The Euroleague Final Four is tipping off with Regal FC Barcelona vs. CSKA Moscow on May 7th 6PM CET (3PM ET on NBA TV, according to the schedule), with Olympiacos Piraeus and Partizan clashing later in the evening (9PM CET, 5PM ET on NBA TV).
Regal FC Barcelona vs. CSKA Moscow
While Barcelona (18-2 in the Euroleague and 51-5 in ACB, EL, Copa del Rey games combined) is back as a European basketball powerhouse, CSKA, one of last decade's dominant teams, was hit hard by the financial crisis and had to let go of Ettore Messina, Erazem Lorbek and Terence Morris last summer, signing mostly Russian talent to replace them. The result is a 6 1/2 to 7 man rotation, because most of the guys weren't quite up for it.
The well-oiled Barca machine is well ahead in all relevant statistical categories. CSKA has tons of championship experience, but an unproven coach after the departure of Messina (arguably the best coach in Europe) to Real Madrid. The Russians were pretty lucky in the draw and didn't even need to play a single elite team (by my definition ) during the whole season.
Both teams play at a slow tempo, below 70 possessions per 40 minutes. (Slowest NBA team: Portland Trail Blazers at 75 per 40)
From an American perspective, there's Ricky Rubio's first Final Four appearance. He'll match up with two veteran Euroleague guards, Zoran Planinic and JR Holden, the latter extending his streak of consecutive Final Four appearances to eight. Still, both aren't elite point guards in Europe. I wouldn't say the same about Rubio after this season, certainly a top five point guard in this league.
Topscorer Juan Carlos Navarro averaged double digits in scoring for the Memphis Grizzlies in his only NBA season. Erazem Lorbek (incredibly skilled finesse power forward) was an Indiana Pacers 2nd round pick in the 2005 NBA Draft. Pete Mickeal had a short stint with the Knicks but really is playing the best basketball of his life right now, Terence Morris is a former Houston Rockets/Orlando Magic-player who didn't really find his role in Europe before the 07/08 season, while Fran Vazquez is best known for refusing to come to the NBA as the 11th pick by the Magic in the 2005 NBA Draft. 35-year-old Gianluca Basile scored 25 points on Team USA in the 2004 Olympic preseason, a game that Italy won by 17. Iverson wanted to lure over Basile to the Sixers after that performance, but I guess the front office didn't agree.
For CSKA, Ramunas Siskauskas, an Euroleague all-decade player and double Euroleague champion, sunk Barcelona in last season's Final Four in Berlin with 29 points in the semifinal, and he's having a career season, averaging 13.2 points per game on 69.3eFG%. But he's 31 already.
CSKA's topscorer is former Duke captain Trajan Langdon, definitely one of my favourite players and almost as effective as Siskauskas from the field, shooting 47.1% from range (62.6eFG%).
Viktor Khryapa is having a unique 10/6/4 season as point forward, former Kansas Jayhawk Sasha Kaun has really made huge progress this season, serving as starting center, while Pops Mensah-Bonsu has been a complete disappointment.
One X-Factor is the return of Slovenian power forward Matjaz Smodis, another all-decade player in my eyes, but injured for most of the season.
Olympiacos Piraeus vs. Partizan Belgrade
A highly intriguing matchup between one of the stars & glamour ballclubs in Europe (budget ca. 37mio €) who are able to pay a guy like Childress 4.5mio € net per year, versus the history-rich, financially troubled club from Belgrade (budget ca. 3mio €) that has produced so much elite level talent over the years. The fact that they made the Final Four is already a sensation. All that in a country that is still licking its wounds 15 years after the war, you can maybe imagine that sports is more than just sports there and how much it means to the people to have a young team of mostly home-grown players compete in Paris versus Europe's best and richest. Unfortunately, Partizan will be without their certainly not politically correct nor peaceful but definitely loud and intimidating hardcore fans (the "Grobari", translated: "Gravediggers"), because the club decided to distribute the Final Four tickets to the rich nice-weather "fans" instead of communicating a reasonable price with the real fans. I guess that's how things are ...
