AX Armani Exchange Milan used its experience and depth to hold back ALBA Berlin with a 57-79 victory on Saturday in the opening game of the WE'RE BACK PRESEASON TOUR from Kaunas, Lithuania on Saturday. Milan's 0-19 second-quarter run turned the game around and its veterans took charge the rest of the way. Sergio Rodriguez paced Milan with 14 points, while two frontcourt newcomers joined him in double digits. Zach LeDay got 8 of his 13 points at the foul line while All-Decade center Kyle Hines scored 12 and swiped 4 of his team's 17 steals. For ALBA, which stayed as close as 45-53 early in the fourth quarter, Peyton Siva was the only double-digit scorer, with 14 points, While Luke Sikma and Louis Olinde had 9 each. ALBA played without shooter Marcus Eriksson, new center Ben Lammers and guard Simone Fontecchia.
Sikma's up-and-under turnaround one-hander started the tournament in style. But Milan would race ahead 8-15 on the strength of 3 triples – one each from Zach LeDay, Vladimir Micov and Kevin Punter. Luis Olinde's first baskets, both dunks on fastbreaks, preceded Sikma's next one as ALBA surged in front, 16-15, after 10 minutes. Olinde kept ALBA's run rolling to 13-0 with a put-back and a triple, ALBA's first, before Luigi Datome and Sergio Rodriguez answered from deep to make it 23-21. Rodriguez then stole to race for a three-point play and flip the scoreboard to 23-24. Milan's full-court defensive pressure kept ALBA scoreless for more than 6 minutes while raising the lead well into double digits, 23-37, culminating a 0-19 run. Giffey raced fullcourt for his team's first basket in forever, then added a long two-point as the first half ended 28-38. Milan forced turnovers on 3 early plays after halftime to push the lead up to 28-45. Jayson Granger and Peyton Siva drilled triples to end ALBA's drought at 34-45. When Lorenz Brenneke joined them and Siva buried a second from deep, the difference was suddenly down to single digits, 42-49. Rodriguez and LeDay went to the free throw line to restore a 42-53 edge after 30 minutes. Siva kept it going with a new triple to open the fourth, but after a quick timeout, Milan locked down its defense again and pulled away behind Rodriguez and Hines to the biggest leads of the game.
A sight for sore eyes
As in all preseason games, rustiness and the sharing of minutes was evident, but for fans, just watching these two teams playing again was a sight for sore eyes. Scoring may have been low and turnovers high, but combination of seriousness and excitement on the part of the players and coaches was just what you expect from the EuroLeague — and both teams delivered. Every time they ran across the WE'RE BACK sticker at halfcourt you were reminded of the great sensations to come in the EuroLeague.
Milan's defensive sharpness
Milan had already played eight games before Saturday while ALBA was making its preseason debut. That difference was most noticeable as Milan turned up its defensive pressure after losing an early lead and shut down ALBA for 6 minutes in a 0-19 run that gave the Italians full charge of the scoreboard. By halftime, due to a lack of shots at the basket, ALBA was up to 16 turnovers and losing by 10 despite its 70.6% two-point shooting due to the lack of possessions. Milan would eventually force ALBA into a total of 32 turnovers, of which 17 were credited as steals.
One bright spot for ALBA in that first half was summer signing Luis Olinde, a 22-year-old forward who had debuted in the EuroLeague as a teen with Brose Bamberg. Olinde didn't miss a shot in scoring 9 points over 3 minutes bridging the opening quarters as ALBA took its biggest lead of the night, 23-15.
In addition to Hines — and All-Decade player — Milan added two more former All-EuroLeague players over the summer, Malcolm Delaney and Luigi Datome, who were on the first and second teams, respectively, in 2015-16. Delaney shot little but led all players with 6 assists in the game, while Datome hit 2 triples and co-led Milan with 6 rebounds. Of course, in terms of former individual trophy winners, Milan also has Rodriguez, who has been All-EuroLeague twice and was the 2013-14 MVP.
Post-game quotes, AX Armani Exchange Milan
Ettore Messina, head coach
"We played a good defensive game. In the second half, we had good shots, but we didn't convert them. Still, we managed to keep the lead and get stops defensively with ball pressure. I think that we have to remember, of course, that ALBA was missing a couple of very important players, so there's nothing to celebrate. But we played against a good team and I think we had a good game. We can build on this."
Sergio Rodriguez, point guard
"We are happy to be back. We know it's a friendly tournament, but we all are excited to be playing at this high level and happy for the win, also. We did a pretty good job, especially defensively. We are on the way. We already had the Italian SuperCup, which helped us a lot to find our rotations. We have a lot of guys who are new to the team, so we have to stay together and keep working hard, like we are doing, and keep going. I'm very happy be with Kyle [Hines] again. He's one of the best players in the EuroLeague, and for us he's a big asset to have on the team."
Zach LeDay, forward
"It was good to be here again. Beautiful country, great people, great atmosphere. It's early in the season. We're just getting chemistry and working hard every day. Italy is a beautiful place. We've got good teammates, a good group of guys, so we're looking forward to taking it day by day and working toward something special. It's a blessing to just be able to play again with all the stuff that's going on. I just hope that everybody can just stay healthy. It's a crazy time now, but it's good to be back in one of my homes, a place that I hold special to me in Lithuania."
Aito Garcia Reneses, head coach
"Milan played much better than us. This is logical because they have a very good team, and also because they have practiced more time and have played more friendly games. We are just starting and we have some injured players, but I liked the style that Milan played. They played with aggressiveness. Probably we cannot do exactly the same right now, but much better than today, I hope. So this game was very good for us to realize that we must work to play in this style after some more weeks of practice."
"Playing Milan was a good test for us today. I'm happy to be back playing in the EuroLeague. I'm happy that the EuroLeague is back. I missed the competition and I missed the environment and the joy of getting out there and playing. It was a tough game for us. We had a lot of turnovers, but we have a lot of new guys just getting used to playing each other on the court. I thought overall we did a good job of playing together, competing on the glass, competing against a very well-coached, veteran-led team. Overall that was a good experience we can learn from."