Credit: Vangelis Stotis, imago images/AgenciaLOF, ZUMAPRESS.com-Scanpix
Credit Vangelis Stotis, imago images/AgenciaLOF, ZUMAPRESS.com-Scanpix

The strongest European basketball leagues have already begun or are about to start their final series, so for this occasion, the BasketNews 3x3 edition returns on the court as well.

As usual, three of our staff members - Orazio Cauchi, Uygar Karaca, and Giorgos Kyriakidis answered three questions about the Spanish ACB, Turkish Basketball League, and Greek Basketball League final series.

How big (or irrelevant) of an impact Chus Mateo could be in the ACB finals series?

Orazio: While Barcelona will have the home-court advantage for the finals, I personally still see Real Madrid as the slightly favorite team to win the Spanish league, which will be, regardless, a very torn matchup.

So far, Real Madrid hasn't lost a single game in the playoffs, sweeping both Manresa and Baskonia in the first two rounds. Despite the health concerns surrounding coach Pablo Laso, there's still a possibility that the coach will be able to return to the bench during the series.

In the meantime, his assistant Chus Mateo will hold the fort. It's tough to predict how much of an impact he could have on the team, but he knows the environment really well, and the locker room trusts him, so that should be enough to keep things stable while coach Laso recovers.

Although Real Madrid had its good share of ups and downs this season, it's also important to remember that this team rarely fails when the crucial moments of the season arrive.

They went all the way to the EuroLeague final after having a terrible final part of the regular season, crushing Maccabi Tel Aviv and defeating Barcelona in the semifinal, being a timeout short from the EuroLeague title against Efes in the final.

On the other hand, Barcelona lost only one game during these playoffs, in the semifinal against Joventut. Barcelona has deeper rotations than Real Madrid, but in this type of series, I still don't trust them.

Especially down the stretch, when the pressure rises. But with the full return of Cory Higgins, there's definitely the potential to achieve the win in the end. My prediction for the series? 3-2 in favor of Real Madrid.

Uygar: I will pick Real Madrid despite a few drawbacks: one of them is obviously Pablo Laso’s case and Chus Mateo being the front man on the bench, but I believe it won't be a problem.

Secondly, it's the end of the season and Real Madrid is an aged team with clear leaders in Sergio Llull and Rudy Fernandez.

No matter what, they will know what to do in times of crisis. Besides, we are at the very end of a very long season, Real Madrid played 82 games in all competitions! So many structures are probably settled and almost all contingencies are exhausted.

Chus Mateo is by no means a newcomer, neither to the team nor to the head coaching position. From his days in Malaga, China and Fuenlabrada, he is very experienced.

Barcelona have the home-court advantage but they are also in a challenging situation in mental terms. Real Madrid reached the EuroLeague final and not them and losing the domestic honors to their eternal rival would leave Jasikevicius with the only one domestic cup at hand.

Besides, they had a much more eventful semi-final series than Real Madrid. Joventut almost eliminated Barcelona and like Jasikevicius previously said in the Final Four, this team is lacking the predator instincts.

Yes, the injury situations of Llull and Abalde leave Real shorthanded in the point guard position, but if Real Madrid get to grasp one away win in the first two games, which looks doable, they can finish the series in Madrid.

They know how to shield themselves against adversities that they endured throughout the season. For Barcelona, they seemed to have their peak during mid-season and do not seem flexible enough in a playoff series, as we saw in the Bayern or Joventut series.

Giorgos: For the eighth time in the last 11 years, the El Clasico between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid will decide the ACB title.

Although Svetislav Pesic won two Cups, Barcelona suffered a seven-year-long drought until Sarunas Jasikevicius arrived and led the squad to the trophy in 2021.

The Lithuanian coach has put together a competitive team to stand up to Laso's Madrid, a machine that has been playing and winning finals for over a decade. However, the dynamics in the pairing have changed to a significant extent after Barcelona suffered a severe setback in the EuroLeague semifinal.

A 13-point lead in the third quarter made almost everyone think that a sixth win was on the cards. But Madrid bounced back and snatched the ticket to the final game.

Laso's team overcame doubt and poor results to arrive at the moment of truth. Losing the crown to Anadolu Efes did not prevent a powerful team from doing light work against BAXI Manresa and Bitci Baskonia in the ACB quarter-finals and semifinals.

