Thursday, May 05, 2011

2011 Euroleague Final Four Preview

The best Final Four in basketball begins on Friday in Barcelona with Greek powerhouse Panathinaikos facing Montepaschi Siena of Italy in the first Euroleague semifinal at 12pm EST. Maccabi Tel Aviv squares off with Real Madrid in the second semi at 3pm EST. Both games can be viewed live or on replay at ESPN3. The final is scheduled for 10:30 am EST on Sunday (May 8th) which can also be viewed at ESPN3.

Not much separates these four squads, and any team is capable of taking home the hardware. All four teams have deep rosters and, in typical European fashion, each coach likes to spread the minutes around.

Suppose Panathinaikos is the slight favorite, but by no means an overwhelming fave. Last time Panathinaikos was at the Final Four, in 2009, they raised the trophy. They won it in '07 as well, so the odd-year pattern works in their favor.

NBA fans should keep their eyes on free-agent prospects like Maccabi's Jeremy Pargo and Siena's Bo McCalebb. Also a handful of players who have their rights held by an NBA team will play key roles this weekend: Real's Sergio Llull (Houston) & Ante Tomic (Utah), Pana's Nick Calathes (Dallas), Maccabi's Lior Eliyahu (Houston) & Sofo Schortsanitis (L.A. Clippers) and Siena's Milovan Rakovic (Orlando). And the only future draft prospect to be concerned with is Real's Nikola Mirotic. Though, Mirotic likely won't be coming over this year as he recently re-signed a long-term deal with Real.

Let's take a deeper look at teams below:

Semfinal #1: Panathinaikos (PAO) vs. Montepaschi Siena
Panathinaikos' hopes of a sixth Euro title could be in some danger because of the health issues for Dimis Diamantidis and Drew Nicholas. This is Siena's fourth Final 4 appearance and they're seeking their first Euro title. Two veteran teams who shoot the ball well and but are both below average on the boards.

Key Players: Dimis Diamantidis; Mike Batiste; Drew Nicholas; Antonis Fotsis
NBA prospects: Nick Calathes (Mavs hold rights); Romain Sato (free agent)

PAO reached the Final Four by defeating the defending champs, Barcelona, 3-1 in a tightly contested quarterfinal series. PAO has done a nice job this season filling the offensive holes left by the departure of Nikola Pekovic and Vassilis Spanoulis.

Dimis Diamantidis is having his best all-around season and will likely be voted Euroleague MVP. Continues to be a defensive force but he's raised his offensive game this year--the most aggressive we've seen him looking for his own shot. Dimis is averaging 12.6 ppg, 6 apg (#1 in EL), 4 rpg, 1.6 spg, 3 TOpg, 53% on 2PA & 38% on 3PA.

Dimis runs the show with a deft understanding of the pick/roll game. Dimis is effective with his back-to-basket and could see him setting up down low plenty if Siena decides to guard him with Bo McCalebb.

Former Maryland standout Drew Nicholas gives this team more offensive firepower on the perimeter. Nicholas is the primary sharpshooter (10 ppg, 42% 3PA), who will be run thru off-ball screens and will even do some ball-handling.

PF Mike Batiste leads PAO with 13 ppg on 58% and does most of his damage rolling off of high p/r. PAO doesn't really have a reliable post scorer anymore with Pekovic in Minnesota. Center Ian Vougiokas can score occassionally with a lefty hook, but his game lacks consistency.

PF Antonio Fotsis has been quietly having a nice season averaging 8 ppg on 53% overall (40% 3PA) & 5 rpg in 23 mins/game. PAO spreads the floor very well with Fotsis at the 4. PAO is shooting 37.5% from behind the arc, 2nd best in Euroleague play.

PG Nick Calathes will also be called upon to handle the ball and he's done a solid job this year. SG Romain Sato has not been quite as productive as expected after terrific campaigns with Siena the last few years. Sato's still a valuable asset who provides defense, rebounding and decent shooting.

