is described in some detail.
First semifinal CSKA Moscow 82 - Regal FC Barcelona 78. Boxscore
Viktor Khryapa dunks for Moscow, via www.euroleague.net
The arena filled slowly when the defending champions from Moscow and the strong Spanish squad from Barcelona took the court.
Barcelona jumped out to a quick start, hitting four three pointers in a row (which ultimately became their downfall) and dominating a smallish Russian lineup. Guard Jaka Lakovic looked very strong in this phase, aided by Juan Carlos Navarro with one of his typical floaters (returned last year to Spain after a disappointing season in Memphis. He knew he had to go when they traded away Pau).
Our old friend Viktor Khryapa started for Moscow, and in his first or second action got instantly blocked by center Daniel Santiago. Why did that seem familiar? He redeemed himself a bit with a steal finished with a nice fast break dunk shortly thereafter.
Moscow's starting center Erazem Lorbek (2 time Euroleague player of the month) picked up 2 quick fouls, forcing his coach to put last year's NCAA champ Sasha Kaun on the floor who has seen only limited action this year.
Barcelona took a 21-12 lead after the first quarter, and it seemed like this could be over fairly quick. Moscow was able to catch up a bit again when FCB rested a few of the starters, putting out e.g. forward Roger Grimau who has about the most horrible posture I have ever seen in a professional basketball player. Ringer of Notre Dame anyone? At least he has long arms and hustles. But still in the mid of the 2nd quarter, Barcelona was hitting 60% from three and Moscow 0% (0 for 5).
Naturalized point guard J.R. Holden (European national champion with Russia) did a solid job leading his team and setting up players, but at times seemed to push things too much himself (1/6 and 1/3 from outside) and went on to miss a critical shot in the final minutes that fortunately got rebounded and put back by one of his teammates. He finished with 4 assists.
The half ended with a tip-in at the buzzer by FCB's center/power forward David Andersen confirmed in replay, who had an unusually strong game for Barcelona, contributing 24 points (6/6 2FG) which is more than double his season average, and even hitting 3 three-pointers combined with 4 rebounds. Ironically Barcelona had acquired him from Moscow for this year. At this point the FCB was still up by 4.
The third quarter was pretty uneventful, with Barcelona's outside shooting starting to decline. When I looked up to the scoreboard, they had made 6 of 19 at that time. They were able to briefly widen the lead to 9 points on a fastbreak dunk, when finally Lorbek started to catch some life for Moscow and made his first points on a jump hook. Trajan Langdon (Duke, Cavs before making a career in Europe) made some nice baskets on midrange jumpers and baseline drives, nothing spectacular but very important to keep Moscow in the game.
In the fourth quarter, the game got very physical and slowed down visibly when CSKA went to a slightly bigger lineup. Former very tall Nets guard Zoran Planinic didn't register anything in the boxscore, but still made life tough for the players from Barcelona. Moscow took the lead for the first time with 6:30 to go on back-to-back three-pointers by Ramunas Siskausas to give CSKA its first lead at 61-62 leading to an 11-0 run. Khryapa also got his game going, registering a big block followed by a hard baseline dunk causing comments of "the Bulls are kicking themselves to let him go" by the announcer. Doubtful, but still a pretty good game by him. After falling behind by 6 points Barcelona came back within 3 and then even 2 when Navarro hit from downtown to answer a shot by Langdon. But Siskauskas sealed the deal on a wild jumper that he followed by a steal on the other end that he passed out to Holden who was fouled to go to the line. That put Moscow ahead 74-80 with just 20 seconds left and the game ended at the foul line where Holden and Siskauskas again delivered.
Keys to the game:
Man of the match for me was Siskauskas, the veteran from Lithuania, who ran hot when it mattered scoring 18 of his 29 points in the final quarter when Moscow took the lead (for the first time) and clinged to it. Trajan Langdon added 15 points, everybody else finished in single digits.
