Thursday, May 06, 2010

2010 Euroleague Final Four: Preview

Also: Euroleague Final Four: Players to Watch

The 2010 Euroleague Final Four looks much the same as the 2009 version with three of last year's semifinalists back for more. Not surprising European powerhouses CSKA Moscow, FC Barcelona and Olympiacos are back at the Final Four. Defending champ Panathinaikos failing to make it to Paris and the boys from Belgrade, Partizan, sliding in to take their place is the surprising part.

Panathinaikos could never get all their key guys healthy at the same time and failed to even make it out of the Top 16 round. While not much was expected out of Partizan at the start of season, they just kept sneaking out win after win. Will see if Partizan can pull off two more upsets this weekend, which would cap an improbable season.

On Friday, the first semifinal tips off at 12pm est with CKSA vs. Barcelona. Partizan vs. Olympiacos follows at 3pm est. Both games can be viewed live or on replay at ESPN3. The final is scheduled for 3pm est on Sunday (May 9th) which can also be viewed at ESPN3.

Semifinal #1: CSKA vs. Barcelona (Fri., 12 pm EST)
These two teams met in the semis last year, where CSKA pulled out a 82-78 win. Much like last year, you have a contrast in styles between the two teams--Barca likes to push the pace while CSKA wants a more controlled atmosphere on both ends of the floor. Both teams spread the floor very well and are tough on the defensive end. Should be a great game between two closely matched teams.

CSKA MOSCOW: 8th-straight Final Four appearance for the Russian superpower. Terrific shooting team once again this year--55% on 2pts., 41% on 3pts.. Fairly methodical unit on the offensive end with disciplined spacing. Remain a stout defensive unit even without the guidance of Ettore Messina.

Have been led by reliable Euro vets R. Siskauskas, T. Langdon & V. Khryapa. 6-6 SF Ramunas Siskauskas has had one of the finest all-around seasons in Euroleague, averaging 13 ppg on 56%, 4 rpg, 3 apg & 1.3 spg. The Lithuanian wing handles playmaking duties, rebounds, shoots from deep, and provides stout defense.

Trajan Langdon remains CSKA's primary offensive option, leading the team with 14 ppg. Main objective of the CSKA offense is to spring Langdon free off screens. Langdon sometimes will move into high p/r coming off down screens. Langdon (47% on 3pts.) and Siskausas (55.7% on 3pts.) have been deadly from the perimeter this year.

Major difference between this year's Final 4 squad and last year's team: back-to-basket scoring. Last year, CSKA could turn to E. Lorbek and Matjaz Smodis, two of the craftiest post-scorers in Europe. Lorbek will be on the other side on Friday, while Smodis is trying to work his way back after missing most of the season. Not sure how much of an impact Smodis will have, just recently returning from injury. Smodis has only played the last three games in Russian league play after basically not playing a competitive game since last year's semi.

If it wasn't for Siskauskas, the MVP of this team would be combo forward Vik Khryapa. Vik has been an all-around menace this season and possibly the finest defender in Europe not named Diamantidis. Once again, Vik fills out the stat sheet like a poor man's AK47--10 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 4.2 apg, 2 spg, 1 bpg. Vik has even been consistent with his shooting (43% on 3pts.). Vik's only negative has been his 3 TOs per game.

Euro vet JR Holden can still score some (10.4 ppg), though his shooting is erratic. Zoran Planinic will handle a chunk of the ball-handling duties and works well with Sasha Kahn in screen/roll action. Anton Ponkrashov is not a danger to hit jumpers, but gives CSKA another big PG with sharp passing skills.

Fairly athletic frontline that provides solid defensive support. Sasha Kaun has been quality all season, 9.4 ppg on 73% & 4.5 rpg in 21 mins. Pops Mensah-Bonsu is good for a some boards, blocks and dunks. Kaun is effective rolling to the basket. Reserve forward Andrey Vorontsevich could see limited burn and is a young athlete to watch with possible NBA potential.

