Last week EWE Baskets Oldenburg were facing Alba Berlin in a game that many experts expect to be a possible finals constellation in June.
While Oldenburg could only win one game in this year’s Euroleague competition Alba Berlin is doing a great job in the EuroCup. Luka Pavicevic’s team had to play in Le Mans during the week, but that did not prevent Berlin from a very good start into the game. After just six minutes in the first quarter Alba Berlin managed to establish an impressive 2:16 lead. This was a result of Alba playing their typical pick and roll offense combined with some tough defense. At this early stage of the game Oldenburg looked pretty helpless on offense. It really is a pleasure to see a team like Alba Berlin move the ball fluently on offense. They have got mobile big man on offense with a very good feeling about how to set a block and then move away from the defender. Usually Adam Chubb is probably their best tool for this kind of offense. But the 28-year old American, who received a contract extension, is out for several weeks. Blagota Sekulic and Jurica Golemac, who was signed as a replacement for disappointing Kenan Bajramovic, know how to play their part as well. Both are very active and very good passers.
On the guard rotation Julius Jenkins is Alba’s best pick and roll player. He generally has a very nice all around offense game and was named the Best Offensive Player for the past two seasons. And with good reason! There is really no other player in this league with better offensive skills. Jenkins can shoot the ball from outside, makes use of a quick first step to drive to the basket and has a very good feeling about how to play the pick and roll. When Luka Pavicevic first arrived in Berlin he had his doubts about Jenkins’ size. The 28-year old might be a little undersized for the 2 spot, but that does not hurt his game in any way. For this season Jenkins was appointed as Alba’s new team captain.
A player who really is something like Mr Everything on Alba’s squad is Immanuel McElroy. When he entered the BBL in 2004 people mainly talked about his great defense and his explosive drive to the basket. The 29-year old is still one of the greatest defenders in this league and he has won the Best Defensive Player Award for the past three seasons (in fact he’s the only player who ever got this award). But he also added a reliable jumpshot to his repertoire and makes a career-high of 35.7% of his three point shots this season. For his size he is an excellent rebounder and very often McElroy is the player who initiates the fast breaks for Alba Berlin. With his all round game McElroy really is a serious candidate for the MVP Award this season.
During the first 5, 6 minutes Alba Berlin demonstrated that they are probably the most talented and best team in this league. Despite losing key players like Ansu Sesay, Aleksandar Nadjfeji and Casey Jacobson, Pavicevic’s team looks even stronger compared to the last season. But against Oldenburg they were not able to keep up the good start. Of course one major reason for that was the quality of a team like Oldenburg. Strange enough Oldenburg started a run when starting Point Guard and MVP Jason Gardner was benched. But Berlin was simply not able to stop Oldenburg’s run and at the end of the first quarter a 14-point lead was cut down to a three point margin (18:21). Similar to some games last season Alba had its share of problems to find answers to the opponent’s run. Somehow the team was missing a player with the ability to take control of the game.
At times it really looks like Alba could use a Point Guard who is more if a typical floor general. Both Steffen Hamann and Rashad Wright are not typical playmakers and lack the ability to slow down and change the rhythm of the game.
Alba has the tools to win the championship this season, but the team needs to learn to play more consistent and overcome those minutes when the opponent is on a run. Stealing the opponent’s momentum is not one of the qualities of Pavicevic’s team so far. If Alba is able to do so they are my number one contender for this year’s championship.
EWE Baskets Oldenburg really proved that they got the heart of a champion. 80% of the teams that trail 2:16 against Alba Berlin have already lost the game. But Predrag Krunic’s team fought back and with Rickey Paulding making a deep three point shot they were leading the game with 27:26.
The 27-year old Paulding is certainly not as effective as he was last season. In almost every category of his individual statistics his numbers dropped. Of course that does not make him a disappointment as he still does what made him last year’s finals MVP. That overwhelming dominance of last season’s play-offs is not visible so far, but maybe Paulding can come up with those missing 10% in the post season. He is a winner and I would not be surprised to see him perform in the highest level in May and June.
Alba Berlin answered back with a three pointer by Julius Jenkins, but with the buzzer that finished the first half Joshua Carter made a three pointer to give Oldenburg a 32:31 lead.
Rookie Josh Carter is a player with very promising talent. I think on any other BBL club he would be a starter and produce nice numbers. In Oldenburg he replaced Miladin Pekovic and just like his predecessor he mainly has to take shots from downtown. Almost two thirds of his shots were three pointers. But now and then Carter shows that he can be so much more than a sharpshooter. Just look what he did to Berlin’s Jurica Golemac.
With the start of the second half Oldenburg started to establish nice lead. It was Je’Kel Foster who helped to do so as the 26-year old American had a steal, two points, a rebound, a three pointer and another steal in the first two minutes of the second half. Last season everyone was talking about Jason Gardner, the regular season MVP, and Rickey Paulding, the finals MVP. Foster was recognized by people, but mainly seen as a co-star to Gardner and Paulding. This season he is statistically stepping out of their shadow as he leads the team in scoring with an average of 14.1 per game. Still Foster’s shot selection seems questionable at times, but he really stepped up his game this season and could be candidate for the MVP Award.
Oldenburg could build up a lead by 12 points at the end of the third quarter. And when back-bencher Daniel Strauch made a three pointer at the beginning of the last quarter Oldenburg looked like the winner. But Alba went on a 6:0 run and cut down the lead to single digits.
With four and a half minutes to play there was still a chance for Berlin to come back. But then a foul call on Rashad Wright destroyed all hopes for the Alba fans. Jason Gardner first seemed to have lost balance but then managed to get away from Wright. The 27-year old Wright then tried to get the ball from behind and it really looks like he just touched the ball. But when a player tries to steal a ball from behind the referees tend to just blow the whistle automatically. [Check out the video on YouTube]Bad luck for Berlin, but nothing quite unusual. Alba’s head coach Luka Pavicevic took this opportunity to totally lose his mind and run on the court. As a result of this he refs first called a technical foul on Alba’s coach that was followed by another one. Two technical fouls meant that Pavicevic was disqualified and had to leave the arena. There also was another technical foul. This time it was for a player and Jurica Golemac got it.
When the dust had settled Jason Gardner could walk to the charity stripe to shoot free throws. And the referees had to show their second grade math skills now. So that’s two shots for Wright’s foul, two more for Pavicevic’s first T, then two for his second T and another two for Golemac’s T. That’s 8 (!) free throws plus possession of the ball!
I’ve seen so many basketball games in my life, but never before I had seen a player shooting 8 free throws in a row. Now that’s effective scoring: one possession and the chance of scoring 8 points!
Well, Gardner made 6 of his 8 free throws and he made it a comfortable 15 point lead. Oldenburg walked away victorious 68:59 in a game that had more of a play-off fight than any other game this season so far. It should be a nice best of five series to see Oldenburg battling Berlin.
Even though Oldenburg was able to win the game, I think that they are not as strong as they were last season. The injury of Jason Gardner did certainly not help them and the team is relying too much on the one-on-one skills of their athletic americans. If Krunic manages to integrate Gardner and runs more plays for their big man like Boumtje-Boumtje and Scekic the team should be more versatile and not as easy to predict.