The Whites demonstrated their championship pedigree despite facing serious problems in the point guard position. Nigel Williams-Goss was injured in Belgrade, Alberto Abalde has an ankle problem, and Sergio Llull suffered an adductor injury in the 1-0 win over Baskonia.

Thomas Heurtel barely checked in for a few seconds in Game 2. On the other hand, Barcelona had to overcome Joventut Badalona 3-1, in a series with many ups and downs.

However, as Pablo Laso is still recovering from the heart attack suffered a week ago, Madrid will have to play without their head coach. Laso will certainly prepare the team, as doctors have allowed him to re-join team's practices, but it's rather unlikely that he'll sit on his bench again in the coming days.

Chus Mateo has been an assistant to Laso since 2014 and has taken over the head coaching duties on more than one occasion. The last time was in December 2021, when the Basque specialist was down with COVID. Madrid will probably miss Laso's in-game reactions and decisions, but Mateo, who also served as an assistant between 1999 and 2004, has the experience to guide the team and respond to the task successfully.

How do you rate Efes' chances of making a comeback and winning the title?

Orazio: We all know that coach Ataman is a very confident person, and he truly believes that his team is the best ever.

That confidence definitely paid off in EuroLeague, although I'm not sure it will be the same story regarding the Turkish League. Fenerbahce are doing a really good job in these finals so far, Vesely has been playing like a true superstar, and it's clear how much the team wants to finish the season with a trophy after the disappointment of not playing in the EuroLeague playoffs.

In the first two games of the series, Fenerbahce clearly showed more intensity than Efes, but in Game 3, Efes bounced back with a spectacular performance from their star duo of Shane Larkin and Vasilije Micic.

At the end of the day, the two stars of Anadolu Efes could be once again the real game-changer of the series. If Larkin and Micic play as they know, it's almost impossible to stop them, as no one in Europe has that level of talent in the backcourt.

The key for Fenerbahce will be to limit the offensive potential of Efes. They did it really well in the first two games, but they failed to do that in Game 3, when Efes exploded for 103 points, after struggling to reach 80 points in the first two games of the series.

Ataman is confident that his players will win Game 4 too and will force the series to Game 5, which would be played in Fenerbahce's arena.

Personally, I still see a slight advantage for Fenerbahce in the series, not only because of the home-court advantage but also because, as of right now, Fener has more hunger for a title than Efes.

Uygar: Efes have an incredible mental advantage because they piled up an immense amount of self-confidence after all the things that happened in the EuroLeague final.

We all know what is going to happen next if Micic and Larkin catch a little spark. Either one can turn the game without the opponent knowing what is going on. No surprises here.

In my observation, Fenerbahce have the greater will to win the domestic title, which is understandable in many respects. It is discernible in the player's body language, gestures, and attitudes. An unconvincing EuroLeague season with inconsistent results, injuries, and of course, the Russian teams' case where Efes voted not in Fener's favor. All these play a significant factor in adding up to the ambition for regular sporting reasons.

From another perspective, the football department has not been doing well, and Fenerbahce fans desperately need something to celebrate. This is a huge club that does not have a lot of credit for not winning for a long time.

Besides, Ergin Ataman being a renowned Galatasaray figure with a certain history with Fenerbahce fans and giving those bold statements makes the case even more personal for Fener.

Efes or Fenerbahce? One could see that technically, Fenerbahce are well prepared and trying many different strategies to counter the EuroLeague champions. Personally, I liked that because we are so late in the season, and Djordjevic is still trying hard to keep his team's focus.

Do I see Efes winning two more games, potentially the last one at Fenerbahce's home? Each time when I think about the game, my impression changes. Well, regarding the mental and physical fatigue of Efes and the strong will of Fenerbahce players to at least prove something at the very end of the season, I think Fenerbahce will prevail in this series.

Giorgos: "From now on, Fenerbahce fans should be the ones worried. On Monday, we are going to tie the series and win the 5th game in Atasehir," Ergin Ataman said after Efes comfortably downed their main rivals in Game 3.

