One of the not-much discussed but quite-much significant characteristics the new format of the competition adds to EuroLeague is that of the extended narratives. The “all-play-all” regular season of the league leaves no room for weaknesses to be hidden and at the same time gives enough room for strengths to be demonstrated in all their glory. Two of these protagonists are the points guards of our Game Of The Week teams, Fenerbahce and Real Madrid. Sergio Llull and Kostas Sloukas were born at different times, in different countries, followed different paths but are meeting in a couple of hours sharing something very common:
Their break-out seasons.
Sergio Llull (pronounced, in Spanish, somewhat like “Serhio Yule”) can brag that although he hasn’t played in the NBA he has experience from many different divisions: He started his career in ACB with Manresa, went to the 4th Division on loan to Finques Olesa, returned to Manresa but this time in the 2nd Division and then, in 2007 joined Real Madrid with which he has won 4 ACB titles, 4 Copa del Rey titles, 3 Supercopa de Espana titles, a EuroLeague title and an Intercontinental one. At the same time he has been instrumental at one of Spain’s best National Team squads – if not *the* best – that, from 2009 until last summer, has won 3 EuroBasket titles and a 3rd place as well as a silver medal in the London Olympics and a bronze one in the Rio de Janeiro games. But it was not until this season, that saw the departure of his “main man” Sergio Rodriguez for Philadelphia, that Llull raised from being a piece that, importantly enough, defines the orchestra to being the piece that actually orchestrates the whole play we are listening.
That “Cha Cho” was not going to be there to decide the pace of the game, from where, how, when Real Madrid is going to attack, to make the opponent’s defense follow him and to give Llull and the rest of his team-mates enough space and time to execute, and that Pablo Lasso decided not to replace him with a star of the same skillset but bet on Llull and Doncic to cover up were two of the main reasons a lot of people were not considering Real Madrid as favourites. If one adds to these the surgery Rudy Fernandez had on his back (that led to a transformation of a player you hate because of the combination of his not-so-well-received attitude with his out-of-this-league skillset to a player you hate because he can’t do what he could do before) the previous consideration becomes very valid. And even if Doncic has been quite impressive so far the gap between what Real Madrid was when they won the title at home two years ago (a “beta version” of today’s CSKA) to what it was going to be this year (a slower version of themselves carrying wounds along the way) was looking very big and impossible to be filled somehow.
But, then, Llull has started the season as if he has personally decided elsewise: Averaging 19.4 points (with 57.2% from inside the arc and 83.3% from the free-throw line) along with 5.8 assists per game in 29:29 of playing time it’s like Rodriguez not being there gives Llull even more space – the space he needed to demonstrate not just his skillset in the two sides of the court but also his ability to be a leader. Real Madrid find themselves second, with a 7-2 record, mainly thanks to this man:
Sloukas’ career path was different: Joining Olympiacos BC from one of the country’s best youth-programms, Mantoulides, staying with the team for one season and then going to Aris Thessaloniki on loan, his future at Piraeus was looking quite uncertain, especially when rumours of Dusan Ivkovic intending to loan him again started making rounds. However he managed to not only persuade “Duda” to keep with the team but also to receive a standing ovation for his contribution in a regular season game against Nancy in the ’11-’12 season and to beat the buzzer and send the game to overtime with a crazy three-pointer from the other side of the court against Galatasaray in the same season. The rest of that season is Olympiacos BC history that you all most probably know and Kostas Sloukas has a lot of pages in the book about it – from the first chapters of regular season to the last one that was written in Istanbul.
Sloukas stayed with Olympiacos for another 3 seasons, winning one more EuroLeague title and making it to one more Final Four, and when his contract reached its end he asked for what he thought he could deliver: a drive with the team where he will be holding the steering wheel for more time. A lot of things have been said about how he, his coach at that time (Sfairopoulos) and the Olympiacos management dealt with that situation and all “inside-info” and rumours aside there is one thing that we can be sure about: Sloukas was not convinced he was going to get the time he wanted in the court.
Fenerbahce’s Obradovic not only did convince him but actually gave the guard from Thessaloniki what he promised him: In a season during which Sloukas suffered from some injury problems his stat-line in the Top8 and Final Four had the magical number of 22:39 under “average playing time”. This number is 28:49 so far this season when, while at Olympiacos BC he had 16.5 minutes against Real Madrid in the ’13-’14 Top8 and 16:22 and 20:01 in the Top8 and Final Four of the next season.
Spanoulis leaving Panathinaikos to join Olympiacos BC has made a lot of people think that it was his ego that ordered him to do so in order to prove that he is better than Diamantidis. And when Kostas Sloukas left Sfairopoulos’ Olympiacos BC for Obradovic’ Fenerbahce a lot of people thought that he wanted to get away from Spanoulis to prove that he can do things on his own too. But what looks more possible in both cases is that such players are not looking to prove other people that they are better than other players: They are looking for challenges that will elevate them to prove themselves that they are better than, well, themselves. Play by play, game by game, season by season.
The way last season started slow, had its moments here and there and then exploded in the Final Four – and especially in the final against CSKA, along with how this season has started big for Sloukas is a very good example of the above. And as he is quite possibly also giving his coach what he promised (12.8 points with 48%, 53.6% and 88% in 2pointers, 3pointers and free-throw shots respectively as well as 5.3 assists per game), what’s next from the left-handed Greek guard remains to be seen:
The rest of the crews
Real Madrid is second, Fenerbahce is third and if we took CSKA Moscow out these two teams would look like the most possible matchup for the final. Real Madrid is performing like a better team overall quite possibly also due to Bogdan Bogdanovic being unable to help his team but the Turkish team is playing at home and wants a big win that will contribute to keeping its status as one of the Final Four favourites. From their side, Melih, Kalinic and Nunnaly are players that can have big games out of nowhere and so need to be watched at all times. On the other side, Real is fortunate to have Anthony Randolph eventually getting traction and in games where there are no clear distinctions between each team’s advantages and disadvantages single player performances can be crucial for the outcome so eyes should be looking everywhere for the tiniest details to be caught.