By: Rafael Uehara / @rafael__uehara

The defending Spanish champions Caja Laboral Baskonia have had an interesting calendar year. First a stunning sweep over the European champions Regal FC Barcelona in last season’s ACB Finals, then last off-season’s loss of club linchpin Tiago Splitter and a suffocating 8-3 start in ACB play this season, including another impressive win over Barcelona; yet in the midst of all of this dominance, the club from Vitoria has had a surprising struggle to advance to the Euroleague’s Top 16.

A win over Zalgiris Kaunas in Lithuania and BC Khimki’s loss to Maccabi Electra, who own Europe’s best record, in Israel eventually sealed the deal but that doesn’t change the fact that Caja Laboral spent way too much sweat and effort to survive a group that wasn’t really the league’s most difficult one.

After starting 2-0, Baskonia lost five straight, two of those games at home, and actually stood in the eyes of elimination after the loss to Asseco Prokom in Victoria a couple of weeks ago, a game they led for three quarters but blew in the end. The league that already had lost the Russian champions and is on the verge of losing the Lithuanian champions, was on pace to lose the Spanish champions as well.

But Caja Laboral eventually found its ways. A steady dose of pick-and-rolls, which are once again the essence of their offense, and some sense of urgency composed the formula that helped Baskonia just barely advance to the Top 16 with a game to spare, like when you need that half-a-point not to fail in school.

Their win over Zalgiris last Wednesday, December the 15th, was supposed to exemplify the paragraph ahead except for the fact that Caja Laboral led this game by 19 at halftime, 10 to start the fourth quarter and as many as 14 early in the fourth yet they allowed Zalgiris to force the overtime. Instead, it’s proof of how dependent on reliable frontcourt play Caja Laboral is.

By the way, Mirza Teletovic continues to move himself further and further away from the rim. Lately, he’s taken so many three-pointers that soon he’ll not even qualify as a stretch-four anymore but rather as a shooting-guard. Anyway, Teletovic led the first-half massacre by Caja Laboral, scoring 26 points behind seven three-pointers. He would only score six more points after intermission, all of them in the extra period actually. In the stretch where he didn’t score, Zalgiris outscored Baskonia 47-28.

Teletovic, Stanko Barac and Fernando San Emeterio combined to score 74 of the team’s 95 points. Actually, the trio is responsible, scoring wise, for 404 of the team’s 722 points in nine games of Euroleague play (55.95%). The same is true in the ACB, where Caja Laboral leads the league in scoring with over half coming from those three.

Caja Laboral was supposed to be unquestionably Marcelinho Huertas’  team after the departure of Tiago Splitter. Instead, San Emeterio is quietly having an MVP type of season and their young post presences (although, as mentioned before, Teletovic does not play in the post anymore) are carrying the scoring load. Another example of how crazy of a season it has been for Baskonia.

Caja Laboral’s odd Euroleague campaign is… well, odd. It’s also meaningless. The whole point right now is to advance to the Top 16, where you meet three teams among Europe’s elite, no matter how you got there. There’s no way to manipulate your match-ups, you still have to beat three great teams at least four times. So, it’s not like they did it on purpose. Baskonia’s defense is shaky but is yet to be terribly exposed. Caja Laboral struggled to advance not because they tanked or because they displayed some concerning weaknesses but because they relaxed before they should have. This is still a team to be respected, and they remain a Final Four contender.

Rafael Uehara is a scout for NetScouts Basketball and the managing figure of ‘The Basketball Post’, his personal website. He’s a contributor for ELA and can be followed on twitter @rafael__uehara or reached via e-mail at Rafael.uehara@thebasketballpost.com