Thursday’s five games to start Round 21 of the regular season were exciting, though only one of them was particularly close. But in all the games, there was quite a bit of strategy that made the difference. The EuroLeague Gurus walk you through what they saw that made the difference for the five big winners.
By design, CSKA takes Madrid out early
"We want to play a high-intensity game, not a normal game, and I want to see that from the beginning." CSKA Moscow head coach Dimitris Itoudis spoke those words almost casually in the locker room before the game, but his players knew that he was utterly serious.
A three-pointer scored in the first 6 seconds by Real Madrid conformed with everyone's expectations of a close battle at the top of the standings. But after those 6 seconds, CSKA completely stole the show. A 15-0 blast featured Nikita Kurbanov and Will Clyburn with 5 points each. And then another 9-0 surge saw a second triple already from ex-madridista Sergio Rodriguez make it 24-5 in barely six minutes. And Nando De Colo, the January MVP, had yet to step on court! After he, Kyle Hines and Cory Higgins joined the onslaught, CSKA had a 33-11 lead at the end of the first quarter, having made 7 of 10 two-point shots, 5 of 7 threes and 4 of 4 free throws.
CSKA had also succeeded in making Madrid look like anything but Madrid. "Our first quarter was...unacceptable, let's say," Pablo Laso summarized. “We just weren't there." Luka Doncic went further: "It was a disaster, an embarrassment."
As it turns out, CSKA's desire to storm the barricades had been brewing since its 13-point loss in Madrid back in October. "We were waiting to play them again, because we didn't play very well in Madrid, so we had this game circled on our calendar," Cory Higgins said. "I think that showed in the way we opened the game."
Indeed, Coach Itoudis's pre-game message might have sounded casual only because he had hammered home the same idea in practice all week. "We went into the game very aggressive, just like we wanted to play," he said afterward. "We were preparing this in practice, saying we wanted to play at an abnormally high tempo and we wanted to push that tempo for at least 20 minutes."
And for those 20 minutes, CSKA looked even more like world-beaters than its league-leading 17-4 record might indicate.
Efes improves defense, uses mismatches to win
Anadolu Efes Istanbul had a very obvious game plan due to Valencia Basket's current circumstances. Valencia is without seven injured players, including two of its leaders, center Bojan Dubljevic and former All-EuroLeague swingman Fernando San Emeterio. Most important, Valencia arrived in Istanbul without any of its four point guards - Sam Van Rossom, Antoine Diot, Sergi Garcia and Guillem Vives. The game was tailor-made for Efes star playmaker Erick McCollum to take advantage of potential mismatches.
McCollum delivered from the very beginning, scoring 10 points in the first quarter to lead Efes to a 23-19 advantage. He finished the game with 24 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists. Efes also tried to play at a very high rhythm to take advantage of Valencia's shorter rotation. It worked, as Valencia was limited to 12 points in the second quarter and just scored 13 in the fourth, when the game is always more physically demanding. Valencia was limited to just 14-of-45 two-point shots and its 31.1% inside the arc was a new club low for the Spanish powerhouse. It is also an all-EuroLeague season low; Brose Bamberg hit 31.7% from two-point range against AX Armani Exchange Olimpia Milan in November.
On the other hand, Efes hit 25 two-point shots, almost twice as much as Valencia with the same attempts, 45. Valencia did great from beyond the arc (10-of-18, 55.6) but was outrebounded 42-29. In a game in which Valencia had no point guards, it was rebounds and two-point shooting that made the difference. Efes had 7 blocks, tying its best mark this season, and pulled down 34 defensive rebounds, tying the best mark in the 2017-18 EuroLeague. Only once has Efes grabbed more defensive rebounds in a non-overtime game - 36 against Dinamo Banco di Sardegna Sassari on November 28, 2014.
Pascolo is X-factor for AX Milan in Barcelona
When building a game plan, the are some things that coaches can bank on and other things they can hope for. There are some things that you hope to establish and others that you hope you can react to. For AX Milan, among the givens was that Andrew Goudelock, one of the best scorers in the league in recent years, would score. And he did that with 20 points. Another was that the two-headed center of Kaleb Tarczewski and Arturas Gudaitis would wreak havoc in the paint. They combined for 21 points on 9-of-9 shooting, 11 rebounds and 3 blocks, to outperform their counterparts. But the question mark was at power forward. With Mindaugas Kuzminskas sidelined, what could Coach Simone Pianigiani get from Davide Pascolo?
