The second half of the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Regular Season tipped off on Thursday night in the Greek capital and continue to Spain for two more games. And the outcomes could be the start of themes that will impact the rest of the season. How great can Panathinaikos Superfoods Athens be when at full strength? Does Valencia Basket have enough self-belief to get back in the playoff hunt? Can the new-look FC Barcelona Lassa rotation turn around the club’s season? The EuroLeague Gurus took a crack at these themes after watching last night’s games.
New-look Barcelona shan’t be ignored
On the first of December, Barcelona lost to CSKA in Moscow by 14 points. Last night, it beat the same CSKA side at home by 13. For the most part, the players that had big roles for CSKA in the first game also played big minutes in the second. However there were some big changes in the Barcelona rotation. Two starters from the December game – Kevin Seraphin and Rakim Sanders – did not play at all last night. Meanwhile Juan Carlos Navarro, who was a DNP-CD (did not play – coaches decision) in the first game and Pau Ribas, who appeared in a grand total of 2:33 minutes, started the home game. Navarro, the EuroLeague scoring king, and Pau Ribas, both have plenty of individual and team success behind them. Navarro is a two-time EuroLeague champs and a former world champion, among other exploits, with the Spanish national team. Ribas is a two-time EuroCup winner and a EuroBasket champion with Spain. They each know about sacrificing for the team.
"I want to say that we are very happy, not only because of the win, but because of the way we got it. We started the game really well and in the bad moments, we played as a team," Barcelona coach Sito Alonso opened his post-game remarks. He explained further: "The way we won was very important. After December 4, the team, maybe after not beating Fenerbahce and CSKA, detoured off its goals, thinking more of individuals than in the team. Now, everyone is thinking of each other, passing the ball very well, playing strong in every action, and that makes the team more compact."
Alonso went on to hammer the point home, but it is essentially clear to everyone watching that Alonso is no longer going to field his most-talented fivesome and hope they figure it out. He is going to play the men that will work hard and play together. Three-time All-EuroLeague center Ante Tomic is also back in the starting lineup. Sasha Vezenkov has regained his place in the rotation. It may be the same players, but we are looking at a different Barcelona team. There are big tests to come with road dates at last night’s other two winners, Panathinaikos and Valencia, over the next two weeks, but with more chemistry and character, Barcelona may be on the path to the playoff hunt.
Can one game become a microcosm of Valencia’s season?
Games hardly come more exciting than the all-Spanish clash on Thursday night in Malaga in which Valencia Basket managed to rally twice in the second half to edge Unicaja. If it was not enough that these two teams played fewer than 48 hours ago a Spanish League game in the same venue, this clash produced a memorable comeback which not many saw coming. “There were times in the game when maybe someone might have thought it was over, but when you play against teams like Baskonia or Valencia, it is never over,” was all Unicaja Coach Joan Plaza could say after the 83-85 defeat. Valencia lost few games in similar fashion earlier this season, after letting big leads slip away in the second half, but has now showed character and rallied to victory for the second week in a row. After falling down 56:39 at the 7:32 mark of the third quarter, Valencia scored 40 points in the next 12 minutes.
“We had a bad start to the third quarter, continuing the same way we ended second quarter,” Valencia coach Txus Vidorreta said after the comeback. “But it was just for the first few minutes. Then we changed our defense, we were more aggressive and we also had a desire to win.”
The key was also the control of its defensive boards during that span. The league leader in the category, Unicaja grabbed 15 offensive boards in this game, but only 3 that led to one second-chance basket during that 12-minute span and Valencia’s 18-40 run. It allowed Valencia not only to keep Unicaja from scoring second-chance baskets, but also opened up the transition game. However, the work was not done as Valencia went on a four-minute scoring drought and Unicaja jumped back to an 83-79 lead in the penultimate minute. Valencia’s key player last night, Sam Van Rossom, fouled out, and it looked as though Valencia had run out of gas in the final minutes. But they made three defensive stands and found ways to get to the foul line on the other end.
This second consecutive victory – and the manner in which it arrived – begs the question: can the team that was a bottom dweller just a week ago go on a rally and get into a playoff hunt? Opening the season with a 3-11 record is similar to trailing by 17 points in the third quarter of a game, when everything looks very disappointing, but a strong belief can help turn things around. This one game might show Valencia the way for the rest of the season.
Welcome back Nick Calathes!
Not that Panathinaikos struggled without him, but with Nick Calathes back in action last night, the Greens looked like the Final four contender they appeared to be when they won five straight in November. Calathes led the way for Panathinaikos with 17 points, 9 assists and 3 steals in a game that his team took control of early and never relinquished the lead. What Calathes offered to his team was far more that stats, though. As his coach, Xavi Pascual, explained after the game, “Nick [Calathes] is our leader on the court. He helps on defense and offense. He played very well today. I am happy for him.” Forward Kenny Gabriel agreed: “We are happy to have Nick [Calathes] back. He played a big role in us winning today, helping to share the ball and get guys the ball.” Even a casual observer what they saidsaid rings true. The offense runs through him, but Calathes never forces shots. He actively seeks rebounds to ignite fast breaks. And Calathes is a tough defender, too.
Last month Lukas Lekavicius wrote in his EuroLeague.net blog about the things that Calathes does well, focusing on his leadership and tremendous passing. Thursday showed the ideal situation for the Greek champs: Calathes leads the way, Lekavicius comes in with energy and provides a spark. Together the point guard duo accounted for 29 percent of the team’s points, 56.5% of the assists and 29.3% of the index rating, but just 20% of the team’s turnovers. That is elite production and what Panathinaikos will be hoping to see the rest of the season.