Although NBA fans have their schedules lined up with playoffs on a nightly basis, sandwiched in between possible game sixes and sevens is the battle for the European club championship.
The Euroleague Final Four takes place in Madrid, Spain on May 15th and 17th. The Final Four pits Real Madrid (Spain) against Fenerbahce (Turkey), and CSKA Moscow (Russia) versus Olympiacos (Greece). All four teams traversed group stages and a quarter final head-to-head series to get here, and with these games broadcast on the WatchESPN app (12 PM and 3 PM Eastern), American NBA fans have access to these games and can watch high-level basketball throughout the whole weekend.
European fans are likely to be familiar with these teams after a full season of both domestic and European competitions, but Americans may not be as acclimated with the teams and their styles of play. Therefore, this preview will be more of a beginner’s preview as what to watch for during these Final Four games for someone who may not have a deep knowledge of these teams and systems.
What is the Euroleague?
Similar to the UEFA Champions League for European soccer, the Euroleague brings together top teams from countries across Europe in a tournament designed to find the top club team in the continent.
Qualification for the tournament is a bit different than soccer, where all teams earn their way in via their placement in domestic leagues. In Euroleague basketball, several teams are given ‘A licenses’, which grants them access to the tournament for three years regardless of how they perform in the domestic competition. All four teams remaining qualified in this way with an A license – in fact, all right quarter final teams came from the 12 awarded A licenses. The remaining teams qualify through their league competition for one year access only, with different levels of qualification needed to advance to the group stage, much like the opening qualification rounds of the UEFA Champions League.
The qualifying teams are split into four groups of six teams, with the top four from each group after round robin play advancing to a second group phase. The top four from these two groups advance to a best of five quarter finals round, before the one game matchup in both the Final Four and title games.
What players should I be familiar with?
Being that the Euroleague is the highest standard of non-international basketball competition behind the NBA, the teams are lined with former NBA players.
Real Madrid may sport the highest percentage of past NBA participants, including Gustavo Ayon, Rudy Fernandez and Andres Nocioni, while their team also includes Sergio Llull, a 27 year old whose rights are currently held by the Houston Rockets (and although he has a contract with Real Madrid through the 2017-18 season, rumors are that he may be in the NBA next season). Meanwhile, Fenerbahce has former Laker (and College of Charleston graduate) Andrew Goudelock, the sixth overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft Jan Vesely, and the 22 year old 2014 Phoenix Suns draftee Bogdan Bogdanovic. They also play the 19 year old point guard Kenan Sipahi, DraftExpress’s #10 ranked international prospect born in 1995.
The other semi-final matchup doesn’t have as many players American fans will recognize. The only Olympiacos player that college fans can remember may be Michigan graduate Brent Petway. The remainder of the Reds’ roster is composed of Greek players who have not made the leap to the NBA (or who didn’t stay long, in the case of Vassilis Spanoulis), Americans who never quite made it to the NBA (Bryant Dunston, Tremmell Darden, Matt Lojeski), or who did for only the briefest time (Othello Hunter, Oliver Lafayette). On the other side, CSKA Moscow plays slightly more in theh way of recognisable NBA names, boasting Cavaliers draft pick Alexander (Sasha) Kaun, one time NBA star Andrei Kirilenko, former Spurs guard Nando de Colo and former Raptors wing Sonny Weems.
Big performances here could help some of players get back to the NBA, if that is their goal. These games will not be enough on a standalone basis to warrant guaranteed roster spots on a NBA roster next season – the best case scenario might be summer league invites for some of the lesser experienced players or training camp invites for the more seasoned veterans. But for those looking towards the NBA, this is as good of an opportunity to stake a claim as can be.
Real Madrid – Fenerbahce
Real Madrid, with its multiple former NBA players, plays the closest style to a NBA team of any team in this Final Four. They are attempting the most threes of any team left in the Euroleague at 24.4 per 40 minutes, while also taking a lot of shots at the rim as well. Real Madrid make 37.8% of their three pointers, led by Sergio Rodriguez and Sergio Llull. They will flash some Horns formations at times, as well as running some intricate sets from their playbook to get open shot opportunities.
Madrid move the ball well in these sets, posting an assist rate of 69.3%, and the ball zips around the floor to create cracks in the defense. Fenerbahce, conversely, has the lowest defensive rating of any of the remaining four teams at 106.5, and Real Madrid should find openings on their end of the court to get good looks at the rim. Their ball movement should get them open shots against this defense and converting their jump shots at their normal clip should allow them to advance to the title game.
