The season opened with great showing from players we have long enjoyed watching and newcomers. Two of Thursday’s five games featured road wins, and three saw fourth-quarter lead changes. The EuroLeague Gurus are back to walk you through what they learned from the opening night of what promises to be another spectacular Turkish Airlines EuroLeague season.
Madrid finds its Sinan Erdem Dome redemption
After its last EuroLeague season did not finish the way it wanted at the Final Four, Real Madrid returned to the same venue, Istanbul’s Sinan Erdem Dome to open the new season, and did so in style. Madrid controlled the contest against Anadolu Efes Istanbul for most of the night, apart from the final five minutes of the third quarter, and won the game by 14 points. Los Blancos did so behind their teenage superstar Luka Doncic and former All-EuroLeague big man Gustavo Ayon, who were at their best on the opening night. The two men got Madrid’s offense going, as Ayon scored 10 early points and Doncic, who came off the bench, scored 13 in a span of less than six minutes. Madrid built an 18-point lead after only 15 minutes of play and held a comfortable margin until late in the third quarter when Errick McCollum and Ricky Ledo led Efes within 60-62. But that’s when Doncic took over again. He first pulled down an offensive rebound and scored inside, then dished a fine assist for an Anthony Randolph triple before knocking down a triple of his own. He later added a three-point play from the low post against Krunoslav Simon, giving Madrid a 65-79 lead and basically sealing the outcome with four minutes left. All along, there was Ayon, who during that same span had an offensive board, an assist, a steal and a fastbreak dunk. He was great on the glass the entire night, pulling down 10 rebounds.
“I think Doncic had a very good game, but it was a solid performance from everyone”, said Madrid Coach Pablo Laso in the press conference after the victory. “Sometimes for Luka to show how good of a player he is, he needs the rest of the team work like they did. Gustavo Ayon played a great game, [Felipe] Reyes and Randolph were very solid. [Jeffrey] Taylor did a great job defensively. I think it was more of a team effort.”
Indeed, Randolph collected 12 points and 8 rebounds, and Reyes chipped in with 10 points and 4 boards in less than 14 minutes on the floor. Interestingly, this quartet was far from these performances in the Final Four semifinals last May in this arena. It was a game that Reyes did not even enter, and the other three – Doncic, Randolph and Ayon - combined for only 9 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists and a combined performance index rating of minus-2. But what a difference a summer made. Doncic and Randolph went on to become European champions with Slovenia – also in the Sinan Erdem Dome of all places, Ayon looks to be in fantastic shape and played a team-high 33 minutes, while the 38-year old Reyes looked like he got a little younger, rather than older. The four of them scored 67 points last night, only 7 fewer than the entire Efes team, and combined for an index rating of 96. More than enough for a valuable road win.
CSKA guards come together in first test
There were many stories inside the story of CSKA Moscow’s victory over AX Armani Exchange Olimpia Milan. Even if we eliminate what we learned from an inspired effort from the visitors in defeat, for CSKA we had Will Clyburn, who played big minutes, posted a double-double and earned his coach’s praise. Cory Higgins found holes in the opponents’ defense and came within a basket of his career high with 21 points. And statistically CSKA shined by outrebounding Milan 37-26, drawing 26 fouls and making 89.5% of its free throws.
But the first answer to a question many asked about CSKA over the summer was a positive one. That question was how CSKA’s new look backcourt – which saw Sergio Rodriguez and Leo Westermann stepping into the roles of Milos Teodosic and Aaron Jackson to play alongside Nando De Colo – would look. And though the answer may not have been great after 20 minutes, CSKA could feel relief after 40. With seven minutes left in the game, CSKA trailed 69-70. It outscored Milan 24-14 the rest of the way with its backcourt leading the charge. First Westermann got the assist after running the pick-and-roll with Kyle Hines, who drew a foul and sank free throws. Then De Colo scored from the line and – after Vlado Micov scored for Milan – Rodriguez penetrated for a layup. The guard trio kept at it as De Colo sank a jumper and Westermann converted a three. Even as Dairis Bertans and Micov tried to answer for Milan, De Colo proved too strong with a three-point play followed by more free throws. De Colo scored on the break and Rodriguez with a floater. It wasn’t until the final minute of the game on a Clyburn tip-in that CSKA got points without De Colo, Rodriguez or Westermann directly involved. There will be more tests, but if this team knows that it has a trio of guards who, whether in a three-guard lineup or any two of them alongside Higgins and/or Clyburn, can take over offensively down the stretch, CSKA has the answers it was looking for.
