Friday, March 23, 2012

The Road to Istanbul

It’s been a long time since I’ve updated this blog, too long! However, I’m back now and excited to give you my thoughts and analysis on all the major events in the sports world as well as providing reviews on sports books, TV shows, movies and video games. I thought a fitting way to return to blogging would be to show my appreciation of the vast world of sports and in doing so, I am here today to talk about Euroleague basketball and in particular, Game Two of the Quarterfinal series between Spanish powerhouse FC Barcelona Regal and Russian newcomers UNICS Kazan.

Around this time of year, the sporting world’s attention is focused on who will be advancing to the Final Four of the NCAA basketball tournament. However, there is another Final Four in men’s basketball, which receives much less media attention and worldwide interest, and that is the Euroleague Final Four, which will be hosted in Istanbul, Turkey in the coming months. This somewhat low-key sporting event on the worldwide radar is essentially basketball at its purest. The energy and passion of the fans is unmatched in basketball, at the collegiate or pro level. You think the Cameron Crazies at Duke are rowdy? They are nothing in comparison to the fans over here in Europe, particularly in Eastern Europe. Just take a look at this YouTube video!

Onto the game I was fortunate enough to have watched, Thursday’s quarterfinal game at the Palau Blaugrana arena in Barcelona. Normally when you think of Barcelona, you have images in your head of Lionel Messi making opponents look stupid at the Camp Nou and rightly so, in my opinion, he is the best player to ever grace a football pitch and is playing with one of the greatest club sides of all time. Be that as it may, there is also a strong basketball tradition in Catalonian roots. If you have any interest in the NBA, you have surely heard of the Gasol brothers, Pau and Marc, or maybe the Timberwolves point guard Rick Rubio has dazzled you with his skillful passing. They all played for FC Barcelona Regal, a team that has won two Euroleague Championships. In the quarterfinals of this year’s Euroleague playoffs, they are facing off against UNICS Kazan from Kazan, Russia. You may remember UNICS from a book I reviewed, ‘Can I Keep My Jersey?’, by Paul Shirley who had a brief 9-game stint with the team.

It was the first Euroleague game I had watched all season but I quickly realized that it was a battle of opposing gameplans and styles. Barcelona is a team that looks to compete in a shootout; they want quick possessions and easy points on fast breaks. UNICS, on the other hand, is a team that likes to control the tempo and play a half court game, which emphasizes efficiency in making the most of every possession. Barcelona shot out of the gates and went on an 11-2 run to start the game as UNICS couldn’t get anything going. Their offense was stagnant and had poor motion. However, despite being an up-and-coming team, they still have good leadership and experience, which showed as they stuck to the gameplan and showed great patience in doing so. They gradually began to give Australian center Nathan Jawai the ball in the low post as they spread the floor and let him go to work. In spite of sitting out the entire 2nd Quarter, Jawai led all scorers with 21 points and added 10 rebounds in a dominant performance. The 6 ft 10, 280lb specimen was fascinating to watch and subsequently, fascinating to learn about. Jawai is an Indigenous Australian grew up playing rugby league and although he isn’t fundamentally sound, he has a terrific motor and is he work ethic shows on the boards where he was able to collect 6 offensive rebounds. Unfortunately, the “Outback Shaq” had trouble holding onto the ball and his five turnovers really proved costly. He said after the game,
Nathan Jawai
"We made a lot of turnovers. Myself, at the end in the last couple of minutes. It was the chance to get this win on the road. We have another game coming up and we cannot worry about this loss anymore. We will go home, try to get better and get some rest to come out and fight in Game 3. It was a close game, we just didn't take care of the ball. If we had done that, I believe it would have been a different outcome."
He was not the only player for the Russian side to impress. Slovenian forward ‪BoĊĦtjan Nachbar had a great performance, coming in off the bench to score 16 points, most of which came from his deadly stepback jumper. He did this after scoring 0 points in a 78-66 Game One loss to the defending Liga ACB champions.

The game remained close throughout but Barcelona always seemed in control and UNICS rarely took the lead. Nonetheless with a minute and a half remaining, UNICS tied the game at 61-61 after a Jawai layup. UNICS had a chance to take the lead with under a minute left but they forced a pass to Jawai in the paint which resulted in a turnover and Barcelona scoring two free throws on the ensuing possession. Another Kazan turnover later, and Barca had the ball with two seconds separating the game clock and the play clock. This is when the poor clock management began. UNICS would wait until 8 seconds left in the game to finally foul. Huertas would prove not to be clutch for Barcelona by making just one free throw, thus it was a 3-point game. Not surprisingly, Barcelona sent Kazan to the free throw line where American Henry Domercant, the 4th leading scorer, would score his first points of the game, connecting on both shots from the charity stripe. Barcelona’s Pete Mikael, who turned in an MVP performance with 12 points, 4 rebounds, 4 steals and 3 assists, made both his attempts and once again it was a 3-point game but with just 4 seconds remaining. Then the poor end of game execution continued as Domercant received the inbounds pass far too deep in his own territory and was only able to throw up a half court prayer which wasn’t answered by the powers above. The final score showed Barcelona winning 66-63. I guess you could say it was an anti-climatic ending to a cracking game of basketball

Juan Carlos Navarro, the leading points scorer in Euroleague history, led the Catalonians with 18 points. He is the heart and soul of this team and it was clear as he was the go to guy when the team hit obstacles along the way to victory. Navarro had this to say after the game,
"Our goal was to go up 2-0; we lost Game 2 of the playoffs in each of the last two seasons. It was a low-scoring game and we had to be really focused to win it. They didn't allow us to feel comfortable on offense, but being focused and free throw accuracy allowed us to reach our goal. We made 23 of 25 free throws and that was the key. We knew it would be a tough game. We had the game under control, but
Nachbar came off the bench and changed everything. Even with that, we managed to get the win."
UNICS fall to 2-0 down in the series
Erazem Lorbek of Slovenia added 14 points in the victory, which puts Barca one win away from sweeping the 5-game series and clinching a place in the Final Four. The series heads to Russia for Game Three on the 27th March.

Also on this night in the Euroleague, there was a rematch in Athens of the 2011 Euroleague championship game between Panathinaikos of Greece and Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv of Israel. The defending champions Panathinaikos won Game One 93-73. Game Two was a much closer affair and was sent into overtime after Kostas Kaimakoglou tied the game for the Greek side with 13.2 second left in regulation. In OT, Maccabi’s David Blu connected on two clutch three-pointers in the final couple minutes of overtime which helped Maccabi to a 94-92 upset win to tie the series at one apiece

Hopefully, this article gives an idea of what a great competition the Euroleague truly is. The Quarterfinal action continues tonight as CSKA Moscow (Russia) host Gescrap Bilbao (Spain). CSKA won Game One 98-71. Also, Montepaschi Siena (Italy) are looking for revenge at home versus Olympiacos (Greece) following an 82-75 loss.