And this week … the Euroleague Final Four! To get things started, BallinEurope presents a roundup of highlight clips from the seasons-that-were of CSKA Moscow, FC Barcelona, Panathinaikos and Olympiacos.
(Wow, BiE wonders every time upon looking at that list just how the big league could have ended up with a more scintillating Final Four: You’ve got undisputed powerhouses in CSKA Moscow – the model example of how NBA refugees affected European basketball in 2011-12 – and FC Barcelona. You’ve got the defending champions with Hall of Fame coach and a nucleus of veterans on yet another title run. And you’ve got a compelling underdog story complete with the possibility of seeing the legendary Greek rivals meeting for a medal … couldn’t have written it better myself.)
First up, the favorites, namely, the big bad Red Army, 2011-12 edition. While Mikhail Prokhorov’s lot has been credited for the team’s relative resurgence at the beginning of the 2000s, CSKA Moscow has admirably continued its winning tradition after the billionaire’s jump to the New Jersey-cum-Brooklyn Nets – mostly through using the big-bucks tactics espoused by Prokhorov et al – and are poised to take a unique triple crown. Indeed, should CSKA prevail in the EL Final Four games and against BC Khimki for the Russian crown, the team will have amassed VTB, EL and PBL crowns in under two weeks of play.
After failing to qualify for the EL semifinals in 2010-11, ownership went out and spent freely on the free-agent market: Investments in Nenad Krstic, Milos Teodosic, Darjus Lavrinovic and of course Andrei Kirilenko allowed CSKA to suit up a virtual European all-star team most nights on the way to a 53-4 cumulative record thus far.
CSKA brings a complete game on both sides of the floor, but the folks at EL like to ascribe the team’s success specifically to execution in the half-court offense, a particular strength with Teodosic the playmaker and so much size to clean up the glass.
The most exciting game of CSKA’s monster season? It’s gotta be the regular-season 78-76 overtime victory against their semifinals opponent Panathinaikos…
And speaking of the defending champions, the Greens enter the EL Final Four as six-point underdog in the semis and a 4/1 longish-shot at the sportsbook to take the tourney. It’s something of a shame the Greek side won’t get the opportunity to defend their 2011 Euroleague crown against this season’s best team in the finals, but CSKA can’t afford to overlook these guys.
For PAO, it’s all about the tight nucleus that’s already helped the team to three EL titles in the previous five seasons. Dimitris Diamantidis and Mike Batiste have three green-colored rings – and the former enjoyed yet another MVP-level season – while Romain Sato, Nick Calathes and Aleks Maric (among others) contributed to last year’s Euroleague title. And as though Panathinaikos didn’t have enough experience heading into the 2011-12 season, the Greens went out and scored one of Europe’s greatest playoff performers of all-time in Sarunas Jasikevicius: based on clutch time, a truly key free-agent signing in the off-season.
Of course, European basketball followers will tell you that the real key to a Panathinaikos upset may be just down the bench from Saras – namely, Zeljko Obradovic. This mastermind has gone 203-81 (a winning percentage of .747) in 13 Euroleague/Suproleague regular seasons with PAO, not to mention eight Euroleague championships with four different teams including five with Panathinaikos.
In short, nobody knows as much about winning big games in Europe as Obradovic – unless, of course, it’s Jasikevicius…
On the other side of the bracket is FC Barcelona. While the Blaugrana’s appearance in another EL Final Four isn’t exactly a shocker, most intriguing is the way that former Barça wunderkind Ricky Rubio managed to improve two teams in 2011-12. Rubio worshippers like yours truly were a bit dismayed after La Pistola’s relatively lackluster 2010-11 campaign; Xavi Pascual’s more open-court style (as opposed to a half-court game in which Rubio can more effectively employ that tremendous court vision) made Ricky something of a square peg – a square peg with reduced playing time.
But Rubio’s departure not only energized the Minnesota Timberwolves for a couple months – and a bit cruelly giving fans hope – but paved the way for the signing of Team Brazil’s Marcelinho Huertas. All Huertas did in (literally) running the Barcelona offense was finish fourth in the Euroleague in assists; lately, he was good enough for second overall in the Euroleague playoffs in assists and assist-to-turnover ratio.
Meanwhile, Erazem Lorbek contributed an all-Euroleague-level season, Pete Mickeal reaffirmed his presence as one of the association’s top defenders and Juan Carlos Navarro was once again, well, Juan Carlos Navarro. The end result? An 18-1 mark in Euroleague play and 47-6 (a whopping .887 winning percentage) in all games … and these guys are the second-favorites?
Finally, the dark horse. In what might have been a rebuilding year after financially blowing up the team, Olympiacos somehow landed in the EL Final Four following a season of fits and starts. Twice on the brink of elimination and a serious underdog against the super-speedy Montepaschi Siena in the 2012 quarterfinal round, the Reds woke up at key points throughout the season, doing just enough to against SLUC Nancy and Galatasaray in must-win games before demonstrating their true colors against Siena in April. “Against all odds” indeed…
While it would be patently unfairly to label Olympiacos a one-man team – particularly with such an impressive relief corps featuring Georgios Printezis and Pero Antic off the bench – it’s clear that everything depends on Vassilis Spanoulis. In an MVP-level season, Spanoulis directed the Final Four’s youngest side (average age about 24½ years on the full roster) to the tune of 16.5 points and 3.9 assists per game and a 16.4 performance index rating.
In a Euroleague season unquestionably driven by the point guard, Spanoulis was the rare two guard that led his team in 2011-12 and is playing at a level high enough to give the likes of Navarro a true challenge in this one-on-one matchup.