Unfortunately Navarro had a very quiet night by his standards for Barcelona, taking just 6 shots (5 of them threes) and 2 free throws for 13 points combined. Barcelona finished shooting 10 of 29 from downtown (34.4%). What started out as a strength became a big weakness. In comparison, they only took 27 2pt field goal attempts hitting 18 (66.6%). Unreal. Combined with losing the battle on the boards against smaller players (topped by 10 rebounds for Viktor incl. 3 offensive ones) that did them in.
Second semifinal Panathinaikos Athens 84 - Olympiacos Athens 82. Boxscore
Lynn Greer driving for a layup, via www.euroleague.net
Now the arena was really well filled and the fans in the stands - a majority of them Greek fans - eady for some action. The league in Greece is very unbalanced with these two clubs regularly dominating, so matchups like this can make or break a season for them.
Changing his usual lineup Olympiacos' coach started Jannero Pargo at point guard, but the course of the game shows that he clearly trusts his veteran Lynn Greer more. Pargo is taken out after 3:21 and is never seen again. I didn't hear about an injury. Since I don't have much more to say about Pargo, go watch this 1 min video of him impersonating Kobe Bryant in training. Good job. You can also watch him buy a suit in Russia, which takes over 5 minutes.
Vassilis Spanoulis started the game strong for Panathinaikos, he also played the most time of anyone on the court with 36 minutes (40 minutes in a game). Seeing Josh Childress play long stretches as a point forward for Olympiacos especially on defense was interesting, defending both combo guard Spanoulis against whom he did a credible job and quicker guard Sarunas Jasikevicius who gave him much more problems. Some nice drives early on, but once he stepped on the baseline and the layup was called back.
Panathinaikos had a clear advantage with its strong center rotation of Nikola Pekovic (starting) and Mike Batiste. While not exactly Gregzilla, the two combined for 8 rebounds and 39 points against Ioannis Bourousis and Nikola Vujcic struggling to contain them. After getting fouled on a dunk attempt causing him to miss, Pekovic boxed very hard against the stanchion. Wow, that looked like he could hurt his hand.
Panathinaikos took a 27-21 lead at the first quarter. They continued to muscle inside to keep a lead of about 7 points. After his second foul Pekovic had to go to the bench and both teams switched to a three-guard lineup. Pace and ball movemtn picked up. Here Olympiacos had an advantage with the quick and crafty Greer going strong to the basket, hitting a three and following up with a floater. He goes on to become their top scorer with 18 points. Olympiacos managed to close in to take the game at 43-41 into the half.
Greek standouts Theodoros Papaloukas and Georgios Printezis (both finishing with 9 points) came out strong for Olympiacos to open the third quarter. Vujcic started to warm up a bit and got Pekovic a better under control in this phase. Tied at 50, Childress put his team in the lead with an acrobatic Roy-esque sequence driving through traffic and switching hands on the layup to bring his fans on their feet.
Jasikevicius answered nicely, also by setting up Batiste who was in the game at that time for Pekovic for a powerful stuff, followed shortly after by a block into the third row. 66-63 for a narrow lead by Panathinaikos going into the final quarter. Again the game got very physical and defense was ramped up in this phase, forcing Olympiacos twice into a 24-second shot clock violation. On another three from Jasikevicius his team took an eight point lead, but quickly gave up most of it again. Vujcic grabbed a bouncing ball off the ring for Oly, a rule the NBA will soon adopt to harmonize international regulations. Papaloukas took a nice charge outside the 3pt line to break up a pick that likely would have caused angry discussions had there been a game day thread :) He followed up with a steal and a three to bring the score to 81-79 with 2 minutes to go.
Pekovic and Vujcic both picked up their fourth foul and had to play very cautious the rest of the way, also both missed one of their following free throws. Bourousis tied the game at 82-82 with about 1 minute to go, but Pekovic answered at the other end. A semi-desperate (and too early) three missed, but Pekovic rolled out his shot last shot to give Olympiacos another chance to send the game to overtime with a 2 or win with a 3. A shot by Bourousis (really, a backup power forward is your go-to guy?) from about 8 feet bounced off the rim, and he and Childress couldn't tip it in. Panathinaikos wins in a very strong game.
Keys to the game:
Stronger front court rotation, and an advantage with Jasikevicius and Spanoulis on the guard positions for Panathinaikos. Both teams were much more balanced in terms of inside and outside shooting than Barcelona.
