Experts review the Final Four: Unsung heroes of AEK, atmosphere to remember, cheat-codes for others to win it next year
ATHENS (Basketball Champions League) - With the second season in the books, it is time to review everything that was going on in Athens. Our experts weigh in one last time in this campaign.
As ever, we've got Igor Curkovic, the man behind the articles and Live Feed on our website; Diccon Lloyd-Smeath, also known as Coach DLS responsible for the tactical breakdowns all year long; and Jeff Taylor, the voice of international basketball. All three of our experts were in Athens to witness firsthand as AEK rose to Basketball Champions League glory.
So after doing the questioning and analyzing last week, now it's time for them to do the answering.
AEK capped their second Basketball Champions League campaign with a title. Were you expecting that, or were you a bit surprised by their unlikely run from the Regular Season all the way through?
IC: Honestly, I was surprised to see them at the top. Monaco were so dominant all season long, and had a much easier job than AEK in the Semi-Finals, looked really relaxed all the time in Athens, and seemed to have less pressure on their backs ahead of the Final. Of course, the "defense wins championships" phrase made me believe that they will go all the way, too. But AEK had the panacea for the poison, hard to play aggressive, trap or double-team when The Queen has so man(n)y offensive weapons - credit to them, they came to play at the biggest stage of all, rightfully lifting the trophy on Sunday.
DLS: Up until the Final Four, everything about AEK's season caught me by surprise. If you are claiming that you expected them to be champions at the start of the Play-Offs, then you are either an AEK fan, or a clairvoyant. The path that AEK followed to reach the Final Four, just doesn't happen very often. After they scraped into the Play-Offs on a buzzer-beater, then lost at home to CEZ Nymburk, it was very hard to see what was still to come for the Queen. Saying that, the moment the Final Four began, there was no surprise left. Even if logic suggested that AS Monaco were the better team, you just knew what was coming.
JT: I was surprised, but then again, I wasn't. There was tremendous balance in the Basketball Champions League. Just look at their Group C campaign. AEK finished third with an 8-6 record - the same mark as three other teams while two others were 9-5. There were a lot of good teams. What both AEK and UCAM Murcia proved is that it's okay to survive and advance. It's tempting to say that AEK was a team of destiny after getting a 3-pointer in the final seconds against medi Bayreuth from Dusan Sakota to advance to the Play-Offs, and another from Kevin Punter to beat CEZ Nymburk on aggregate. What did not surprise me is that AEK had the capacity to turn their level of play up a notch when it mattered most. They had already done that in the Greek Cup, beating Panathinaikos in the semi-finals and then Olympiacos in the final. They had a coach with nearly a half-century of experience, Dragan Sakota, an unrivaled, spine-tingling home-court advantage and also tremendous execution for 39 minutes in each of their Final Four games. So no, I'm not surprised.
We all know about Manny Harris, the Regular Season MVP, and Mike Green, the MVP of the Final. Who inspired you most of the "other guys," AEK's unsung heroes on the way to the trophy?
IC: Kevin Punter. That man is electric. We asked him to recreate his tie-winning shot that he hit away at Nymburk in one of the smaller courts in OAKA. Got it right on the first try, like it's nothing... And that tells you all about his playing style, when he takes the court, you'll know. In the Final, he was quiet for three quarters, but exploded in the fourth with 11 points, and took the game out of Monaco's reach. Plus - that photo up here. I mean... Does it ever get better than this? I hope all of you reading end up feeling Punter-ish at least once in your life. (Hope I get to experience it, too.)
DLS: Dusan Sakota. AEK's captain scored 31 Points over the two games, whilst shooting an eFG% of 70%. Whenever AEK needed a bucket, there was one man they could turn to and the way the crowd reacted to each time he scored, those points were worth double the 2 or 3 that went in the score-sheet. If that wasn't enough, Sakota shot 100% from the field in the fourth quarter of the final. Vasilis Xanthopoulos and Kevin Punter were also excellent but for consistency and total impact on winning, Dusan Sakota was the man for AEK.
JT: It's tempting to say Dimitris Mavroeidis because while not flashy, he is oh so effective. How often did he out-run the defense on fast breaks? He gave everything. The unsung hero for me, though, was 34-year-old point guard Vasilis Xanthopoulos, who had 13 assists in a total of 32 minutes and 23 seconds of Final Four action. He was a whirling dervish. Xanthopoulos was extremely fortunate his foul on Murcia's Clevin Hannah with 6.9 seconds left with AEK on top, 76-73, was not called unsportsmanlike. What a great Final Four he had, though!
Great job, AS Monaco, for reaching the Final. But to win it all, you will need just a little bit more...
IC: ...luck, I guess. Everything is there, coach Zvezdan Mitrovic is doing a great job for a number of years now, and thinking about these two Basketball Champions League seasons, I feel like they really were out of luck both seasons. Last year, Jordan Theodore happened to them in the Semi-Finals. This year, they've scored 94 points. That's crazy, 94 points in such a hostile environment, and it wasn't enough. But, look at it this way, French fans - Third place followed by a runner-up spot. Up next, the title, right?
DLS: Patience. They have a great coach, an excellent recruitment policy and a style of play that has consistently produced excellent results. Losing a one-off final, isn't a reason to rip up the blue-print and start again. Monaco's time will come. Saying that, I couldn't help thinking they needed a bit more variety in their play and the ability to throw a few more curve-balls at AEK. We only really saw them go to a smaller line-up, when they were chasing the game. There was one other possession where they had Amara Sy at the Center position and it caused AEK problems. With the experience of this final in the books, it might be an idea to have a few more unexpected weapons in their game-plans. The good people of Monaco could help too. Zvezdan Mitrovic spoke about his team not being familiar with that kind of atmosphere. There is no way to recreate twenty three thousand people's worth of lunacy but the Salle Gaston Medecin isn't a huge stadium so doesn't need a huge amount of people to start getting very noisy. If they can start building a culture of Play-Off atmosphere's at home, it will help them in these big game situations.
