I already went overseas to play against Toronto during my last season with Benetton in 2004/05. At that time Toronto was just an average team. We had a good game and lost only by 3 points. Two years ago we hosted the NBA Live Tour in Moscow, largely defeated Clippers at home and then lost to Philadelphia in Cologne.
I know our fans have a lot of expectations regarding this trip. But I must warn them that these two games against Orlando and Toronto would be completely different from the games we played in Europe. Panathinaikos, Maccabi and Efes who traveled overseas over the last few years have already experienced that. With the exception of Maccabi (with Jasikevicius and Parker) beating Toronto by 1 point, all other games were a blowout for Euroleague teams. Let me explain why. First, NBA teams play at home and could not deceive their crowd. Second, the NBA court is a little bit wider than the European court and the 3-point line is further from the basket. Its important to remember that we played against Clippers in Moscow with European 3-point line and Euroleague rules, with the exception of time-outs. This enabled us to use a lot of help from the weak side, which is not allowed in the NBA. In Cologne we played with the NBA 3-point line and this caused many problems to us during the game against Philadelphia.
We will use some zone, like we do sometimes, but we wont change our style
This year we will play with NBA rules, including defensive three seconds rule which means that a weak side defender cannot stay in the three seconds area and protect the basket from dribble-penetration. Every two seconds and a half this player must step out of the area and this makes him go back and forth constantly, thus giving more space for dribble-penetration to the incredible athletes they have. But it doesnt mean we will play zone for 48 minutes and change completely our style just to play a little closer game. We will use some zone, like we do sometimes, but we wont change our style.
The second thing that will require big adjustment is setting screens, especially in pick-and-roll situations. You cannot get too close to the player defending the man with the ball and you cannot use your body when you roll to lock him out so that he could not recover his position. It will be an offensive foul automatically. Panathinaikos is one of the best pick-and-roll teams in Europe, their big men set excellent screens and roll extremely fast to the basket. But when they played against Houston last year, there were a lot of calls early in the game, that put Panathinaikos out of the game and got coach Obradovic mad and eventually ejected after two quarters of the game.
In the NBA there are also many calls when you touch your opponent that are never called in Euroleague. So as you can see the game is officiated in a completely different way and we need to adjust to that. And I dont know whether two practices and help from David Vanterpool who played for three years in the NBA will be enough for us to adjust.
Third, the game in the NBA lasts 48 minutes. It changes a lot your understanding of the game as a coach and the way you rotate your players. Just to give you an idea, when we played with Maccabi Tel-Aviv in Cologne we were up by 15 points and we were in the middle of the third quarter. In a Euroleague game, if you are up by 15 points in the middle of the third quarter and if you have a good foul trouble situation, most of the times the game is already decided. Though with NBA rules, in the middle of the third quarter, you still have 18 minutes to play, so if you dont pay attention and they cut the lead to 7-8 points by the end of the third quarter, they are back in the game. Its completely different both mentally and physically as you can never think that the game is already decided as the game is longer than what you grew accustomed to in your mind.
We didnt come all the way there only to visit Donald Duck and Niagara fall. So it will be a very interesting experience
Im saying this because I would like our fans to understand that these two games will require our players to make a huge adjustment in order only to stay competitive. Another important thing is that we face two teams which are extremely athletic that will surely be a factor in these two games. Plus now they know about us, our Euroleague titles and our win over Clippers, so they will come prepared and wont give us anything easily. As we represent CSKA, Euroleague and Russian basketball, were taking it seriously too. We didnt come all the way there only to visit Donald Duck and Niagara fall. So it will be a very interesting experience.
Also it will be a great opportunity for our players to live together for 9 days. During this part of the season its very important as they need to understand our system and build relationships inside the team. This trip will help the process.
Another benefit for our players is that they will have the chance to do their things at a much higher speed, because the athleticism of our opponents will make the game a lot quicker. If, lets say, you usually have two seconds to shoot the ball in Europe, here youll have one or even less. If youre a big man and put the ball on the floor, you need to be prepared, because in the NBA guards often come and steal the ball from you. You need to do everything in a smart way, because the time of reaction is shorter. If you keep thinking slowly, youre in a big trouble.