Late in the game Childress got in foul trouble when he picked up his fourth after getting switched by a good pick on the massive Batiste who he had no chance to stop for an And1 (five fouls takes you out of the game under FIBA rules). He was visibly aggravated by that call, and almost got a technical.
"I feel like a rookie sometimes here, or a freshman in college," Childress told us. "I never get any calls. It is what it is. I can’t be mad about it. I guess it could be more even." - Childress to DraftExpress, see below
For my likings he wasn't active enough for a player his team invested so much money into. He just took eight shots, and finished the game with 11 points (4/7, 0/1, 3/4), 4 rebounds, 3 steals and 2 turnovers. On the final attempt of the game he and PF Bouroussis tried to tip in the ball but came short. Had he made it, maybe he could have become the man of the match in overtime.
Update: Third place game Olympiacos 79 - Barcelona 95. Boxscore
Barcelona clearly beat Olympiacos in a pretty meaningless matchup for the third place in the Euroleague Final 4 of the two losers from May 1st that I didn't watch live. It seems like it was more meaningless for Olympiacos, who held out their US players Josh Childress and Jannero Pargo only playing Lynn Greer extensively who put up 19 points. Backup PF Bourousis added 17 points and grabbed 9 boards almost recording a double-double. Starter Georgios Printezis also just played 10 minutes. Baby Shaq Schortsanitis was on the roster this time, but collected a DNP-CD.
Center David Andersen had another quite impressive game for Barcelona scoring 20 points and grabbing 4 boards. His big man teammate Santiago contributed 10 while guards Navarro and Lakovic both added 14 points. Barcelona had better shooting percentages in all categories and won the rebounding battle 34-22 and took home the consolation prize of coming up in third place for this year's Euroleague.
Update: Finals Panathinaikos 73 - CSKA Moscow 71. Boxscore
The Greek team is the new Euroleague champion by beating last year's winner. Yet what looked like a sure thing at halftime was anything but in the last minutes. In the end it came down to the final shot. What an exciting game. See my live comments below for the emotional ups and downs.
Panathinaikos celebrates the title. Are those crunk cups? Via www.euroleague.net
The atmosphere in the arena was wild for the final game of the tournament. Especially the Greek fans clad in green colors were there in full strength, outnumbering and out-cheering the fans of Moscow dressed in red and white (and the remaining ones of Olympiacos, who I'm not sure they supported. Probably their countrymen despite the fierce rivalry).
After CSKA scored the first few points, Panathinaikos' starting center Nikolas Pekovic stormed out of the gate to quickly give his defenders two fouls and ignite a 10-0 run. Excellent pick and roll defense kept Moscow's players far away from the basket in the first quarter, shooting pretty desperate jumpers late in the shot clock. Moscow was only kept in the game by PG J.R. Holden, who shouldered all duties and scored 8 points early on. Their semi-finals hero Siskauskas as well as the usually very reliable Matjaz Smodis started ice cold.
The Greek team took a five point lead and kept it to the end of this phase with 21-16.
When the lead had increased to about 33-21 in the middle of a 13-2 run for Panathinaikos, Moscow's coach Messina brought Sasha Kaun in the game to replace the at this time outmatched Erazem Lorbek to defend Pekovic who did a pretty good job keeping him away from the basket and poking the ball out of his hands. Yet at this time almost every outside shot by Jasikevicius & Co. seemed to go in, from wide open corner threes to wildly contested ones from the top of the circle.
The half ended with a big statement behind-the-back pass by Jasikevicius to his co-guard Drew Nicholas on the left wing, who wondered for a second why he could be so wide open in a final game, then drained the three for the 48-28 lead. The game seemed all but decided, a blowout looming.
The difference at this point was not so much the 2pt shooting (about 58% to 53%), but the choking defense causing multiple shot clock violations and the better outside shooting by Panathinaikos (13 of 27 in total).
The depth on their bench could be seen nicely when Greek standout Spanoulis got switched out for his national teammate Diamantidis. Combined with Jasikevicius, you are hard pressed to find a better (and taller) guard rotation than that in Europe.