The EuroLeague champions needed a great showing from both Shane Larkin and Vasilije Micic, who combined for 66 points. The duo had been facing some serious issues in the first two outings, but as long as they can perform at this level, Ataman has every reason to be optimistic.

On the other hand, Fenerbahce have taken advantage of Efes' trip to Belgrade for the Final Four to appear fresh and prepared for the Turkish finals. Coach Sasa Djordjevic is close to repeating what he accomplished last year when he won the Italian league title with Virtus Bologna after AX Armani Exchange Milan had made the Final Four.

Against Galatasaray, it was obvious that Efes needed to bring their best game to win the tie-breaker. Without even coming anywhere near to what Ataman has called "perfect basketball", Efes managed to defend their EuroLeague title.

Judging from the first three games, Fenerbahce still have the upper hand in the pairing. Jan Vesely, probably in his last days with the team, is leading a squad trying to make up for a bad season. The home-court advantage will impact the outcome, as Fener seem to be more motivated to win this series.

Your first impressions on Olympiacos – PAO series, and how does the future of it look like?

Orazio: Game 1 of the Greek league finals between Olympiacos and Panathinaikos was probably a clear preview of what the rest of the series will look like.

Olympiacos are the obvious favorites to win the title. They dominated Game 1, limiting Panathinaikos to only 61 points. Coach Bartzokas' team is deeper, more talented, and overall just a better team than Panathinaikos, so I don't expect too many surprises here.

Panathinaikos cannot always rely on Ioannis Papapetrou and Georgios Papagiannis to win the games, and they just don't have enough alternative options to keep the series really balanced.

This final is probably the less balanced of the main European domestic leagues. My prediction, in this case, is that the Olympiacos will sweep Panathinaikos.

Uygar: I think this is straightforward. No matter what, Olympiacos will win this one, probably giving PAO one game at most.

The first game finished at halftime. It was hard to observe PAO struggling so badly in offense (despite all their sub-par displays throughout the season) and not scoring in the first 5 minutes.

The coaching change usually ignites players and the team's overall effort positively, but overcoming Olympiacos' stifling defense in this series is just a way too heavy task for Vovoras.

Perhaps the fan support and an exceptionally well game can give PAO one home win at best, and for that, Nemanja Nedovic would obviously need to have a 25-30 points game. It does not seem very likely, after what we've seen in the Larissa series.

Giorgos: Game 1 came and went in the most predictable fashion. Olympiacos needed less than one quarter of high-level basketball to get a huge 19-point lead (23-4) and put the derby to bed.

Panathinaikos, who went 2/18 in the first quarter, saw Nemanja Nedovic waste his first nine field goal attempts and All-EuroLeague Second Team selection Giorgos Papagiannis being schooled by Moustapha Fall.

The French center did not only win almost every battle in the paint but met almost no resistance when trying to position himself near the basket.

A look at how the team's semifinal series panned out could easily prepare anyone for what happened in Piraeus. Olympiacos won the three contests against Promitheas Patras by a total margin of 110 points, while Panathinaikos needed a Game 5 against Larissa to advance.

From now on and heading into the next games, the situation looks pretty simple.
Can PAO play better? Yes. Will that be enough to hand them at least one win? Probably not.

Even if both Nedovic and Daryl Macon (who went scoreless in Game 1) step up, it will take a relaxed, sluggish, and scrappy Olympiacos squad for the series to get past Game 3. Over the last 15 years, the distance between the two Greek giants has never been as big as in this season.

Under different circumstances, Tyler Dorsey's social media posts about "bench players talking like starters" (a reference to the trash-talking between him and PAO guard Lefteris Bochoridis in Game 1) and about the series ending 3-0 so that the Greek-American guard can go on holiday, would add more fuel to the Greens' fire.

Now, Dorsey can expect a 'warm welcome' by Panathinaikos' fans at OAKA, but the dynamics governing the outcome will remain the same.

As the team has reaped no clear benefits from Giorgos Vovoras' return, successful planning ahead of next season looks like the only realistic goal.

In Olympiacos' case, the season can go down as one of the most memorable in the club's history if the Reds win the league after six years. Lifting the Greek Cup, making their first Final Four participation in five years, and amassing eight wins in nine derbies across all competitions can't hurt either.

URBONUS

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