By George Rowland | @georgerowland
The Eurocup season has been a strange one, with the format changing significantly due to the ongoing beef between Euroleague and FIBA. But after a shorter season than normal, everything came down to the final game in La Fonteta between Valencia and Unicaja Málaga, and the Andalusians prevailed in unexpected and unconventional circumstances.
With starting centre Dejan Musli kept out for the series with an injury, Unicaja came into the series with mid-season addition Alen Omić manning the centre spot. But, towards the end of the third quarter, already facing an eight point deficit in a scrappy game Omić was ejected from the game for leaving the bench to restrain Rafa Martínez after a hard foul.
Málaga’s only other centre was 19 year old Viny Okouo, who looked outmatched at both ends of the court in a brief stretch in the first half. Facing 10 minutes to overcome what became an 11 point deficit at the end of the third quarter, Joan Plaza turned to his captain, Carlos Suárez to cover Bojan Dubljević for the fourth quarter.
Valencia have had one of the best offences in the Eurocup this season, often using Dubljević as an anchor. His ability to spread the court out to the three point line stretched slower defenders, and his leverage of space and positioning on the low block would often draw fouls and double teams. From this anchor, Valencia’s ball movement would kill teams, with an array of shooters ensuring that any compromise in covering Dubljević would be punished.
Matched up against Suárez, who began his career as a wing with Estudiantes and Real Madrid, Dubljevic seemed like the obvious mismatch for Valencia to exploit. But, it was not as easy as it seemed, with a chippiness and level of hustle that have been the hallmarks of Suárez’s career, he fronted Dubljević and helped to throw Valencia out of sync as they managed only one field goal in the entire fourth quarter.
The battle in the low block can easily be compared with boxing, what looks to be to the uninitiated to be a feat of strength and power, is really reliant on footwork, guile, positioning and intelligence. To extend the comparison, fronting the post to cover a bigger, stronger opponent is like the “Rope-a-Dope” technique employed by Muhammed Ali to defeat George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle. It was described thusly by Norman Mailer in ‘The Fight’:
“Standing on one’s feet, it is painful to absorb a heavy body punch even when blocked with one’s arm. The torso, the legs and the spine take the shock. Leaning on the ropes, however, Ali can pass it along; the rope will receive the strain.”
Covering Dubljević conventionally, and maintaining a position between him and the basket would have been a nightmare for Suárez, who would have given up deep post position and allowed Dubljević to use his strength to power through Suarez around the rim. By fronting, and taking a position between Dubljević and the ball and denying any entry pass, Suárez forced Dubljević further and further from the basket, into a position where any attempted move toward the basket could be absorbed by help defence.
Much like “Rope-a-Dope”, fronting the post is dangerous, it is both physically and mentally draining and any slight mental error can lead to a pass sliding through and an uncontested layup. It’s a technique normally applied when a guard is switched onto a bigger player because of this, and for Suárez to play this coverage for the entirety of the quarter was titanic.
Playing small against a big line-up has its downsides, and Unicaja rode their luck, including the play below where they conceded no less than four offensive rebounds as they struggled to reorganise their defence after a missed free throw.
As Unicaja ground their way back into the game, Valencia’s offence looked adrift. Pedro Martínez called a timeout to try to buy his team a basket, but Joan Plaza had a masterstroke of game management. It was expected for Unicaja to press up after the timeout, but Plaza used a zone-press, dropping back into a zone, nullifying any potential play drawn up by Martínez and forcing a deep three from Fernando San Emeterio.
With Unicaja taking the lead shortly after, the game ultimately came down to two defensive plays from Jeff Brooks. First he took a page from Suárez’s book, fronted up and denied the ball to Dubljević:
Next came the key play of the game, with Valencia down three Brooks came up with a block to win the game. Unicaja would’ve been looking to foul but were caught out by consecutive screens, first on the baseline to free up Bojan Dubljević to catch a looped cross court pass, and then along the top of the key to get Rafa Martínez open to take a shot to tie the game. With Brooks ball watching as the ball came to Dubljević, he reacted just in time to get his finger tips to the ball as Martínez released the ball, and contorted his body to avoid following through and fouling.
Unicaja had sealed their underdog victory, and their first piece of silverware in eleven seasons. They’ll be back in Euroleague next season along with a horde of passionate Málagueños, who were waiting to greet the team at the airport.
— Málaga Hoy (@malagahoy_es) April 6, 2017