After consecutive seasons that the Final Four took place in already tested European cities or in ones that included European powerhouses (Bologna in 2002, followed by Barcelona, Tel Aviv and Moscow), ULEB is expanding its basketball horizons towards a city which might be in the heart of Europe, but has no basketball team in the competition. In the Czech Republic basketball is a sport that is not even close to being a top one, as its a country that has been a hockey and soccer powerhouse for decades.
This is a new bet for the European hoops, which seems to be on an upwards swing right now, as people from as many as 37 countries around the globe have purchased tickets for the sold-out Final Four, while dozens of channels worldwide will be televising the event live, including NBATV. Moreover, the participation of a Czech team called Prague 2006 in the junior tournament that will be starting one day earlier will provide an opportunity for the Czech youths to see how their talent level stands in comparison to the more prominent and organized European countries basketball-wise.
Back to the senior tournament, this Final Four is among the most competitive ones ever, definitely an open tournament, without any clear cut favorite. The participants, two-time defending champions Maccabi Tel Aviv, last years runners-up Tau Vitoria, a participant for the fourth straight season in CSKA Moscow and the 2003 champions Winterthur Barcelona are all legendary European teams and were among the favorites in the pre-season. However, the extremely competitive regular season and some instability from most of the participants during the Top-16 round creates the impression that there is no clear-cut favorite to win this Final Four, which makes it all the more exciting.
At the same moment, one would think that the participants, three of whom were in last years Final Four, have been hurt by the loss of star players who either got injured (David Andersen of CSKA missed the season), or left for the NBA (Sarunas Jasikevicius of Maccabi, Arvydas Macijauskas and Jose Manuel Calderon of Tau). However, the fact that these teams were only impressive in stretches over the season comes to meet with the reality that Euroleague has become extremely tight and competitive over the past couple of years.
In a league where the top scorer averages less than 19 points per game and the teams never depend on one or two players anymore, it is impossible for a team to be balanced or in top form throughout an entire season, while at the same moment they have to face local domestic league games. It is also a fact that teams that impressed the most during the regular season (Panathinaikos Athens and Unicaja Malaga) and probably offered the best quality during that period, collapsed in the Top-16 and did not manage to reach the Final Four.
The first semi-final is a rematch from last year between Maccabi and Tau. Maccabi Tel Aviv would never look out of place in a setting like this after winning the Euroleague Championship two years in a row, but their participation was always somewhat in doubt throughout the season following the instability they suffered from, and for good reason considering the loss of their unequivocal leader Sarunas Jasikevicius to the Indiana Pacers.
Given the traditionally limited bench solutions especially in the form of big men, coach Pini Gershon needed his star veterans Anthony Parker (USA, 31, 6-6, 14.8 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 3.8 apg, 1.7 spg) and Nikola Vujcic (Croatia, 28, 6-11, 12.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 3.9 apg) to step up for some crucial wins. He also needed significant improvement from freakishly athletic American big man Maceo Baston (30, 6-9, 12.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg) in order to keep the team on the right track. Israeli star and all around guard Tal Burstein (26, 6-6, 6.9 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 1.9 apg) saw his playing time and stats take a dive in the Top-16 and this Final Four might be the last one for him with Maccabi, as he becomes a free agent this summer. Jasikevicius replacement, American point guard Will Solomon (28, 6-2, 15.0 ppg, 3.0 apg, 2.0 spg), is extremely talented and athletic, however his unpredictable game, occasional defensive lapses and inconsistent shooting percentages have contributed to Maccabi occasionally losing its trademark offensive chemistry and sophisticated ball-movement that Saras brought the Israeli team.
The fact that Solomon is the back to back champions leading scorer may end up hurting them more than it helps them in Prague, even though Vujcic has been underachieving throughout the season and Parker may not be enough if he is forced to shoulder too much of the offensive load. If Solomon goes cold for long stretches but continues to force the issue regardless, as he did in certain points in the top-16 round, Gershon might be looking for clutch 35-year old American/Israeli captain Derrick Sharp (6-0, 8.4 ppg, 43.9% 3pt-FG) to step in and cover for Solomons instability, as he has been doing all year and seemingly his entire career. Sharps huge semi-final game last year in CSKA was the main reason they qualified for the finals over Panathinaikos. However, the rest of the bench players do not see much playing time and their role is to rest the starters, who play an up-tempo offensive rhythm throughout the game.
