The ACB playoffs are in full swing with Unicaja taking on Barcelona in a 5 game semifinal that tips off today and Caja Laboral is playing Real Madrid on the other side of the bracket starting tomorrow. Unlike a certain league on the other side of the Atlantic these playoffs will not take us the duration of a college semester to finish after some exciting 3 game 1st round series . All these teams have Euroleague licenses for next year making the Euroleague impact will be minimal. Let’s take a look at these match-ups and see who can rise up to play in the finals.
Unicaja vs. Barcelona
As always with Barcelona it was a team effort in sweeping Gran Canaria in the 1st round. The 1st game in Barcelona they won by more than 30 and in the clincher they held Gran Canaria to 47 points. Unicaja swept Valencia in a series that could have gone either way. A Zabian Dowdell layup on the buzzer got Malaga their first win and a tough 9 point win at home closed out the series.
Juan Carlos Navarro the Euroleague Final Four MVP is the guy who takes the big shots for Barcelona late in games. He got hot in the Finals against Olympiacos and the game was over. JCN hasn’t needed to do this much this season because Barca has been so good most games are blowouts. Relying on team defense is their greatest strength. Barcelona makes you work for every one of your points and it usually takes quite a few games hitting jumpers to hurt them. Only 1 team in ACB play has gotten over 80 against Barca (Manresa) this season and that team still lost. Unicaja likes to play uptempo and scores points in bunches. They hung over 80 against Valencia in both games, so this will be a series of offense versus defense.
Led by strong play from both Omar Cook and Gary Neal, Unicaja is very tough to guard out on the perimeter. Both players are capable of lighting it up from beyond the 3 point line but also adept at attacking the basket. Cook is the table setter (ACB assist leader) and by far the teams steadiest player this season. If he can attack Ricky Rubio and throw Rubio off of his offensive game it will be a big key to this series. In the paint Joel Freeland needs to be bigger than big to be able handle the Barcelona front line. There are others on Unicaja who need to step but Freeland has the most potential to score down low and force the Barca bigs to tire out defending him and get into foul trouble. If he can be a star in the post and have some help from others then it will open up the lanes to the hoop that are usually closed because of Barca’s bigs ability to protect the rim.
This is a 5 game series meaning Unicaja needs to sneak 1 in Barcelona and take care of both games at home to win. Barcelona has the Euroleague title, Copa Del Rey Cup, and now they have a chance to make it a Triple Crown with an ACB title. With not many challengers to their thrown on top of the ACB all season, Barca has been in a bit of cruise control. Expect Unicaja to be hungry and attacking from the opening tip of the first game. Maybe its just a feeling, how they handled themselves in the clutch vs. Valencia, or because I really, really like Omar Cook, but I have UNICAJA winning in 5. Pick: Unicaja
Caja Laboral vs. Real Madrid
Caja Laboral cruised by Estudiantes at home in game 1, putting up 92 points and winning by 16, but barely survived in back in Madrid only winning by 2. Real Madrid was the only team that had to go to 3 games to win. They lost at home to Cajasol but they were able to win 2 games in a row to advance.
They come at you with more weapons than almost anybody else. Do you want the sometimes erratic but offensively gifted point guard duo of Pau Ribas and Marcelo Huertas driving it down your throat or Tiago Splitter hitting jump hook after jump hook in the post or Fernando San Emeterio bulldozing you down the lane or Mirza Teletovic draining 3’s. They come at you attacking and they try and pound into Splitter to start the game and establish him early. After that its whoever steps up that night, and if it’s multiple people, look out. Caja took both games against Real this season and the last game in Madrid was a close one but the combo of Huertas and Splitter late in the game was too much.
It’s been up and down and around for this team this season. They were the only other Spanish team to make it to the Euroleague playoffs besides Barcelona and Caja. They lost out in getting the 2nd seed in the ACB by losing to Caja, after holding down that spot for much of the season. The team has looked amazing at times this season with post players Darjus Lavrinovic dominating earlier this season and Ante Tomic really coming into his own later in the season. The team though doesn’t have anyone in the ACB’s top 15 in ranking, scoring, or rebounding. This leads to a go-to player deficiency complex for Madrid. There are a lot of guys on this team who can score but no one who has been consistently taking the team on their back throughout the season. With a lot of roster moves, Real at time has suffered with on court chemistry issues. Players get very inconsistent playing time, leading to inconsistent results. If this team is going to ride 1 or 2 players offensively the most gifted guys with the ball in their hand the most will be Sergio Llull and Lou Bullock. Every big man will be needed to defend Splitter, but they need to score a bunch to keep up with Caja.
Both these teams have tons of talent but its whoever can grind it out is going to win this 5 game series. Tiago Splitter (ACB rankings leader) is the best player playing and he alone might be able to swing the series. Madrid has a chance to win if they can find 8 or 9 guys to play and stick to them throughout the series. Prigioni, Bullock, and Llull have been known to blowup shooting along the perimeter but Caja should be able to match them with Ribas and Huertas. In the end Caja Laboral is able to outscore Madrid, get their bigs into foul trouble and Splitter finishes them off in 5 games. Pick:Caja Laboral