But in the third quarter, Moscow again made a good decision to slow down the pace by bringing bigger guard Zoran Planinic back into the action, who also worked nicely in isolations and together with a ball hawking J.R. Holden was a pest for his opponents. Siskauskas was slowly getting warm, as was Trajan Langdon scoring 7 points in this period. And suddenly the Greek team was the one taking the bad shots further away from the basket. Khryapa shut down their last attempt to score in the third forcing an airball, and now the lead was down to 10 points (56-46).
Early in the fourth quarter this trend continued. Panathinaikos was in a long scoring drought that stretched over the quarter break. Hard to explain why Jasikevicius was sitting on the bench for a long stretch, who was not in foul trouble at all. Reserve forward Kostas Tsartsaris fouled out with 8 minutes to go. Moscow went to the line a lot in this phase, but made just 20 of 30 in total which became critical later. Erazem Lorbek finally started to hit inside but had another abysmal game with 5 points and just one rebound.
Moscow was dominating the offensive boards in these minutes often getting multiple chances. A three and a free throw by Siskauskas followed by a nice drive by Holden closed the gap to 5 points at 65-60 with three minutes to go. Spanoulis gave the Greek team a slight relief with a three, but Khryapa answered on the other end. Veeeeeeeeeeeeeektor triple triple triple.
Panathinaikos' coach decided to close out the game with bullish backup center Mike Batiste instead of with Pekovic this time. Not a bad decision, when Batiste made a super quick turnaround move on the left baseline to drive hard to the Basket forcing Khryapa to send him to the line where he converted both.
After another team effort to get a defensive stop, Khryapa managed to foul out starting forward Antonis Fotsis. But to the horror of his coach (facepalm, literally) he missed both free throws with 40 seconds to go. But his team made up for it with amazing ball pressure forcing a rare 8 seconds violation for failing to bring the ball over the half court line in time. Siskauskas took the ball and drained it for a long three with 25 seconds to go bringing the difference down to 1 at 70-69. Needing to foul, Moscow sent Diamantidis to the line who made both bringing the lead back to 3, and unfortunately Khryapa had to take the foul.
After another timeout, interestingly the coach ordered Diamantidis to foul again (most NBA teams wouldn't) to send Siskauskas to the line who made both (heavy discussions if he should try to miss the second) with 8.5 seconds to go to bring it again down to 1. Now Panathinaikos needed time, and managed to put the ball in the hands of Jasikevicius who went to the line with a little over 5 seconds to go. He missed the first, but made the second. 2 point lead for Panathinaikos. A 2 would send the game to overtime, a 3 and the comeback by Moscow would be complete.
Now a very long timeout followed, and the refs had some problems to get the players back on the court discussing with their coaches what to do (see below). Moscow went to Siskauskas again past a Drew Nicholas jumping up and down trying to prevent the inbound. He curled and went up for a three at the buzzer with a pretty good look against a single-man cover, but the ball bounced off the ring. Panathinaikos wins 73-71, players fall to the floor or storm on the court.
Here is an official highlights video of this game on YouTube. Unfortunately the final moments are not very well documented.
The top referees from Lithuania, Spain, Israel and Portugal did an admirable job in a heated atmosphere to keep the game under control. They handed out technical fouls to both teams in the first few minutes (one for Khryapa). After that, just one sentence, a look or gesture, and even the very talkative coaches or Jasikevicius backed off and accepted their decisions. I didn't see many missed calls.
Vassilis Spanoulis was named MVP of the Final 4 after scoring 13 points for Panathinaikos in this game and 18 in the semi final against Olympiacos. I probably would have given the title to Jasikevicius (18 and 10 points to go with 9 assists and 7 rebounds, and the clear team leader when it mattered). But Spanoulis surely was a big part of the success.
Panathinaikos coaching legend Zeljko Obradovic has secured his status as the most successful Euroleague coach with his seventh title. It was impressive to see him listen to one of his assistants very long and carefully during the final timeout on what to do (they could have fouled to secure OT at worst, which an NBA coach never would but a European might) and how to defend, something he likely would have brushed aside a few years ago and decided on his own. He then only took about ten seconds to relay the call to his players in the huddle waiting for the decision.