For what it's worth, CSKA has lost its last two games in Russian Super League play. CSKA is 2-2 in Russia since the Euro quarters. Very intriguing matchups in this game. Langdon vs. Navarro--two of the best 2-guards in Europe, both run off a ton of screens. Siskauskas vs. Mickeal--one of the top offensive playmakers against a talented defender. Planinic vs. Rubio--will see if Planinic takes Ricky down in the post.

FC BARCELONA:
Barcelona has been the most dominant team in Euroleague play rolling thru to a 18-2 record with an absurd +14.7 point differential. Knocked off a very good Real Madrid in 3-1 in the quarters to get to Paris.

Another team that really spreads the minutes (maybe too much) and touches around. Like to play uptempo which definitely accentuates Rubio's talents. Spread the floor well and will keep the middle floor open often.

Barca has looked superb on both ends of the floor--great at every facet of the game. This team has a lot of raw talent who have subjugated their egos and accepted roles to form a scary, cohesive unit.

Juan Navarro has had another All-Euroleague season, leading Barca in scoring with 14 ppg. Primary option for Barca who's run off screens all over the floor, especially baseline screens so he can curl into his patented floaters. Will be put in ball screens as well.

Ricky Rubio's season has been a little bit of a mixed bag. Rubio shined in the first 10 games of Euroleague play, but his play has slipped a bit in the last 10 games. Ricky has not really shot the ball well all year, but then he really does not really look for his shot all that much. Hopefully, we'll see Rubio get more than his usual 20 mins. per game this weekend.

Vet combo guard Jaka Lakovic has played well in limited minutes, often picking up the slack when Rubio is off his game. Lakovic is very effective pulling up off of screens and tends to be streaky. Terrence Morris has quietly had an extremely efficient season, averaging 7.3 ppg on 60% shooting in 20 mpg. Morris provides Barcelona with a four-spreader (our term for stretch-four) who also adds some boards and blocks.

Barcelona relies on Erazem Lorbek as its frontcourt focal point. His 8.8 ppg and 4.3 rpg may look rather pedestrian, but understand, this cat can ball. He can put defenders in the blender with an endless array of post moves (watch out for the spins) and draw bigs to perimeter where he can shoot with range, pass or even drive the ball. The only thing holding him back from NBA riches is a lack of athleticism.

Fran Vazquez has been highly productive (7.3 ppg on 66%, 3.4 rpg, 1 bpg) in only 17 mins. of floor time per game. Fran does damage rolling off high screens and can occasionally hit a high-post jumper. Fran's combo of long arms & mobility make him an effective rebounder & a terrific defensive presence (6th-best shotblocker in Euroleague). 7-footer Boniface Ndong also causes problems with his length and mobility, but his bad hands limit his game.

SF Pete Mickeal's athleticism makes him a great rebounder and defender at the 3-spot. Pete has even added a reliable jumper to his repertoire this season--45% from 3pt. Will see if Mickeal's defensive prowess can throw Siskauskas off his game.

My partner mentioned this in an earlier post, but it would seem wise for Coach Xavi Pascual to tighten up his rotation, especially in the backcourt. Role players G. Basile, V. Sada and R. Grimau combine to average 43 mpg. Basile is not the player he once was, and he's taking minutes away from Lakovic. Also, Rubio is only getting 20 mpg. Need to redistribute a chunk of those 43 minutes to Navarro, Rubio and Lakovic for the semis.

Semifinal #2: Olympiacos vs. Partizan (Fri., 3pm EST)
Olympiacos' season ended in the semis last year, but this year they're a heavy fave over Partizan. Partizan is the clear underdog in the Final Four field. Partizan has played way above their station all season. Partizan just does not have the depth of the other Final 4 teams. These two teams split in first round play, Partizan winning at home by six and Olympiacos cruising to a 81-60 win at home. Though, Maric was absent with a mid-season injury for the 21-point loss in Greece.

OLYMPIACOS (Greece): Repeat trip to the Final 4 after being edged by rival PAO 84-82 in last year's semis. 16-4 in Euroleague play and beat Asseco Prokom (Poland) 3-1 in the quarterfinals to get to this stage.

Sickly efficient from the floor in Euroleague play so far--60% from 2pt. range, 38% from 3pt. Multitude of options at the disposal of Coach Giannakis. They can come at the opponent with so much firepower and lose nothing when they go to the bench.

