There was a school of thought before this series – at ELA at least – that it might be a close one. All the emphasis was on how Jan Vesely’s absence would perhaps bring the teams closer, how Madrid’s offense looked scary again against Khimki in the clinching Top 16 game, but also whether Madrid’s shaky defense would be able to do anything to keep these games close. Something that escaped my attention at least was how Fenerbahçe could smother that Madrid offense. Over the first two games, that has been the defining aspect as they sit on a 2-0 lead that no team in the modern Euroleague has ever overcome.
Madrid coach Pablo Laso has built up an enormous store of credit in his five year tenure, but there’s a lot to question about his personnel decisions in this series. He started Game One with Jeffery Taylor guarding Bobby Dixon in a crossmatch, with Sergio Llull on Bogdan Bogdanovic and Rudy Fernandez on Luigi Datome. Madrid switched when Dixon used a ballscreen and hedged out above the pick when it was Bogdanovic. The first quarter was low scoring but it didn’t take long for Fenerbahçe to break it down, primarily because for someone brought in to alter and improve the defense, Taylor just doesn’t react quickly enough or anticipate rotations.
More importantly, Taylor disrupts the Madrid offense by holding the ball, he’s not a good passer and he isn’t a reliable three-point shooter either. I understand that they struggled in conventional pick and roll defense but it seemed to take them out of their rhythm on offense, and when that happens, Rudy can try to do too much, which is what happened. Laso took his own team out of what it does best in an effort to counter the opposition, and it has failed miserably.
Taylor’s primary weakness is his three point shooting – 33% on the season – and it meant Fenerbahçe could easily help off him when he was set up in the corner, something they wouldn’t have been able to do for Maciulis, Carroll or Doncic. The image below shows an example – here Reyes tries to thread a pass through a crowded key to Ayon but Bogdanovic can ignore Taylor and help into the paint to block the passing lane.
In this next play, Rudy takes a three against a double team, misses and Reyes can’t get the offensive board because he’s double teamed – his offensive rebounding is one of Madrid’s big strengths but Fener took it away and all because they could leave Taylor on his own in the corner. Taylor did hit a corner three soon after that but you can take that risk in order to take away something more valuable.
Smallball and switching, Zoc does his homework
Every individual battle has been won by Obradovic’s team in both games, and that must be at least in part not just down to the personnel involved, but in meticulous preparation and strategic thinking. Rudy has played pretty good one on one defense on Datome but that hasn’t even been in the top 20 factors affecting the series.
Fenerbahçe switched on and off the ball – they have the versatility to do so – and there hasn’t been a convincing answer for it. They’ve been closing out to the corner impeccably, cutting off Madrid’s options for swinging the ball round to the open shooter. Against a team that can pass, pass, pass and then punish you, they shut the door.
It’s not all about preparation though. Fener played a lineup in a close fourth quarter in Game One of Sloukas, Bogdanovic, Hickman, Kalinic and Datome. That five-man combo has never been used before. With the yellow uniforms and backdrop of the fans, there were shades of Maccabi’s smallball lineup of death in 2014. Even when Laso brought in Carroll late in the first game, he took Rodriguez out and kept Taylor in. It’s like he didn’t want to admit he was wrong, whereas Obradovic improvised, and won.
Even though Madrid won the third period of the first game 23-10 and took the lead just before the final break, it wasn’t out of a strategic advantage, they just benefitted from Fener missing a succesion of shots. The dagger three from Bogdanovic, up 69-64 with 1:27 on the clock, came from another defensive breakdown. Taylor and Ayon defended Bogdanovic and Udoh in a high screen and roll. They switched, there was a re-screen, switched again, then Bogdanovic attacked Ayon on the switch and Taylor trailed behind, creating a three-on-two situation on the weakside that eventually led Madrid defenders to chase the ball and opened the space for Bogdanovic to fire an uncontested three from the corner. Fenerbahçe were patient, composed and executed. It was a killer play, the kind that win series, and championships.
Kostas Sloukas scored 17 points in Game One, probing the Madrid defense for weakspots and pouncing on them. Udoh played 33 minutes, only spelled by the tiny-ball lineup, which itself was prompted by Rodriguez attacking Baris Hersek on a switch and scoring with a foul. Obradovic wasn’t willing to tolerate that for even a few possessions more. The supposed huge weakness in Fenerbahçe’s lineup – the absence of Vesely – didn’t even register. You might even infer that in forcing Zoc to try out different lineup options, it had a silver lining.
