Brose Baskets had been on the wrong end of crunch time heroics too often throughout their past two-and-a-half Euroleague campaigns, but in Thursday’s thrilling, indescribably intense Week 10 knockout game the ball finally bounced their way. Bamberg’s 92-90 overtime victory over Partizan marks their return to Top16 for the first time since 2005/06, but also the elimination of a fascinating Partizan team that came within seconds of pulling off the ultimate coup with one of the youngest rosters in modern Euroleague history.
With Duško Vujošević’s typical stop-and-go style of coaching extending the game to far beyond average length – Partizan lead the league by a landslide in substitutions per 40 minutes, at 40.7 (league average is 26.2), and are tied for first in the league in timeouts – the 36th minute had barely started when news of Beşiktaş’ narrow 66-65 victory over Lietuvos Rytas penetrated Stechert Arena. That meant: Winner advances to Top16, loser goes home.
A western-style shootout was not to be expected in a game where the 20th-ranked team in offensive rating hosted number 23. But this game was different from all the others.
Attacking Partizan early on the clock based on an effective zone defense that caused 14 stops on Partizan’s 20 first quarter possessions, the Gavel/Goldsberry combo created open shots en masse through their clinical penetration & kickout game. Goldsberry also drained a long two against Musli on Bamberg’s first possession and took the ball all the way to the basket in early offense soon thereafter, setting the tone for Bamberg’s aggressive first half outing. Characteristically, Goldsberry dove after loose balls when ball possession had yet to be lost and boxed out centers and power forwards long before they had moved a muscle to crash the glass.
Boštjan Nachbar is undoubtedly a fantastically versatile basketball player whose skillset Chris Fleming uses in 4/5 pick and rolls et cetera, but he is arguably at his best when catching the ball in close out situations set up by his teammates. Once given the space to operate, he can shoot from long range or fake his defender off his feet and drive in for the lay up.
With Teddy Gipson not just incapable of stepping out of Brian Roberts’ shadow (a mission impossible anyway) but unable to play effective basketball within Fleming’s offensive framework, the main difficulty lies in creating those situations. Too much of the shot creation load has been resting on the shoulders of Anton Gavel. So Goldsberry’s (a pure pass-first playmaker by nature) aggressiveness was an immense gain for the hosts.
Partizan fought back admirably (do watch: the best sequence of this basketball season) starting in the second quarter behind a strong performance on the offensive glass (41.5 offensive rebound percentage) and moments of magic from Westermann & Vladimir Lučić. Partizan tried to force the ball inside to their inside four Drew Gordon, who had arguably his best game of the season, finishing with 14 points, 15 rebounds (six on the offensive glass) and two blocks. It was Gordon, himself ninth among Euroleague power forward in offensive rebound percentage and eighth in putback percentage, who brought the game into overtime, slamming home Mirosavljevic’s free throw miss right before the buzzer.
13 of the overtime’s 22 points were scored on trips to the foul line, but it was eventually Partizan’s leader tandem that threw the game away: First Westermann telegraphed a pass into Gavel’s hands with 15 seconds left on both shot clock and game clock, then, with seven seconds left, Westermann and Lučić teamed up for a turnover on the inbounds pass.
The fact that the officials allowed a ridiculously large amount of contact on close range finishes and still ended up calling 61 fouls in total is testament to the inhuman intensity this game was played at. Sometimes pressure paralyzes your every move, but on Thursday the opposite was true: Both teams left it all out on the court, aggressively going after every shot and even committing a large number of over-the-back fouls in the process. Officiating can hardly be blamed in a game that was impossible to officiate, and Dule’s criticism (“I am not happy with the officiating treatment my team received”) appeared to be targeted towards the full-season officiating performance rather than the one on Thursday.
Dule’s minute-management and late-game playcalling
Partizan’s core players looked gassed during the final fourth quarter minutes and overtime: When Bamberg kept switching on most of Partizan’s screens during overtime, Westermann, Milosavljević and Bertans opted for off-the-dribble jumpshots in all of their six overtime one-on-one possessions instead of attempting to get to the free throw line against a defense that had long reached the foul limit. Drew Gordon, third on the team with 37:16 minutes, had a costly lapse on the defensive end to allow Anton Gavel an easy lay up.
The trio of Westermann, Milosavljević and Lučić played all of Partizan’s fourth quarter and overtime minutes until Nemanja Gordic checked in for Westermann in the final minute of overtime. Gordon played all 20 minutes from the 25th minute onwards, save for Partizan’s final fourth quarter possession.