Obviously, we cannot completely change our system for two games, we need to prepare for the season in Euroleague and Russian league
They play a lot of 1-on-1 and 2-on-2 situations, so defensively we will try to see whether our ideas will apply under their rules and try to force them to play more 5-on-5, which is something that they are less used to do. But I dont know whether our defensive strategy that applies very well in Europe will apply there. I think we will receive some defensive three seconds calls as our players instinctively get in position that is correct here in Europe, but isnt correct in the NBA. Obviously, we cannot completely change our system for two games, we need to prepare for the season in Euroleague and Russian league. Offensively, we would like to see whether the execution of the fundamentals that we have for example, the ball movement from one side to the other, which is something unusual to them will bother them a little bit.
My stay with Cleveland Cavaliers during the summer league and Mike Brown coming to visit us during the preseason preparation in Italy helped in terms of understanding better the game they play. Now Im more prepared for the difference in the way the game is played here and there. I understand better where and how we need to adjust. But at the same time we never exchanged the information regarding any NBA team, as we respect each other too much to ask for some kind of insider information. We will never put each other in trouble asking for something that cannot be told.
Though I dont usually like to split the teams into guards and big men and consider them separately, but we might find more difficult match-ups with the big men as Chris Bosh, Jermaine ONeal and Dwight Howard are very skilled and athletic players. But if you want to win Euroleague, you need to be ready in every position. Interestingly, Toronto plays in a more European way than any other NBA team, as they use a lot of pick-and-roll and high-low situations (when they bring Bosh and Bargnani inside-outside, creating a lot of space for their big man). On the other hand, Stan Van Gundy is a disciple of Pat Riley and likes to run plays to post up his players and use their power and size inside.
By the way, watching Olympics basketball tournament was very interesting, but of no help regarding our trip, as the system coach Krzyzewski implemented was different from what they play in the NBA. The Americans made a major adjustment this year. However during the final game against Spain, they had to play very hard to win that game. Honestly, its never easy, at any level, to play in the final against the team that you defeated by 30 points, because this puts an incredible pressure to win on you and leaves the other team completely relaxed. When Spain came very close at the end of the game and it would have been much easier for the American players to go out of their mind and lose the game, I was very impressed that they had a very good execution under pressure. I think the credit should go to the players, but also to the system coach K implemented. And it wasnt easy to implement this. Even Krzyzewski needed three-four years. As you remember, it was a completely different team in Japan in 2006. When were talking about making adjustments, its basically taking the best from your competitors and at the same time understanding what their weaknesses are and attacking them. I think this time they were much deeper in their analysis.
First of all, they made some big adjustments defending pick-and-roll as they were killed in 2006 by Greece which used pick-and-roll a lot against them. In 2006 the only way they chose to defend pick-and-roll didnt take into account the abilities of their opponent. They played aggressively against Papaloukas while Papaloukas maybe needs to be challenged more to take an outside shot. Because if you help the man defending Papaloukas by coming aggressively to him, his teammate setting the screen and rolling to the basket will be open every single time. At the same time they taken by surprise by Schortsanitis. Second biggest adjustment they made was in the flow of the game. Many times they were just arriving in offense and playing not a specific set play, but playing out of the concept they had, which is the great thing to do. They were just filling the space, using wisely the mismatches they had, reacting to the adjustments of the defense and finding the open man. This helped them to control the tempo of the game and not depend on the decision of the other team going slow or going fast. They played in the smartest way one can play basketball, when you see whats going on on the floor, see what your opponent is doing and react to that. This is a more difficult way to play, because it implies that you have to combine self-discipline and the possibility to go 1-on-1 (and all those players could go 1-on-1 whenever they want). Thats why I admired the way they played.
But these trips are something that will be remembered even many years after these seasons are over so they are totally worth it
When some people tell me that going to the US will disrupt our preparation and possibly break the preseason flow, I honestly say: I dont mind. At this moment the only thing that comes to my mind is that every single season with CSKA we had the opportunity to either take part in the NBA Live Tour in Europe, go to China or now go to the US. This is an invaluable experience for my players and myself. So this is not a sacrifice for me. Honestly, even if there are some negative points, Im not even thinking about it. Im just worried about one thing: whether we will adapt well to the time change when we get back to Europe. I know we will pay for this trip. But I dont know how much exactly, so Im a little worried about the game with Milano, our opening game in the Euroleague. But these trips are something that will be remembered even many years after these seasons are over so they are totally worth it.