Olympiacos’s Printezis, Agravanis show some tricks in opener
Downing a team like Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz six consecutive times is not an easy thing to do, but that is exactly what Olympiacos Piraeus has done over the last three years. Olympiacos brought out its best defensive version to down Baskonia 75-64 despite being without three key players: superstar Vassilis Spanoulis, playmaker Brian Roberts and power forward Kim Tillie, who hurt his back while warming up. Without his regular backup and the team's on-court leader, All-EuroLeague power forward Georgios Printezis stepped up to play a great game. He did it all - jump hooks, step-back jumpers, big baskets in the low post and even a dunk in traffic. Printezis made 8 of 12 two-point shots to finish the game with 17 points. Dimitrios Agravanis saw extended playing time due to Tillie's injury and made the most out of it, getting 13 points and 5 rebounds in just 16 minutes. Olympiacos pulled down 16 offensive rebounds and forced Baskonia into 14 turnovers. It was Olympiacos's 13th consecutive home win against Baskonia, who last beat the Reds on the road in the 2007 playoffs. Olympiacos also won its first home game for the 13th consecutive season. You have to go back to the 2004-05 season to see Olympiacos losing its first home game, which it did against Climamio Bologna, 71-76.
A Maccabi star is born
With so many new players on the Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv roster, there were some uncertainty as to exactly how the roster would shake out come opening night. And based on Maccabi’s impressive come-from-behind road win at Brose Bamberg, we now know a lot more. For instance we learned that back-up point guard John DiBartolomeo, who played a significant role in the preseason and was named MVP of the Israeli Winner Cup, is not just a weapon for domestic play and be counted on for important minutes in the EuroLeague. We learned that Coach Neven Spahija will play those in the best shape late in the game, not necessarily the starters; three starters played less than 20 minutes! But most of all, we learned that Maccabi may have its newest star.
”Outstanding performance by Pierre Jackson,” Coach Spahija said after the game before he revealed, “I know Pierre very well. I spent a lot of time to convince him to [sign for Maccabi]. Let’s say our defense and his outstanding performance in the last quarter was really important for this game.”
We now understand why Spahija tried to convince Jackson to come. The playmaker put up big numbers with 27 points on 5-of-5 three-point shooting and 9 assists. He was at his best in the fourth quarter; he posted 14 points and 4 assists in that stretch. In fact, after keeping Maccabi close with some big plays early in the fourth quarter, he blew the doors off the game later. With the score tied 67-67, Jackson nailed a three-pointer, fed Alex Tyus for an alley-oop slam, connected on another three and then set up Michael Roll for an open triple. That run of 11 unanswered points scored or assisted by Jackson broke the game open. It would turn into a 0-19 march, which Jackson capped with his final three of the game, as Maccabi claimed an important road win. Jackson will be celebrated in Tel Aviv for the next week and if he can match this level of play in the team’s home opener next week, a new Maccabi star will be born.
Winning formula works again for Unicaja
As the old saying goes: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And Unicaja Malaga heeded those words on Thursday night, relying on a superb defensive effort to down reigning champion Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul in a 68-67 thriller. Defense, it’s worth noting, was the main reason that Unicaja was even playing the game at all, with Joan Plaza’s team triumphing in last season’s 7DAYS EuroCup primarily because they were very difficult to score against. In Unicaja’s six knock-out round victories during that run to glory – over FC Bayern Munich, Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar and Valencia Basket – it allowed a miserly average of just 64.2 points per game, including just 58 points in the decisive Game 3 of the finals in Valencia. Unicaja’s EuroCup title was enough to secure a EuroLeague berth for the new campaign, and with eight players returning from last season Plaza benefits from the necessary continuity to maintain the same approach in a new competition.
On Thursday, Unicaja’s defense was superb in the second half, restricting Fenerbahce to just 26 points after the interval. A particularly important passage bridged the end of the third and the start of the fourth quarters, when the Turkish team was held to just 3 points over a 10-minute period. And it wasn’t even the case that Fenerbahce was missing its shots – more often than not, the visiting players just couldn’t find a route through to the basket, with Unicaja forcing 7 turnovers during that time, working with ferocious intensity to close the passing lanes and put pressure on the ball. Of course, a game cannot be won by defense alone and Unicaja found just enough offense as well. But this victory was a team effort, based firmly on defense. And judging by Unicaja’s track record, it won’t be their last.