In just three days we went from huge disappointment to near ecstasy.
The semifinals brought us the phantom of the mid-nineties Euro ball that used to include speculative offenses, extremely defensive-oriented squads and ridiculously low scores. Its a game plan that made sense for the weak Unicaja in order to try and overcome the big talent-differential they suffered compared to CSKA. Not that much to Tau, an offensive-oriented squad that seemed too conservative and mentally pressured against Panathinaikos when it came to looking for the basket. What Tiago Splitter told us following the game seems to perfectly confirm that.
It was interesting to see the great contrast exhibited by Taus coach Boza Maljkovic and Panathinakos Zeljko Obradovic in the press room right after the semifinal. After Tau only managed to score 53 points in the entire game, Maljkovic started his evaluation of the game stressing his teams defensive mistakes, and paid little attention to the offensive blackout they suffered, when actually it was their nice defense that kept Tau in the game until the last minutes (although never putting Panathinaikos victory in danger).
Boza landed in Tau just a couple of months ago, right when the team was delivering its best offensive shows, to provide the experience and defensive mentality supposedly required to win the Euroleague title. But it seems to have worked against Taus interests, as he hasnt been able to properly use that offensive power. Its a sort of defensive paranoia, still alive in many coaching minds, that often hurts the quality of the game. For example, Maljkovic kept Fred House 25 minutes in the game while going 0/11 from the field, just for defensive purposes.
Lets just remember that it was precisely Maljkovic who ignited that low-scoring era in the nineties when he led Limoges all the way to a Euroleague title over much more talented squads (Sabonis Real Madrid and Kukocs Benetton Treviso), using fierce defenses and very slow-paced game rhythm. It seems he still hasnt been able to adapt his coaching style to a team like Tau, that usually lives off its offense.
Meanwhile Obradovic, after coming away with a clear victory, only focused on his teams offensive struggles. His players were feeling too responsible, hesitating when it came to take decisions, playing too conservative which led them to commit too many mistakes. The game plan for the final (as he accurately told the press) was to lose the fear to a defeat, to stay aggressive in the offensive end and not pass up on scoring opportunities.
Said and done; Panathinaikos joined CSKA to bless us with a memorable Euroleague Final, proving that good defenses (the best ones in the Old Continent) are not always incompatible with fluid and high-scoring offenses when theres good enough basketball talent around. Throw in the passion, tension and the unbelievable atmosphere, and this was Euroleague basketball almost at its finest, truly an exhibition anybody in love with this sport should not miss, wherever they are from.
And I really mean WOW. I could say it again and again, actually just what happened on Sunday. PA-PA-LOU-KAS, thats the man. No matter how many times you have seen this guy stepping up to run a show in big games, you can never get enough. He was truly the best player on the floor in the final, single-handedly keeping CSKA in the game with his ability to play the pick-and-roll, find the open man, get all the way to the hoop and post up his opponents, always showing the decision making of a privileged basketball mind and the character of a winner.
Apparently, he wants to try the NBA badly (he has reportedly even switched agents as the previous one failed to get him there), and chances are he will get it done this summer. Lets hope that any team signing him never comes across the bright idea of playing him on the wing off the ball (Jasikevicius, please come back!). One final thought: I wonder if coach K was watching the show
THE OTHER MVP
(And I dont mean Papaloukas).
In these kind of events, where the media is asked to vote for an award, the ballots are distributed before the game is finished, so theres enough time to count the results and hand the trophy off right after the game is finished. This time, the process was started very early in the fourth quarter, when Dimitris Diamantidis had no possible opposition had Panathinaikos won the event. However, the Greek point guard sat out for most of the last period. Instead, Ramunas Siskauskas took over to complete a superb performance that would have surely thrown many votes his way once the game was completed, perhaps even changing the final result. Still, Diamantidis seems to me like the most accurate choice given the huge impact he had on the game at both sides of the court everytime he was in.
Anyway, its funny how Siskauskas had a reputation of loser, a choker in big games, which is completely erased now. On the contrary, he was already the MVP in the Italian Finals last year. Indeed its often unfair to so easily label a player; actually, its pretty usual that a well-known winner has a losing past (Dejan Bodiroga anyone?). Anyway, we have in Siskauskas an NBA-caliber player; in the words of Messina, the best wing player in Europe right now.
WELCOME BACK, MILOS VUJANIC
After consecutive knee injuries, finally the Serbian point guard, whose rights belong to the Phoenix Suns, is playing again this year. Still not in his best shape, while suffering on defense against big point guards such as Papaloukas and Planinic, he was effective for Panathinaikos on the offensive end with some big shots and aggressiveness slashing towards the basket. This is great news for European basketball, as you can never have enough players as talented as Milos.
One of the best basketball experiences anyone can enjoy is to attend a game in an arena packed with hardcore Greek fans. The volume, aggressiveness, repertoire and coordination in their chants leave you with goosebumps whenever they reach full strength.
The dark side of this amazing spectacle includes no respect for the opponents and violent behaviour. Actually Papaloukas, who was gifted with some of the worst words you can possibly imagine dedicated to him and his family, had a brawl with a Greek fan who went after him in the mixed area. The post-game celebration, in Omonia square, had to be dissolved by the police with tear gas when the fans started burning things.
Where does basketball lie in the European media landscape? The dominance of soccer and the global approach of the NBA leave a tough environment for European basketball to draw big interest from the media around the continent.
Spain was a sad example in this years Final Four. Keep in mind that were talking about the current world basketball champions, that also enjoys the best league in Europe, with by far the highest game attendances, and had placed two teams in the Euroleague Final Four with Unicaja and Tau. The TV rights for the Final Four were held by the national public television, TVE. Depending on the interest of a sport event, its shown on La Primera, La2 (both with full and free exposure in the whole nation) or Teledeporte, a sports channel only available through cable and digital TV, therefore with a highly reduced number of potential viewers.
Only the semifinal featuring CSKA and Unicaja was aired in La2, while Taus game was showed by Teledeporte. Things got even worse in the Final: without any Spanish teams taking part, not only was the game relegated to Teledeporte, but it also started late, as Soccers Dutch Cup was given priority over the seasons most important basketball game.
Yeah, thats a painful example concerning how highly European basketball is valued in its homeland.