Linas Kleiza and Josh Childress have been the most potent forward combination besides Khryapa/Siskauskas in the Euroleague. Kleiza has had himself an MVP-caliber season leading the Euroleague in scoring (17.3 ppg) and 3rd in rebounding (6.4). Childress has pitched in 15 ppg (6th-best in Euro), 4.7 rpg and sharp defensive pressure. Though, Childress' shooting has cooled down after a hot start.

After a breakout performance at Eurobasket, PG Milos Teodosic has not slowed down, and established himself as one of the top guards in the Euroleague. In Oly's 20 Euro games, Milos has averaged 13.3 ppg, 5.2 apg (2nd in Euro) and 1.7 spg. The quick-triggered Milos has buried 41 of his 95 3pt. attempts this season, Very adept running the pick/roll finding teammates or pulling up.

When Teodosic needs a breather, Olympiacos has the luxury of handing the ball to Theo Papaloukas. Theo continues to be one of the top playmakers in Europe, averaging 5 apg (3rd-best in Euro). Theo has also been knocking down his outside looks (39%), usually not a strength.

Kind of nutty that Giannis Bourousis, one of the top NBA prospects in Europe, only averages 16 mins. a game and puts up 8.7 ppg & 4.7 rpg in those limited minutes. The 7-footer can score with hooks or by facing up, not to mention his rebounding talent. Sofo Schortsanitis gives Oly another highly efficient beast on the blocks. Sofo got himself in shape last summer, which has paid off with him averaging 7 ppg on 66% in only 12 mins per. Not understanding his own girth does get him in foul trouble, but he also draws fouls aplenty.

Nikola Vujcic is a crafty center who is an effective passer at the high post and can score some off of rolls and hook shots. Combo guard Yotam Halperin brings sharpshooting, while reserve PG Scoonie Penn just brings sheer Scoonie-ness. SF P. Vasilopoulos is an adequate shooter who's on the floor to provide physical defense.

Just can't see this team being upended by Partizan. Olympiacos is a team that can lose focus in the reg. season and be upset by lesser foes. But have to imagine this roster will be tuned in for 40 mins. with a possible Euroleague title just two wins away.

PARTIZAN BELGRADE: Was suppose to be a rebuilding year in Belgrade with the loss of M. Tepic and N. Velickovic. But Coach Vujosevic has done the finest job in Europe getting Partizan to this point.

Have been led by 6-11 Aleks Maric, who's having a breakout year averaging 14.4 ppg on 62% & 8.6 rpg. Maric is not shy about using his thick frame to draw fouls posting up before he receives the ball (draws 7 fouls per).

Former Miss State standout Lawrence Roberts joins Maric upfront to help pound the glass--Maric is the #1 rebounder in Euroleague, Roberts (7.4 rpg) is # 2. The rest of Roberts' game has been shaky this year--shooting 32% and coughing up possessions (3 TOpg).

The massive 7-6 Slavko Vranes can be an interior presence in limited minutes simply because of his size. Slavko can't move well, but is a defensive deterrent in the vein of Yao Ming--2nd in the Euroleague in blocks (1.5) in only 18 mins. per.

Lottery propect Jan Vesely's combo of length and athleticism make him a difficult cover at the SF spot. Vesely does not get a ton of plays called for him, but he can finish well and has improved his shooting this year. PG Bo McCalebb (ex-U of New Orleans) is not much of shooter but is very effective breaking down the defense in Partizan's double-high post sets (Bo's 13 ppg are 2nd on team).

The veteran wing Dusan Kecman provides perimeter markmanship and will be run off screens. Guards Alex Rasic and Petar Bozic will look to spot up as well but both have been erratic this season.

Partizan is very strong on the boards thanks to Maric, Roberts, Vesely & Vranes. Good size on the backline helps on the defensive end. But this team is likely to be the weakest shooting team in Paris. Turnovers are another negative for Partizan--almost 17 per game. Have to believe that their surprising run in Euroleague play will finally be derailed by Olympiacos.

Also: Euroleague Final Four: Players to Watch

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