A bottom-of-the-table team rising up again, a last-second decision and two playoff teams being routed were the themes on Friday of Round 17, which left the standings as competitive as ever. Let the EuroLeague Gurus tell you how it went down.
Madrid is much more than Doncic
It was all about the start on Friday as Real Madrid didn't even need its best player to take Khimki Moscow Region out of the game on its own court in a matter of minutes. On the offensive end, Facundo Campazzo and Walter Tavares connected early as Madrid shot ahead 6-14. The visitors would use 6 three-point shots or plays in the first quarter to lead 17-26, but it was Madrid's defense in a 16-0 run over 5 minutes of the second that changed things irrevocably, putting the visitors up 22-43.
No heroics were required from the 18-year-old league leader in performance index rating, Luka Doncic, who stepped on the floor until seconds were left in the first quarter and was just one of many Madrid players who made the win look easy. Big man Walter Tavares was dominant inside. The trio of Santi Yusta, Jeffery Taylor and Rudy Fernandez forced the league's leading scorer, Alexey Shved, to overreach for his 23 points. And Campazzo greased the wheels of an offense that scored 51 points in the first half to put the game out of reach.
Doncic was the only Madrid player who tried three-pointers without making any, but seven of his teammates went 14 for 22 between them in a scorching display of marksmanship. With Felipe Reyes getting 7 rebounds and Trey Thompkins 6 to go with 8 by Tavares, Madrid ruled the boards by 40-27, as well. It was almost enough to make you forget that this team is missing two injured all-EuroLeague big men, Gustavo Ayon and Anthony Randolph, plus off-season acquisition Ognjen Kuzmic, a top-10 rebounder last season. That is not to mention the fact that last season's MVP, the electric Sergio Llull, has been missing all season due to injury, as well.
But whatever affect their absences had while Madrid lost six of seven games earlier in the season, this team has found its footing again and is not waiting for anyone to return before it aims again for the top. Madrid was 5-6 and in eighth place on December 13. Little more than a month later, it owns the longest EuroLeague winning streak of the season, six games, and none was more emphatic than Friday's take-no-prisoners team assault on Khimki in Moscow.
Dangerous Efes revving up for big finish
"I think we'll be a good team for the rest of the season," was the confident assertion of Anadolu Efes Istanbul coach Ergin Ataman after his team’s 104-95 victory over Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade. And considering the offensive explosion enjoyed by the Turkish team on Friday, he could well be right.
Although Efes headed into the game joint-bottom of the standings with a 4-12 record, the victory over Zvezda was no great surprise if you studied the team's significant improvement in recent weeks. Efes, after all, had won its last home game with an impressive comeback against Brose Bamberg and lost its previous two by very narrow margins (58-61 against Olympiacos Piraeus and 81-82 against Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz). If you also consider the way that Efes competed closely with a red-hot Panathinaikos for three quarters in Athens last week, all the signs suggest that Ataman's team is starting to put things together after a slow start.
It's pretty understandable that Efes struggled early, after undergoing a drastic roster overhaul. Only four players remain from last season, and one of them – the extremely important Derrick Brown – missed the first 10 games through injury. Now Brown is back and finding his rhythm, the new players are starting to gel and Ataman – a mid-season arrival in the coach's chair – is developing a formula to make Efes a dangerous opponent in the next few weeks.
One part of that formula is another new arrival, Toney Douglas, who made his debut against Zvezda on Friday and caught the eye with 12 points and 4 assists. The vastly experienced Douglas is taking his first taste of European basketball after nearly 400 games in the NBA, and if his renowned defensive skills can blend with the scoring power of backcourt mate Errick McCollum, Efes could well cause a few upsets in the coming weeks. Next Friday's home meeting with reigning champ and crosstown rival Fenerbahce will certainly be one to watch.
Hunters now hunted, but still won
Edgaras Ulanovas has done it again, coming up with another game-winning play against Unicaja Malaga. After he nailed a buzzer-beating jumper in overtime of Round 7 in Malaga, and he delivered a game-winning block on Friday against the same opponent. With Zalgiris up by 2 points and time running out, Unicaja's Ray McCallum drove a pretty open baseline lane to the basket, with only Ulanovas to beat. As McCallum went for the score, however, Ulanovas met him at the rim, stretching out to tip away the shot. There were about 4 seconds left on the clock, which ticked away while the players scrambled for the loose ball. It was the end of a night during which Zalgiris struggled, but found the way to get another win.
"It is important to get on the winning track after a loss in Belgrade last week, and even more importantly, to get a win when you are not playing great," Zalgiris head coach Sarunas Jasikevicius said after the game. For the sixth time this EuroLeague season, Zalgiris was trailing at halftime or at the end of the third quarter, only to muscle out a win. Unicaja was up by 11 points in the second quarter, and for Zalgiris, it looked liked one of those "not our night” type of games. But Jasikevicius would not settle for that. "You don’t want to know what coach said to us at halftime," Zalgiris team captain Paulius Jankunas said.
Whatever Jasikevicius said, his players responded by increasing their aggressiveness on defense while generating enough offense to take control of the game. Afterwards, the Zalgiris coach had another message for a team that has not reached the playoffs this century, but currently shares fourth place with an 11-6 record and 13 games left: the league has taken notice, and Zalgiris has gone from the hunter to the hunted.
"We need to understand that teams are coming after us, and if we don't understand it, we are going to suffer a lot in the second half of the regular season," Jasikevicius said. "Teams see us as somebody they can catch. If we are not ready for that, we are going to have many problems.”
A third quarter to remember
As expected, Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz and Olympiacos Piraeus were locked in a hard-fought game through one half on Friday. Although Patricio Garino and Luca Vildoza had allowed the hosts to get a 36-30 lead at the break, Olympiacos had dominated the game for the better part of the opening 20 minutes. Few expected what was coming after halftime, however, as Baskonia excelled at both ends of the floor like almost never before. The hosts hit 9-of-11 two-point shots in the third quarter, and after going 1-for-10 from downtown in the first half, nailed their next 3 of 6 from that distance. They also dished 8 assists and ended up scoring 36 points, the same as in the entire first half.
Those 36 points are one shy of Baskonia's club record for a quarter in the EuroLeague. Its record is 37 points in the first quarter of a Top 16 game against Zalgiris Kaunas on March 2, 2005. The 36-14 difference in those 10 minutes was also the biggest any team has ever had against Olympiacos in a third quarter in the EuroLeague. Baskonia kept pushing and ended up winning by 32 points, 86-54, matching the second-biggest losing difference for the Reds. Olympiacos's biggest loss was out of sight, 59-110 against Efes Pilsen in the 2004-05 regular season.
Also on Friday, Baskonia has its best rebounding mark this season, pulling down 46 boards against one of the toughest teams in the competition. Its great hustle was also reflected in its 14 offensive rebounds, 8 steals and 3 blocks. Olympiacos only hit 5-of-30 three-point shots (16.7%) and finished the game with a team PIR of 48, tying its worst mark this season. Baskonia had lost its last six games against Olympiacos but broke that streak in style, giving back to more than 10,00 fans in Fernando Buesa Arena with a big win no one will easily forget.