This years Maccabi may remind some of a certain 1991 Jugoplastika team, who in their last season as a team came together to pull off an incredible third straight Euroleague championship, a feat that could be matched this weekend by Maccabi. At the time Dino Radjas loss seemed to be too much to handle for the legendary Yugoslavian team, but Toni Kukoc and company found a way to pull off the improbable three-peat regardless, which seems to be Gershons goal. This wont be very easy however, as their thin bench and the incredibly open tournament could make Maccabi less sure about their Final Four hopes this time around.
While Maccabi keeps playing a similar of basketball to the one that sent them to heaven twice, Tau Vitoria was forced to change its gameplan this season, as both their starting guards are in the NBA now. While the team has always been built and highly dependant on the offensive game of Argentinean superstar Luis Scola (26, PF, 6-9, 14.8 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 2.2 apg, 1.6 spg), there is no offensive stability coming from the perimeter shooters this time around. With Macijauskas leaving, the team had to depend on one of the three swingmen, the already existing Travis Hansen (USA, 28, 6-6, 10.8 ppg), newly acquired Serkan Erdogan (Turkey, 28, 6-3, 10.4 ppg) and former NBA 1st round draft pick Casey Jacobsen (USA, 28, 6-6, 9.7 ppg). None of these three bring the offensive stardom of the Lithuanian shooting guard who was hopelessly glued to New Orleans bench this year, affectionately known as the Kalashnikov.
Calderons departure on the other hand was not as harmful for last years runners-up, though, as Argentinean veteran Pablo Prigioni (29, 5.9 ppg, 6.4 apg, 2.3 spg) not only managed to step up as a starter for them, but also created the opportunities for the new gameplan that young coach Velimir Perasovic managed to impose quite successfully from the moment he was hired, late in 2005. Prigioni, a not very athletic, but extremely intelligent pure point guard who has mastered the art of the pick and roll, has become the creative center of Taus offensive game, feeding Scola by any means possible and thus becoming a second player that opposing defenses should closely focus on, in order to prevent Scola from getting any easy scoring opportunities.
Taus deep frontcourt includes the continuously rising and ever improving young Brazilian NBA prospect Tiago Splitter (21, 7-0, 9.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 1.3 spg), a potentially huge presence on both ends who has learned to compliment the Argentinean very well and stepped up successfully in the top-8 round versus Panathinaikos. Veteran Hungarian banger Kornel David (35, 6-10, 9.0 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and underachieving perimeter oriented Serbian Peja Drobnjak come off the bench. With all these capable big men surrounding Scola, the ability of the Euroleagues assist leader Prigioni to feed the frontcourt as well as the outside shooters stability will be the ones to judge the first semi-finals outcome on Taus behalf. If Prigioni gets tightly guarded or commits quick fouls, then his substitutions, talented Croatian youngster Roko-Leni Ukic and shoot-first American sparkplug Lionel Chalmers might not be experienced enough at this level to handle this difficult role.
The second semi-final game features CSKA and Barcelona. CSKA Moscow is participating in its fourth straight Final Four, and even though they have not won a single semi-final game over the past three years, they might be considered the favorites to win it all.
Whats odd is the fact that they lost their starting center and first offensive option David Andersen (Australia, 26, 6-11, 14.7 ppg, 7.6 rpg), to injury late in the regular season, yet managed to elevate their game and have only lost once since then, opening many eyes with their excellent gameplan. The teams big star now seems to be Matjaz Smodis (Slovenia, 27, 6-9, 11.6 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 1.2 spg), whose offensive game has been on full display after Andersens injury. His confidence has been boosted and hes been leading the frontcourt to overachieving wins and a very strong and physical defensive game that covered for Andersens more offensively focused one. Underrated big men Aleksey Savrasenko and Thomas van den Spiegel surround Smodis, defending quite well and sharing playing time at center. Smooth veteran small forward David Vanterpool (USA., 33, 6-8, 9.9 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 3.2 apg, 1.9 spg) offers critical rebounding solutions for the Russian champions and takes care of a fine share of the offensive load, while lately revived captain Sergey Panov (35, 6-7, 6.1 ppg, 2.2. rpg) helps out plenty on the defensive end.