As the NYT and AP liked to point out in their reviews, Drew Nicholas who won the title with the Maryland Terrapins in 2002 became the fourth player to win both the NCAA and Euroleague title following Tyus Edney and Jiri Zidek (UCLA 1995, Zalgiris Kaunas 1999) and Tony Delk (Kentucky 1996, Panathinaikos 2007). Yet he really wasn't the major reason for the win.
Holden was the top scorer for Moscow with 14 points while Siskauskas and Langdon both added 13 points.
Update: Youth Tournament
There was a Nike International Junior Tournament in parallel with the Euroleague finals. It was won by FMP Belgrade a team from Serbia against Lietuvos Rytas a team from Lithuania. Two players you might hear about leading up to the 2011 draft or later dominated the high scoring game (123-110). Center Dejan Musli (born 1991) was named MVP of the tournament, and finished the final with 31pts, 17 boards and 3 blocks. And their point guard Nenad Miljenovic had 17 points, 8 rebounds and 10 assists. He is still 16. He was recently invited to compete in the Jordan Brand Classic 2009 in NY.
The Raptors and Kings allegedly are out to maybe find their new coach in the tournament talking to Ettore Messina (Moscow, 4 titles with the chance to win his 5th) and maybe other candidates. So their GMs made the trip to Berlin. Maybe they will also look at some players, especially the Raptors are already pretty European. Mavericks GM Donnie Nelson was also sighted although his team is still playing. Interesting.
The Spurs were in attendance in full force with GM Buford, assistant GM Lindsay and head coach Greg Popovich. It wouldn't surprise me at all to see them come up with a veteran like Ramunas Siskauskas next year (free agent) to replace a Mike Finley or Ime Udoka. Maybe they even take a look at Childress. And then of course their European vacation might have to do with their hope of bringing the elusive Tiago Splitter - not playing in this tournament anymore - finally over in 2010 (currently arguably the best center in Europe with very high efficiency ratings) which would help to re-open their window a bit and put a sidekick and eventual "replacement" for Duncan on the court.
Josh Childress (Olympiacos) might be a player the Blazers are interested in. E.g. Mortimer had suggested before the deadline it could be a good plan to acquire his rights together with Bibby in a trade for LaFrentz and other pieces (which is now no longer possible, and Bibby a free agent). He is likely not very interested to return to Atlanta, who can make him a restricted free agent again by making him a qualifying offer (resulting in a cap hold for them). His contract is ongoing, with likely a sizeable buyout though his agent hinted that there was an exit clause for the NBA. Now that he didn't win the Euroleague title, will that make him more likely to stay? Most observers say he is overpaid for what he does, so his club might not even be against letting him go again. His ability to play a kind of point forward is unusual (good ball handling and defense). But he lacks the outside shooting the small forwards needed to have so far in the Blazers' system.
Jannero Pargo (Olympiacos) is a player I guess the Hornets were missing dearly this year, as he can provide a nice scoring punch off the bench and is able to play both guard positions decently. He is streaky, but I would say there is a good chance to see him back next year on some NBA team for around the veteran's minimum, as his European career seems to fizzle switching teams from Russia to Greece in the middle of the season and now not playing exactly a lot there.
Lynn Greer (Olympiacos) looked very strong in the semi-final, scoring 18 points from everywhere on the floor and also getting to the line a lot (7 shots) for a 6'2'' point guard. He once played a year with the Bucks in the 2006-07 season, but has mostly spent his career abroad. Turning 30 in October, it might not be too late for him to take a backup spot on an NBA team. But maybe he can make more in Greece.
Fran Vasquez (Barcelona, #11 pick by Orlando in 2005) left me behind unimpressed. I took down next to no notes for him. He finished with 6 point and 2 rebounds, didn't get to the line, and picked up a few dumb fouls trying to block shots or prevent drives, which he certainly can but failed to execute properly in this game. At no point did I get the impression that he took over and dominated the smallish Russian front court that had foul trouble themselves at times even playing Viktor Khryapa as a power forward.
