UNICS Kazan should remember 2021 as one of its greatest years. The Russian powerhouse started 2021 in the 7DAYS EuroCup and finished it well-established in the upper third of the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague standings, firmly nestled into the playoff zone. If it succeeds, UNICS will reach the EuroLeague Playoffs for the first time in a decade - its first and only appearance came in 2012 when it was swept by FC Barcelona.
UNICS completed 2021 with a brilliant 75-67 home victory over the reigning EuroLeague champion, Anadolu Efes Istanbul. It was without starting center Tonye Jekiri but John Brown III, one of the players who has been with the team in the last two seasons, stepped up with a stellar performance. He finished the game with 20 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 5 steals and 7 fouls drawn for a career-high PIR of 28.
In January 2021, UNICS had just made it to the EuroCup Top 16 after ranking second in Group A of the regular season with a 6-4 record. Brown, Isaiah Canaan, Dmitrii Uzinskii and Artem Klimenko were joined by longtime star Jamar Smith, Nate Wolters, Jordan Morgan, Okaro White and Jordan Theodore and coached by Dimitris Priftis. They helped UNICS finish first in its Top 16 group with a 5-1 record, defeat Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar 2-1 in its best-of-three quarterfinals and favorite Virtus Segafredo Bologna in the semis before falling to AS Monaco in the finals.
With a new coach, Velimir Perasovic, and new stars such as Lorenzo Brown, Andrey Vorontsevich, Mario Hezonja and Jekiri, it took UNICS some time to gel and it started the 2021-22 EuroLeague campaign with a 1-4 record. UNICS has gone 10-3 since that moment. No team has a better record since Round 4, with FC Barcelona matching UNICS with 10 wins over the last 13 rounds. All of UNICS's losses in that stretch came by 3 points or less, including in overtime against Barcelona at Palau Blaugrana, 111-109, after blowing a 20-point, second-half lead.
It all starts with aggressiveness on defense for UNICS and Coach Perasovic. UNICS is averaging 9.44 steals this season. That is the highest steals average in the competition since Dinamo Banco di Sardegna Sassari (10.5 per game) in the 2014-15 campaign. Four players - John Brown, Lorenzo Brown, Canaan and Hezonja - are averaging double-digits in scoring, which makes UNICS's offense very unpredictable.
"It is not always going to be my night. We have a lot of great players on this team. I have a lot of great teammates, they look to me a lot and always got my back," Canaan said after beating Efes. "If it is not my night, we have plenty of weapons for someone else to pick up the slack."
The game against UNICS was a perfect example of that. UNICS finished the game with 8 steals and only committed 8 turnovers - which was 1 shy of its season-low mark, 7, in Round 11 against ALBA Berlin. On the other hand, Efes finished the game with just 3 steals and 14 turnovers.
"We found the way to come back to the game and then we played our game, but [we had] a lot of turnovers, we had 14 turnovers tonight," Efes head coach Ergin Ataman said after the game. "And of course, congratulations to Kazan's defense, they put a lot of aggressiveness on the ball."
Coach Perasovic has guided teams to the EuroLeague Final Four before and he knows how difficult that can be. Fan support can be a real difference-maker, which explains why he saluted the UNICS faithful after Thursday's game.
"The fans were very good today. I think that, with our victories, more fans are coming. I hope they support us every day like they did today," Perasovic said. "A lot of players were feeling bad, or had some physical problems, but today, everybody put his heart on the court and I really need to congratulate them."
UNICS came a long way in 2021. And Perasovic and co. are aiming even higher for 2022.