An All-EuroCup First Team performer two seasons ago, there was never a question about Pascolo’s ability. But he has only been a minor contributor so far this season, as Pianigiani explained: “Pascolo is a very different player, for his [position] he has different kinds of shots, different kinds of moves. For us this was a problem at the beginning of the season because he was injured from the last week with the national team and he missed the European championship because he was injured and after that he stayed a lot of months out of the team and he recovered, solely slowly, but for a completely new team that we are, we need time to understand to play with him. And also for him to find the confidence to play with this kind of spacing, these kinds of shots.”
In Barcelona, it appeared that it had all come together for Pascolo. He finished with season-highs of 12 points and 8 rebounds. Pascolo scored many of his points with great cuts without the ball where he received a pass on his way to the basket, and other times when he used his speed and long arms to get to the hoops. His baskets were timely, too. And once he was established as an in-game weapon, the defense was forced to take notice and that helped create space for everyone else.
As Pianigiani summed up, “tonight finally [Pascolo] started to score, to attack with confidence. This is something that we need to use.” It may be late in the season, but if Milan is to make a charge at a playoff spot, an in-form Pascolo is certain to be a part of that.
Zalgiris offense leaves no answers for Maccabi
Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv arrived in Kaunas with one of the most-porous defenses in the competition, and Zalgiris knew how to use it. “We knew we were going to be able to get open looks, and it was really important to hit shots,” Coach Sarunas Jasikevicius admitted after the game. Hit shots his players did, to the degree that his team had one of the club’s best offensive performances in the EuroLeague this century. It was a fantastic offensive night. The 99 points are the most Zalgiris scored in a EuroLeague game in almost five years. The team’s 29 assists is a new club-record in the competition. And 14 triples, which also tied a club-record, Zalgiris knocked down on only 23 attempts.
“Zalgiris played an amazing game,” Maccabi coach Neven Spahija said in his analysis after the loss. “If one team scores so many threes with such percentage, is it difficult to play basketball.” Kevin Pangos was brilliant, shooting 6 of 8 from the field while also dishing 11 assists. Vasilije Micic had 6 assists of his own, and just like Pangos, made 3 of 4 triples, and Milaknis also hit 3 triples, all of them in a span of 2 minutes at the start of the third quarter when Zalgiris started breaking the game open.
Where Zalgiris also quietly excelled last night was rebounding, finishing the game with a 39-29 advantage. As much as Maccabi is a team that allows a lot of points, it is also one of the top offensive rebounding teams in the competition. And Zalgiris took care of that department. Zalgiris allowed 4 offensive boards in the first 100 seconds of the game and it resulted in a pair of Maccabi put-backs. However, the hosts then went on to allow only 1 offensive rebound the rest of the first half, and just 2 more in the third quarter. And off those 3 offensive boards in a span of 28 minutes, Maccabi managed to score only 1 free throw. Such control of the defensive glass did not only limit Maccabi’s second-chance points, but it opened up a whole new world of transition game for Zalgiris. And the hosts pushed the ball, not letting Maccabi get its defense set, and catching it off balance. Pangos, Micic, Milaknis and Axel Toupane made long-range shots, Paulius Jankunas was sinking jumpers from just about everywhere, and Zalgiris ran away with an important win.
Strong start, three-pointers put Olympiacos back on track
Olympiacos had a complicated end of January, losing its last three EuroLeague road games by a combined margin of 81 points. Another loss to archrivals Panathinaikos Superfoods Athens in Greek League action on Monday meant that the timing was not especially good to host the reigning EuroLeague champion, Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul.
Olympiacos took the court on a mission and never gave Fenerbahce a chance, using a really strong start to make everyone believe again. Olympiacos played near perfect basketball in the opening seven minutes, hitting 5 of 8 shots inside the arc and going 4 of 4 from downtown to build a 26-13 margin. By the end of the first quarter, Fenerbahce had only been able to get 3 rebounds and made 4 turnovers. Olympiacos continued to excel on offense with 6 assists and 0 turnovers, making 6 of 10 two-point shots and 5 of 6 from beyond the arc for a 34-18 margin. Team captain Vassilis Spanoulis had 14 of his 19 points in the opening quarter, using his leadership skills to set the tone on offense.
Fenerbahce found a go-to guy in Ali Muhammed, but Olympiacos kept shining in two basic aspects of the game - defensive intensity and ball circulation. Fenerbahce committed a season-high 18 turnovers and made just 43.2% of its shots inside the arc. On the other hand, Olympiacos hit 13 of 17 three-point shots (76.5%), the best percentage in the EuroLeague this season - and in any EuroLeague game since November 2012. Janis Strelnieks hit 4 of 4 from downtown and other than Kyle Wiltjer (1-of-4), the rest of the team was 12 of 13 from downtown, which speaks wonders about Olympiacos's ball movement. Defense and three-point accuracy made the difference, Spanoulis played a leading role and Olympiacos was at its best and playing like one of the best teams in Europe.