Role players like PF Kostas Tsartsaris, combo guard Milenko Tepic and Stratos Perperoglou should also see floor time. Perperoglou is solid role playing SF with a decent shooting stroke and sneaky driving ability. Tsartsaris is a wily vet who can guard multiple positions.

Key Players: Rimantas Kaukenas; Ksystof Lavrinovic; Bo McCalebb
NBA prospects: McCalebb (FA); Malik Hairston (FA); Milovan Rakovic (Magic hold rights)

Might consider Siena the surprise Final Four entry after their somewhat surprising dispatching of Olympiacos in the quarters. Shook off a 48-point drubbing in Game 1 to take the series 3-1.

Rimantas Kaukenas, Ksystof Lavrinovic and Bo McCalebb are all averaging roughly 12 ppg. Kaukenas is having a bounce-back year after struggling with injuries. The 6-5 Lithuanian is only shooting 32% from 3pt. range this season but he's a proven sharpshooter over his career.

Nikos Zisis, Marko Jaric, Kaukenas and McCalebb will share ball-handling responsibilities. Jaric was a savvy mid-season pickup for Siena and he gave the Tuscans valuable minutes in the quarterfinals. Jaric could be important in the semis since he might be the best matchup vs. Diamantidis.

Zisis and Kaukenas are very aggressive looking for their shot coming off of ball screens--both are capable pull-up shooters. Kaukenas is very crafty winding his way to rim going left or right. While McCalebb is an erratic shooter, he's terrific at attacking the paint. McCaleeb is still working his way back from a mid-season toe injury and did not have much impact in the quarterfinals.

Siena's likes to run plenty of pick/roll, which is wise since they don't have much in the way of post scoring. The bigs are constantly looking to set ball screens and will often see multiple ball screens on the same possession.

Main weakness is the lack of size which definitely plays into their poor rebounding ability. Lavrinovic and Rakovic are the only key contributors over 6-8.

The good news for Siena--PAO is not particularly good on the glass either. Also, PAO doesn't really possess a dominant post scorer.

6-11 K. Lavrinovic is having another superb Euroleague campaign. The mobile Lithuanian prefers to face-up and gives Siena a nice pick/pop option.

6-10 bruiser Milovan Rakovic is productive in his 16 mins. per game of floor time (8 ppg on 58% & 3.5 rpg). Not really effective as a post scorer, but his mobility allows him to finish on rolls and attack the off. glass.

Think of veteran forward Shaun Stonerook (Ohio St. alum) as a smaller version of Andy Varejao. He's a high-energy, all-purpose defender who gets boards and steals, Not to mention, favors the same Sideshow Bob follicle styling.

SF David Moss (7.5 ppg on 49%, 43% on 3pts.) gives Siena another reliable shooter on the wings. Former Oregon Duck Malik Hairston (8.6 ppg on 51%) is probably their best post-up option.

Siena is not quite as potent creating turnovers as in the past, but they still led the Euroleague in steals. Overall, a solid jumpshooting team.


Semifinal #2: Maccabi Tel Aviv vs. Real Madrid

Should be a competitive game between two closely-matched teams. Both teams move the ball very well and are strong on the boards. Where they differ is connecting on shots--Maccabi's 49% FG pct. led the league while Real only managed to shoot 43.6%. Though, Maccabi was dead last in FT shooting (66%) while Real was the 2nd best FT shooting team (78.7%).

Key players: Jeremy Pargo; Sofo Schortsantis; Chuck Eidson; Lior Eliyahu
NBA Prospects: Pargo (FA); Sofo (Clips hold rights); Eliyahu (Rockets hold rights); Richard Hendrix (FA)

David Blatt's teams usually are successful because of their stout defensive principles. This year's Maccabi squad is no slouch on defense, but also compounds their opponent's pain with arguably the best offensive unit in Euroleague play. Lead the league in points (82 ppg) and shooting percentage (49%).