Anyway, the background of this club translates onto the court, where Partizan is a hard-working, defensive-minded group, the best rebounding team in the league. David vs. Goliath. Easy to tell which side I am rooting for.
Olympiacos meanwhile is the fastest team in the league at over 74 possessions per game, relying on a tandem of outstanding point guards to organise the offense as well as the Childress-Kleiza combo up front to provide scoring.
The Josh Childress vs. Jan Vesely matchup at small forward should generate some interest, after all a future lottery pick is going face to face with an established NBA starting-calibre player, an opportunity for scouts and fans that doesn't come across too often. I've written here about Vesely before, the guy plays the game the right way, goes after every loose ball, defends hard, runs like a deer in transition, but above all he's a physical speciman (6'11ft and incredibly quick) the like of which Europe hasn't seen in a long time. He's only started to receive decent basketball coaching a couple of years ago, so he's fairly raw at this point and only scratching the surface of what I believe are outstanding abilities.
What's more, former Nebraska big man Aleks Maric is having an outstanding sophomore season in Europe, leading Partizan in both scoring and rebounding. Every game that involves Maric is basically a lowpost wrestling match, as long as the refs allow it.
His backup Slavko Vranes was one of those genius Scott Layden draftpicks for the Knicks back in 2003. Vranes' basketball skills are very limited, but at 7'6 1/2 ft, he can be a brutally intimidating presence in the paint.
Both Americans (Lester "Bo" McCalebb and Lawrence Roberts) play pivotal roles for Partizan. Roberts will most likely be asked to defend Kleiza on Friday. McCalebb has made nice progress this season and should be off to one of the medium-level Euroleague clubs like Unicaja Malaga next season, where they pay much more money.
Partizan headcoach is Dusko Vujosevic, one of the iconic figures of European basketball. He's developed Nenad Kristic, Kosta Perovic and Nikola Pekovic in recent years. One of the few coaches in Europe to not speak English, the face of the club, hero among fans.
For Olympiacos, Josh Childress and Linas Kleiza are common names, but they aren't the only ones who carry this team. 6'6ft point guard Theodoros Papaloukas is one of the all-time-greats in European basketball. With 12 assists in that particular game, he was one of the architects of the 101:96 upset of Team USA in Japan 2006. He's one of those guys that generated a lot of NBA interest especially after that summer, but asked for a key role (and a lot of money, probably), so it never happened. Now it is too late anyway, the guy is turning 33 on Saturday.
His successor and current backcourt partner is Milos Teodosic, whose play has triggered a heavy debate about who is really the best young point guard in the league this season. Teodosic is certainly the better shooter, but Rubio has an edge in defense and creativity.
Patrick Beverley (NBA rights belong to the Miami Heat) is a defensive roleplayer for single-digit minutes. Scoonie Penn has had a long European career, he's been a nice midseason addition for them.
Behind Kleiza (who plays kind of a fake-PF, his role on offense is more like a SF) there's Wolves draftpick Loukas Mavrokefalides, possesses a well-rounded offensive game, solid lowpost- and midrange game, but a subpar defender. Role player who wasn't really expected to play much on this team but worked his way into the rotation as the season progressed.
Ioannis Bouroussis, who Greg Popovich reportedly wanted to bring to the Spurs last summer (Bouroussis signed a new contract with Olympiacos instead), is center 1A, while Nikola Vujcic is option 1B and Sofoklis Schortsanitis is 1C. Bouroussis is the best defender of the lot, as well as being a guy who runs the floor hard in transition. Vujcic is slow and unathletic, but still one of the world's best passing big men (comparable, in this aspect, to Vlade Divac), while Schortsanitis is very likely to fall in love with the French cuisine and not show up for the game.
The Final takes place on Sunday, 9th of May, 9PM CET (NBA TV: 4PM ET)
Links: Euroleague official site (boxscore, livescore, rosters, stats)
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