The same is true for Turkish player Ersan Illyasova (Barcelona, second round pick Milwaukee in 2005), who went 1/2 and 0/3 to go with 5 rebounds.
The Timberwolves hope Nikola Pekovic could be part of their future for the center/power forward spot. He had one of the best games I have seen from him (against a pretty weak Nikola Vujcic who also had to defend against the bullish Mike Batiste) going aggressive to the basket for 20 points including 7 trips to the line (game best, made 6). In the final he was not quite as strong, registering 6 points (1/3 shooting) with 4 of those coming from the foul line (4/4) and 2 rebounds. Consequently he sat on the bench in the final minutes, with Batiste closing out. However he did manage to hang 5 fouls on his opponents early in the game to bring Moscow's front court in some trouble. Overall I would compare him to his country-neighbor Darko Milicic, but Milicic is stronger on defense and just six months older. See a more detailed profile of Pekovic here in a post I wrote on the Wolves blog.
The Pacers hold the rights to Moscow's 6'11'' Slovenian center/forward Erazem Lorbek (second round 2005), but although I don't know about his contract situation with CSKA I wouldn't bank on seeing him in Indiana any time soon.
"Baby Shaq" Sofoklis Shortsanitis wasn't on the active roster (Clippers hold rights). It's very unlikely he will ever make it to the NBA as he seems to be difficult to coach and just doesn't show the necessary professionalism. Allegedly he reported to training camp 50 pounds overweight.
I am a bit sad Sarunas Jasikevicius (Pacers, Warriors) didn't stick in the NBA. I wouldn't really want him on my team, but the guy is a real character. I think he is probably the most vocal point guard I have ever seen, constantly talking to his teammates, to opponents, to his coach, to officials. He just plain hates losing and has led his clubs and his often outmatched national team to a number of nice victories (e.g they beat the US in the 2004 Olympics preliminary round behind seven threes by him). It's unlikely we will see him back in the league.
Some of the other players who had really good performances are simply too old and comfortable in their current situation to consider making the jump to the NBA where they would likely just have marginal roles.
In the other direction, in a few situations I had the impression that e.g. a player like Ben Gordon would be awesome in the Euroleague. He would fit right in with the other unconscious streaky shooters. He should really consider that if no NBA team is willing to pay him what he thinks he is worth :)
But overall the "let's go to Europe to ride out the tough economic climate" storyline that was flying high last summer seems to have come back a bit to the ground with the limited success Childress, Pargo, a few players in Israel and young prodigy Brandon Jennings had this season. Maybe a few more players will leave the NBA for a while, maybe even a (aging) star or two, but it's hardly the panacea for very talented players. That of course could change immediately if there was any lockout in 2011 when the current CBA is scheduled to end.
Off the court
See again my preview "A Dark Shadow over the Euroleague Final Four?" for the background story on why off-court issues were feared to become a hot topic leading up to this weekend. Apparently things remained mostly quiet in Berlin and other cities in Germany. A few burning trash containers as usual, 50 arrests in the night leading up to the semis (not necessarily basketball fans). Heavier clashes in Moscow and Istanbul.
Security controls to the arena were very tight, causing many fans to file in late when the first game between Moscow and Barcelona had already started. Which didn't really matter, since the big majority were fans of the Greek teams. Courtside seats were reportedly all bought up by Russian oligarchs, but I can't confirm that :)
Visitors had to give up all coins and even keys to the security (who is so mad that he throws away his car key?). Of course no flares and other dangerous objects were allowed inside. The capacity was reduced by about 3000 seats to better separate fan blocks. And apparently most Greek fans in the arena were locals living in Germany, not the most rabid fans making the trip from Athens as was feared by some police officials. Fans in the arena were loud, clapping and chanting constantly as well as occasionally booing, but not unruly.
Update: Ball in Europe has two nice short video s of Olympiacos fans in the arena chanting.
As mentioned above the official highlights video of the final game on YouTube.
See the as always excellent work by Jonathan Givony over at DraftExpress for more reporting on a few of the involved players, and a short interview with Spurs head coach Popovich.