Though, Maccabi was dealt a blow in the quarters when Doron Perkins went down with a knee injury in Game 3. Perkins was having a quality season and he combined with Pargo to give Maccabi the most explosive backcourt in the Euroleague.

Led by former Gonzaga star Jeremy Pargo, who was one of the top Euroleague players this season. Pargo averaged 13 ppg on 47%, 4 apg, 3.5 rpg & 1 steal per in 29 mins per game.

Pargo might be the toughest guard to contain in Europe and is constantly getting into the lane. Pargo is the primary ball-handler, who doesn't need screens to get by his defender and Blatt will often let Pargo isolate. Pargo has been also knocking down his perimeter shots--38% on 3PA--to compliment his slashing ability

Big Sofo Schortsanitis is the second option and might be having his finest season. Once again, Sofo has been highly productive in limited minutes, averaging 12.3 ppg on 59% in 20 mins per. The colossal Greek carves out post position like no other player on Earth. And he just doesn't bull his way to rim--his nimble footwork is vastly underrated. He still has issues with offensive fouls, but he neutralizes this by drawing fouls and double-teams constantly.

No surprise Maccabi relies on Blatt's Princeton-influenced sets. The guards like to initiate the offense up high with bigs in the high post area. The bigs will look to make passes out of the high post. Dribble handoffs, backpicks for guards on perimeter, cutting are all staples of the offense. Also, when Sofo ain't posting, Maccabi likes to keep the basket area open. Not averse at getting out in transition.

Forward Lior Eliyahu's combo of athleticism and activity has been a great asset this season--averaging 11 ppg on 62% & 4 rpg in 22 mins per. Lior's not a perimeter shooting threat but is a strong finisher 10 feet & in thanks to his array of unorthodox runners/flip shots a la Antwan Jamison. Eliyahu mostly does damage cutting/rolling to open spots, though he will also drive the ball on occassion.

Not many American fans are likely familar with the name Chuck Eidson, but he has been one of the better all-around players in Europe over the last few years. The former S. Carolina Gamecock is a versatile combo guard with sneaky athleticism, who will help Pargo handle the ball. Eidson is probably more dangerous shooting off the dribble than when he has his feet set. Eidson's averaging 9 ppg, 4 rpg, 4 apg & 2.6 steals per.

David Blu (formerly Bluthenthal) and Guy Pnini add capable shooting on the wings--both shooting at least 50% on 2pts. & over 40% on 3pts. 6-9 Milan Macvan and 6-8 Richard Hendrix give Blatt quality bigs off the bench. Macvan is limited physically but makes up for it with terrific fundamentals--crafty post game. Former Alabama star Hendrix is highly effective in limited minutes (6 ppg on 58% & 5 rpg in 14 mins) thanks to athleticism--dangerous on the offensive glass.

Expect to see some of Blatt's patented off-kilter zone looks in the semifinal, especially vs. a shaky shooting Real squad. Likely see some matchup zone where defenders often follow their man out of their zone.

Key Players: Sergio Llull; Pablo Prigioni; Ante Tomic; Felipe Reyes; Nikola Mirotic
NBA prospects: Mirotic (draft); Llull (Rockets hold rights); Tomic (Jazz hold rights)

Not sure Real Madrid was expected to be in Barcelona after coaching change mid-season from the legendary Ettore Messina to Emanuele Molin, but Real regrouped and outlasted Spanish rival Valencia in the quarters to reach the Final 4.

Very deep roster that goes 10-11 deep and loses very little when calling upon its reserves. Ball movement is very crisp, they swing the ball swiftly and pass out of doubles well. The offense features a ton of off-ball screening.

Combo guard Sergio Llull leads Real in scoring with 11.5 ppg and has been one of the top Euroleague players this season. Llull punishes opponents with his speed either in the half-court or transition. Llull has seen more time running the offense this season and he does not always need screens to get by his defender.

Llull gets help running the offense from one of the best pure point guards in the world, Pablo Prigioni. Pablo's assist numbers (3.3 apg) aren't quite as gaudy as in the past, but he still sees the floor as well as any guard in Europe and rarely makes mistakes.