However the most dangerous offensive part of their game comes from the perimeter. J.R. Holden (USA., 30, 6-1, 11.2 ppg, 2.1 apg, 1.2 spg) and Theodoros Papaloukas (Greece, 29, 6-7, 8.4 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 4.0 apg, 1.7 spg) know each other very well and have been handling the playmaking duties together for the past four seasons. Papaloukas maturity, defensive strength, passing abilities and cold blood in crunch time covers for his lack of athleticism and shooting skills and compliments Holdens dominant presence, but at the same moment instability on the offensive end. Holden, a streaky shooter, shoot-first type point guard and a dangerous slasher can be a nightmare for any opponent, but may become a headache for his own team at the same moment at times.
This is where former Benetton Treviso coach Etore Messina comes in, bringing stability to their team by placing trust both in him and Papaloukas for quite long stretches together in every game. Trajan Langdons (U.S., 30, 6-4, 12.9 ppg, 3.1 rpg) addition in the backcourt was proven right during the top-8 round, when the ex-Duke guard managed to raise his scoring averages and take the offensive burden out of Holdens and Smodis hands. With CSKA not losing much of its potential after Andersens injury and with all the players offering crucial help offensively, CSKA has only lost one game on the road to Tau and has been the only Final Four team to sweep its opponent in the quarterfinal round. Whether this will be enough for them to finally go all the way will depend heavily on their defensive performance against Barcelona.
Winterthur Barcelona returns to the Final Four three years after the teams first success in 2003, then led by two legends of international basketball in Serbian star Dejan Bodiroga and Lithuanian PG Sarunas Jasikevicius. Since then, many changes have taken place and a new team, coached by Tau Vitorias coach last year Dusko Ivanovic has been created. After many transactions during the summer, the board of directors in Barcelona decided to build the team mainly around guards, which would make it able to run the court smoothly and pull defenses out in order to feed the veteran big men for easy baskets.
Leading this, backcourt and often times the entire team, is up-tempo shooting guard Juan Carlos Navarro (26, 6-3, 15.1 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 2.5 apg, 1.0 spg, 45.3% 3pt FG), one of the best offensive players in recent European history. Navarros rhythm is often unstoppable either by shooting or slashing to the basket, and while he seems to have stabilized his offensive pace if it wasnt for internal competition and injuries he would have led the Euroleague in scoring this season.
However, playing time has to be considered and thus, Italian off-guard Gianluca Basile (31, 6-3, 9.1 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 1.0 spg), although unstable over the year seems to have not forgotten his killer instinct. The PG line is covered by the very steady Shammond Williams (U.S., 31, 6-2, 12.2.ppg, 2.4 rpg, 4.3 apg, 1.0 spg), the teams floor general and an efficient three-point shooter, and also helped by the recently acquired American veteran Ed Cota, who is filling in for the injured Milos Vujanic. At small forward, Rodrigo De la Fuente is more of a role player, but at the same time the contact between the backcourt and the frontcourt.
Due to the teams heavy dependence on their perimeter scoring the big men have a secondary role offensively, but are equally valuable to the team in defense. Veteran Italian big men Gregor Fucka (35, 7-1, 6.5 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 1.1 bpg) and Denis Marconato (31, 7-1, 6.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 1.0 bpg) offer rebounding, size and experience in the paint, with Fucka being able to slash particularly well for his size and shoot from the perimeter and Marconato still considered a top defensive center in the international game. However, the big addition for coach Ivanovic comes off the bench in Greek forward Mikalis Kakiouzis (30, 6-10, 12.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg), who offers scoring, outside shooting and versatility and can play particularly well on the perimeter too. Opposing the experience and offensive talent of the Russians, the Spanish team will hope that the game will depend on the backcourt offense and the moods of the Williams-Navarro-Kakiouzis triplet. If the game goes to crunch time, then there are several players from both sides who can take over the game if it comes down to one or two shots.