JT: You need to have the realization that from the opening tip, especially in a cauldron like OAKA, you can't be just good on defense. You have to be excellent. For all the panache that Monaco displayed this season, their defense is what set the tone for most of their wins but against AEK, they gave up 29 points in the first quarter and 53 in the first half.
Well done, UCAM Murcia, for winning third place. But to win it all, you will need just a little bit more...
IC: ...experience at this level. This was just their second European campaign ever, and I feel like it won't be their only Final Four appearance in near future. The club is looking good from the outside, the players are really loyal to the organization, and once Brad Oleson gets some company in the "seen-it-all" section of the locker-room, all the Athens-looking difficulties will be much easier to handle. And speaking to Sadiel Rojas after the Third Place Game made me a Sadi-fan for life! Thinking about hiring him to follow me around when his career ends. Just to push me to my limits, to make me believe I can do everything, and to make me take zero stories off, to rephrase his #NoPlaysOff motto.
DLS: UCAM Murcia just need to keep as much of this group together as possible and go again. Once they got going this season, they played some inspiring basketball on both ends of the floor. The addition of Augusto Lima was ambitious and worked perfectly. Ibon Navarro had them switched on and tactically astute for every game of their Play-Off run and they seemed to have everything going for them. The margins between winning and losing against AEK were very, very small. They would have to like their odds if they had another shot at that Semi-Final. Having written several columns about this team and having had the opportunity to interview Ovie Soko and Sadiel Rojas, I got the feeling of a club with the right mix of feel-good brotherhood and fighting spirit. They play like a team that is in it for each other as well. It's very difficult to maintain continuity in European basketball, you just hope that UCAM Murcia can manage it with this group. If they do, more Final Four opportunities will no doubt be around the corner.
JT: The only thing separating Murcia from this title is home-court advantage. They have a wonderful, tactically sound coach in Ibon Navarro and their cool heads in difficult moments is a direct result of playing in a tough Spanish domestic league. It helps to have great guards and also leadership from players like Sadiel Rojas and Vitor Benite.
Hey, MHP Riesen Ludwigsburg! Amazing stuff from you to get to the Final Four! Here's your piece of cheat-code in this game to take it a step or two further:
IC: Sign John Patrick for life? Do the voodoo tricks to get the big men injury curse broken? And ask the easyCredit BBL to help you out with scheduling just a tiny little bit, so you don't have to play three games in five days before the trip to the Final Four? Don't know, really. Some other teams might have survived that span, but as a team that feeds off of energy and high-pressure defense, Ludwigsburg just looked exhausted for three of four halves played in Athens.
DLS: I think John Patrick said all that needed to be said. They needed more help from the German Federation. The way Ludwigsburg play is unique and they have a fantastic habit of unearthing diamonds with their recruitment policy. If they hadn't had to play three games in five days leading up to the Final Four, maybe Justin Sears doesn't get hurt and maybe they would have been able to cause Monaco problems for 40 Minutes instead of 15. This is a team that has been so much fun to watch and write content about and that intense full-court approach is such a breath of fresh air. Hopefully they get to the Final Fours again soon and their schedule allows them to show us what that system can really do.
JT: MHP Riesen were the unluckiest of the teams with their unfortunate scheduling in the days before the Final Four and the injury bug. Yes, every team has injuries but to first lose Johannes Thiemann to a freak hamstring injury during the season and then for his fellow big Justin Sears to go down with a serious knee injury days before the Monaco game? That's cruel. Every team has to be able to fight through adversity. Keron Johnson's comment about how the team started playing better once they stopped worrying about how tired they were was spot-on.
One last time about the crowd. Have you ever seen a more impressive atmosphere than this!?
IC: Coming out of Split, Croatia, I grew up witnessing some crazy Hajduk Split soccer games. This was right up there, arguably the best basketball crowd I've seen in my lifetime. And don't let my boyish looks deceive you, I've been around and seen a lot of basketball places over the years, but this was something else... It wasn't just one side of the stands leading the chants, everybody was in on the act, the entire OAKA was trembling with all the noise. Also, AEK's fans will forever own a special place in my heart and mind for the way they treated UCAM Murcia's fans both days. In fact, they even ended the whole event chanting out Murcia's name together, something for UCAM's fans to tell after a long trip back home.
DLS: I don't know that I have seen and heard a more impressive atmosphere in any sport, let alone basketball. The chain of events that lead to that atmosphere were one-of-a-kind but you have to just sit back and appreciate that for what it was - mind blowing. The thing that impressed me the most was how friendly it was. Rowdy crowds like that, can sometimes be a bit hostile to outsiders. I was lucky enough to speak to some of the fans as they were setting up their banners before the Semi-Final. They were very open and clearly only focused on one thing: creating something we had never seen before. They almost certainly achieved that and without doubt, there is no way that AEK would have won either game without them.
JT: I have seen a lot of great basketball crowds and this one was as good as any of them. It makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up just thinking about it! Monaco coach Zvezdan Mitrovic knew it would be a special crowd even before AEK took on Murcia. He said he wanted to have the once-in-a-lifetime experience by taking on AEK in the title game because of the atmosphere. He got his wish.