Former NBAer Sergio Rodriguez gives Real another potent playmaker. Sergio missed the quarterfinal series with a thigh injury but he seems to be back on the mend after scoring in double-digits in Real's last three ACB games. Sergio has been productive this season averaging 7 ppg & 3.3 apg in 19 mins a game.

Post-up action is a big component of the Real attack. They like to feed 7-2 Ante Tomic early in the game to get him going. Tomic (10 ppg on 50%, 5 rpg in 20 mins) is comfortable on either block and can punish the defense with a variety of post moves (can hit hooks with either hand). Tomic has a feathery touch and likes to finish off of rolls/cuts with a floater. But he can be taken out of his game if you get physical with him and his lack of strength gets him in foul trouble.

Veteran PF Felipe Reyes (8.4 ppg & 5.2 rpg) gets his fair share of post touches as well and his footwork is tight as well. Reyes is kind of the opposite of Tomic, as he revels in the physical side of the game.

The Real bigs are all capable mid-range shooters and often will squirt out from in the interior while the ball-handler is in motion. The bigs move to the open spots well, especially Tomic. Former West Va. Mountaineer D'or Fisher is a quality frontcourt reserve who is productive in his 18 mins on the floor--6.5 ppg on 58%, 6 rpg, 1.5 bpg (#2 in EL).

Real is very dangerous on the offensive glass--Reyes, Fisher & Tomic all average over 2 off. boards a game.

NBA first-round prospect Nikola Mirotic usually comes off the bench to play 14-15 mins a game. His numbers are impressive for a 20 year-old--7 ppg, 3 rpg, 57.6 on 2PA, 44% on 3PA. Real will sometimes call a post-up or iso for Mirotic but his main job is to spot-up.

Mirotic has forced combo forward Novica Velickovic out of the rotation. Last year, Real would run a fair amount of offense through the multi-dimensional Velickovic, but he's basically an afterthought on this year's team. Though don't be surprised if he provides valuable minutes for Real this weekend.

SG Clay Tucker (9.3 ppg) is another capable scorer on the wing who can rub off of screens or hit quick dribble pull-ups. Carlos "Southbound" Suarez will likely start at SF and provide rebounding & spot shooting.

Real's overall shooting numbers are not very strong--43.6% from the field. And they struggled from beyond the arc in Euroleague play--32.6%. Though, Real is shooting 37% from 3pt. range in ACB play. Llull is only hitting 34.5% on his 3PA in Euroleague play, but is currently shooting his 3pts. at a 40% clip in ACB play. Like Llull, Tucker and Suarez both shot the ball poorly in Euroleague play but are shooting better in ACB play.


In the first semi, going to pick PAO. But If Diamantidis can't go, give the edge to Siena. Love the way Diamantidis is playing this year and not sure Siena can match up with him unless Jaric plays like he did ten years ago. PAO was great at drawing fouls while Siena tends to foul quite a bit. Still have concerns about Siena's shallow frontcourt rotation. Then again, they were able to get past an Olympiacos team that featured Ioannis Bourousis and Rasho Nesterovic.

Have to pick Maccabi in the other semi because of their strength on both ends of the floor. Think Maccabi's zone could be effective vs. a shaky shooting Real team. Also, think Maccabi can neutralize Real's rebounding prowess. And Maccabi has the ultimate tiebreaker in Coach Blatt on sidelines, a master tactician.


At 3:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Correct predictive,so let's watch great final today!

At 11:49 PM, Anonymous Emili Paz said...

The excitement brought about by the individual talents at the Euroleague Final Four is indeed one of the most awaited aspects of the game, especially for fans who really wanted to indulge in the excitement offered by pure quality basketball action. This is one reason why fans fight hard in order to obtain tickets to the games.

At 3:59 AM, Anonymous said...

Pretty worthwhile info, thank you for the article.

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