Rodriguez replaced Taylor in the starting lineup. Jaycee Carroll also made an earlier entrance, but Obradovic saw him coming. They aggressively doubled and trapped coming off the downscreens that are his trademark. That not only stopped him firing from three point range, it prevented him attacking the closeout as he’s become so adept at doing. But this isn’t the first time that Fenerbahçe’s coach has had to deal with a quick trigger three point shooter. Not even close to the first time.
Shades of PAO vs Navarro '11 pic.twitter.com/lR4ctCvejZ
— Simon Jatsch (@sJacas) April 15, 2016
With Carroll on his patented curl round a backscreen, Obradovic sent the screener’s defender to chase the shooter with Carroll’s guy catching up as he got round the screen. It worked flawlessly. Carroll didn’t attempt a three-point field goal in 19 minutes on the floor.
After they beat Khimki in a do-or-die game to reach the playoffs, it was tempting to say that Madrid might just be battle hardened enough to raise their game, to take this series the distance. It was tempting enough for me anyway, because I said it, although I did pick the Istanbul team to take it in five. On the contrary, the champions seemed to still be reeling from Bogdanovic’s three-point dagger around 46 hours earlier. They came out flat and never responded to the occasion.
Madrid’s soft centre
But even if mentally they had have been on point, Fenerbahçe would still ruthlessly expose the soft underbelly of this Madrid defense. You can drive at Ayon and, at this point in his career, Reyes. You can jump over them, as Udoh did with relish as he detonated a lob finish over his Mexican ex-compadre, plus the foul. It was disdainful and pitiless. These kinds of chest-beating individual battles are what big games are made of, and this one has been a one-sided onslaught by Udoh.
Its the kind of play that gives Bogdanovic license to gamble for a steal at midcourt on Sergio Llull and take the layup at the other end. Madrid may have defensive fragilities, but they’re not supposed to get their pockets picked.
Laso mixed up the rotation again and brought in Willy Hernangomez in the first quarter. A playoff series really isn’t the time to be searching for lineups that work, especially when the option is to bring in a big man who although gifted offensively, has been glued to the bench at times because his defensive shortcomings are all too obvious. Hernangomez doesn’t obviate Madrid’s pick and roll weakness, he shines a spotlight on it.
The problem Madrid have had all year, which has been ruthlessly exposed in this series, is a lack of athleticism at the five. I’ll go to the barricades to argue that Marcus Slaughter was tough to keep once he lost his Cotonou passport and Darussafaka Dogus offered him a million per. But the replacements – Trey Thompkins and Hernangomez – haven’t even been close to adequate, and the effects haven’t been confined to protecting the rim. Game One wasn’t the first time Laso has tried Taylor as an auxillary perimeter defender, but it’s tempting to say that Slaughter would have done a much better job. He would also have been a gatekeeper at the rim – Madrid havent just got rid of their burglar alarm, they’ve left the keys in the front door.
Hernangomez has so much to learn, not just about moving his feet in pick and roll, but not biting on pumpfakes as he did to pick up his third foul in the first quarter. That meant he couldn’t breath on Udoh next time he got him in a pick and roll situation and lo and behold, the Fener big man scored easily. These are the soft spots and mistakes that Fenerbahçe punished, over and over again. It’s been a devastating performance from the Turkish team, one borne out of repetition, intense desire and brilliant execution.
Udoh steps up
Nobody has stepped up for Madrid – on the contrary, Fenerbahçe’s stars look like they are physically growing as they dominate the series. Ekpe Udoh gets my vote for MVP of the first two games. Without his Czech tag team partner, he has been immense. Dunking on Ayon, swatting away layups from poor young Hernangomez and Doncic, switching onto just about anyone and keeping them in front, he has been a two-way killer.
Likewise Pero Antic has taken all of those defensive positioning smarts he refined in Atlanta and played a huge role in keeping Madrid off-kilter, also switching at will. Plus he screens like… well, like you’d expect him to if all you’d ever seen was his photo.
Nikola Kalinic too, he matched Sloukas’ total from Game One, 17 points with only one missed field goal. There has been a constant tide of yellow and blue jerseys waiting to pile on the pressure. Kalinic did what he does – he attacked. Baseline, transition, on the glass, relentless energy and anticipation of where to be. A glue-guy de-luxe. What an advantage to have.
Madrid take them home needing to win just avoid a sweep. On the evidence so far, salvaging some pride may be the height of any reasonable expectations.