Fenerbahce will look to Goudelock to lead their offense, as he heads up their scoring output at 16.4 points per game. The natural scorer will look to break down the defense off the dribble, and he has the advanced ball handling skills to get to the rim in isolation. Fenerbahce are a solid offensive team overall, averaging 115.6 points per 100 possessions, third among teams in Euroleague competition. They don’t take many three point shots (19.3 per 40 minutes, third lowest among all teams) and instead rely on shots at the rim to get their points, usually created by drives by Goudelock. Real Madrid doesn’t have a great rim protector – they block just 6.3% of their opponents shots, while Ayon, the nominal center, isn’t a great shot blocker in his own right. Fenerbahce will thus look to take advantage of this and attack the rim for easy points to charge their offense.
Despite his struggles in the NBA, Vesely is a great finisher in the paint in Europe and Real Madrid may have difficult slowing him down. Vesely doesn’t create offense for himself but relies on the guards to dump the ball off to him, where he is a capable finisher around the rim. Combine Real Madrid’s lack of a rim protector with Vesely’s prowess around the rim for Fenerbache, and Vesely could be in for a big night. They will need to find a complementary scorer to Goudelock, and Vesely could be that player by making himself available around the rim and finishing consistently.
The key for Real Madrid to win the game will be to knock down their outside jump shots while limiting the penetration of Goudelock. This will force Fenerbache into being a jump shooting team, especially the low-percentage mid-range jump shots, while taking away their strength of scoring in the paint. Doing so will put them in a great position to knock off Fenerbache and get another shot at the Euroleague championship.
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CSKA Moscow vs. Olympiacos
Olympiacos ended their series against Barcelona 3-1 by walking off with this game winning shot by Giorgios Printezis. Compared to the other three teams, Olympiakos may be the underdog, as they finished only third in Group F (the group stage before the quarter final round) and have a net rating of 5.5, worst among the semi-finalists. This can be mainly attributed to their offense.
The Reds score just 108.5 points per 100 possessions. They have a dynamic point guard in the veteran Spanoulis, but the offense has a tendency to bog down watching him create. Olympiacos loves to run him off ball screen after ball screen (with the ball screen often set by Hunter) to create offense; Spanoulis is a solid creator and can knock down outside shots to complement his penetration skills, shooting 34.1% from beyond the arc, drawing the defense just enough to give him space to create or hit the roll man for a paint attempt. But the issue is that the offense, at times, can become stagnant while the other players wait for Spanoulis to create off the dribble. Spanoulis has nice vision, but with his teams motionless around the perimeter, he has limited options outside of a dump-off to the roll man. They can be easy to cover at times and will need to be creative offensively to beat CSKA Moscow and advance to the title game.
Olympiacos has advanced this far by playing tough defense, allowing the second fewest points per 100 possessions in Euroleague games at 103, tied with their Final Four opponents CSKA Moscow. CSKA will look to beat the defense of Olympiacos down the floor by getting out in transition and getting quick baskets, as they have bee playing the fastest of any of the four remaining teams at 87 possessions per game. They push the ball in the open court through the pass instead of the dribble, sending multiple players sprinting down the floor after securing the defensive rebound, which helps them get down the floor quicker.
CSKA also shoot the three pointer exceptionally well, led by Milos Teodosic who shoots 41.1% on 10.3 attempts per 40 minutes. Much like your favorite NBA gunner, Teodosic will shoot at any time in any situation, both in catch-and-shoot situations or off the dribble. CSKA runs a free-flowing offense and has given Teodosic a green light to shoot, and him getting him could mean a long night for Olympiacos.
This will be an interesting matchup of styles, as while CSKA was amongst the fastest Euroleague teams this year, Olympiacos was the slowest at 82.6 possessions per game. With both teams being defense oriented, the advantage pre-game goes to CSKA as they have the more creative and effective offense. Olympiacos may struggle to score and although they may keep the game close by grinding it to a halt and playing suffocating defense to give Spanoulis a chance to win it, they likely don’t have enough offense to pull out a win.
The Final Four, quite logically, features four of the best teams in the tournament, as the four teams are in the top five of the net rating rankings in Euroleague competitions. These are four deserving teams and should feature three compelling matchups in a high-leverage situation.
Personally, though, one battle-tested team shines through. Real Madrid has lost in the championship game each of the past two seasons and will be looking to break through this season. They have the experience of playing in these games and will be hungry to take the next step. If they can hit their outside jump shots, they have a good chance to win two games and earn the title. It will be a tough road, but Real Madrid should take the title over CSKA Moscow.
Note: All stats provided by RealGM.com and DraftExpress.com
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