Was anyone else mildly surprised to see the ball in the hands of Davis Bertans for Partizan’s final possession in regular time? With Partizan down two and 12 seconds on the clock, Dule opted for a Bertans-Musli 3-5 pick and roll out of the timeout. Heading right around Musli’s high screen, the Latvian was switched on by Sharrod Ford and picked up his dribble before Milosavljević saved the possession by faking Tadda off his feet to earn a trip to the foul line. Partizan then ran an isolation for Bertans up high versus Nachbar with four minutes left in overtime, which resulted in an ill-advised step-back two.
Bertans has registered only five unassisted field goals and seven assists the entire Euroleague season, ranking 35th of 46 qualified power forwards in minute- and pace-adjusted shots created (unassisted field goals plus assists).
Westermann causing plenty of intrigue
“I am proud of my team, the youngest in Euroleague history” said Dule post-game. Partizan played at a minute-weighted lineup age of 21.8 years on Thursday and is indeed only rivaled by its 2004/05 edition (finished their group with a 2/12 record).
The level of talent on display on the floor (as opposed to: decorating the bench) was immense and therefore the presence of scouts from four NBA franchises (Knicks, Mavericks, Cavaliers, Nets) was hardly surprising.
Leo Westermann is an incredibly skilled and elegant 1.96-meter playmaker who is showing remarkable poise directing a Euroleague offense at the tender age of 20. Since several key point guard skills (jumpshooting, assisting) are statistically best performed early in a player’s thirties, expect the Frenchman to have a long and fulfilling career. Westermann is in the process of developing a Spanoulis-esque shake & pull up three in isolation and has repeatedly shown his ability to get to the basket in transition with a fantastic hesitation & crossover move from the wing.
Partizan’s other ultimate key player, Vladimir Lučić, is easily one of my favourites. Lučić is second among Euroleague small forwards in free throw attempt to field goal attempt ratio, 12th in points (minute- and pace-adjusted), 14th in defensive rebound percentage, and fifth in steals. After having switched between small forward and power forward in recent years, Lučić has played 94.5 percent of his 2012/13 Euroleague minutes on the three. Lučić skied high for several crunch time rebounds on Thursday and is routinely the first player to dive after a loose ball.
Davis Bertans won’t need to turn into one of the continent’s top long range shooters. He already is. Bertans’ 2.3 three pointers made per 28 minutes pace-adjusted rank him as one of the competition’s top long distance shooters. Interesting in Bertans’ case is the three-four split in his stats: As a small forward (43.8 percent of his minutes), Bertans registers a terrible -4.7 PER on 5/21 field goal shooting, whereas he ranks in the top third in PER among power forwards (21.1, including 13/20 from three point range) when playing the four (56.2 percent of his minutes).
Bamberg played at a minute-weighted 29.0 years, a full seven years older than their rivals, but Fleming found first quarter minutes for the recovering 1990-born Daniel Schmidt (back from mononucleosis). Philipp Neumann had a completely forgettable evening, just as in the first tie, while Maik Zirbes has been one of Bamberg’s more consistent performers through recent weeks.
Zirbes is sixth among 43 qualified Eurolague centers in offensive rebound percentage (16.0) and scores 28.9 percent (11 of 38) of his field goals on offensive putbacks (also sixth). He has scored only five unassisted field goals (excluding putbacks) so far this season but has shown glimpses of a post game both in Vilnius and Thursday against Partizan. Still: pick and roll finishing, including cleaning up the garbage left by Gavel’s and Nachbar’s drives, is his calling card at this point.
The Top16′s extension to 14 games has strong implications for the Euroleague/EuroCup three year ranking. Instead of a guaranteed eight points, Top16 participants now earn a guaranteed 16 points (14 for every loss, plus two bonus points) just for making it there. A very minimalist 4-20 season (three wins in the regular season to qualify, one win in Top16) would now earn a team 30 ranking points, just three less than the average EuroCup Final Four participant earned in the last two seasons.
It’s the Euroleague teams that benefit from the new format. Remember: Alba Berlin made it into the group of third seeds for this year’s draw without playing a single Euroleague season in three prior years. This will be more difficult in the future.
Likewise, failure to reach Top16 will be a major blow to any of the lower level A-licence teams and those aspiring to obtain one in the future.