By Rob Scott / @robscott33 – Saturday 8 February, Malaga, Spain

Real Madrid blew out CAI Zaragoza 98-66 to reach the Copa del Rey final in dominant fashion. A blur of hands in every passing lane, this was a victory built on stifling defense leading to easy points. Madrid forced 15 first half turnovers, mostly in live ball situations, pure suicide for a Zaragoza team that was always likely to struggle to keep up.

After an even opening to the game, Madrid held a 16-15 edge, but CAI were not having difficulty scoring. Shermadini carried on where he left off in the pick and roll game, scoring 6 points in his first nine minutes, and grabbing six rebounds to go with it. Before CAI pulled it back to a one point game, Madrid had gone on one of those lightning 8-2 runs they can just pull out of the bag on a regular basis. A Llull layup in transition from a turnover was a bad sign for CAI. A three from the same hands and a Mirotic pick and pop three and suddenly Madrid led 16-10.

The Madrid offense then ground to a standstill, as a 7-0 CAI run brought them back, but Madrid mirrored that run and led 22-15 at the first break.

CAI had been getting the stops they needed as Madrid went nearly four minutes without scoring, but they couldn’t get the penetration they needed to move the Whites’ defense around. One of the biggest factors to overcome when playing this Real team is their depth. It seems unfair that a player of the quality of Sergio Rodriguez can enter the game fresh in the second quarter and immediately go to work. It’s difficult to suggest what a ‘conventional’ big like Shermadini could have done when faced with Rodriguez as automatic from above the free throw line, freezing the retreating big in pick and roll and either draining the pull up or finding a partner for the lob finish.

‘Chacho’ finished with 13 points, 11 assists and three steals in 21.5 minutes, but the gloss he gave the Madrid offense was only the other side of a harrying, dizzying defensive performance from the entire team. Ten Madrid players recorded a steal, and five of them grabbed at least two.

Madrid forced seven turnovers in the second quarter, constantly denying CAI any passing lanes. Slaughter poked away a pair of entry passes in his trademark style, and sometimes all it took was a quick hand in on the dribble to steal the ball and send it to the other end for easy points. Led by the bench players Rodriguez, Slaughter, Carroll and Reyes, Madrid went on a 17-2 run that broke the game open for good. A killer possession saw Llompart turn the ball over, stumble into Rodriguez as he tore off towards the paint, resulting in a possibly harsh unsportsmanlike call. Rodriguez drained both free throws and Rudy’s three to finish the possession just showed the draconian punishment for giving Laso’s squad so many transition opportunities.

The only way a team could get away with such careless ball handling was if every steal led to a Felipe Reyes ‘fast’break. Shermadini chased down the lumbering Madrid captain and stuffed his dunk attempt, only for Felipe to get revenge the next time down the floor as the rim opened up just long enough for him to squeeze in a dunk. It hardly threatened the integrity of the rim but the point was made.

His spell before halftime at centre along with Mirotic at the four and three guards in Llull, Carroll and and Rodriguez was fruitful. Madrid led 48-24 at one point, and took a healthy 54-37 lead to the locker room. Damien Rudez showed off his expanding game off the bounce to claw back some of the gap, but it would never be enough.

The first play of the third quarter should have been enough to put to bed any thoughts of a Zaragoza comeback. Great halfcourt defense effectively forced a shot-clock violation, except Llull’s buzzer-beating one-handed toss swished through the net. It was the kind of good fortune a team just doesn’t need when up by 17 points.

That was the beginning of a 16-5 run that moved the score gap from daunting to blowout. Reyes again got blocked at the rim but was fouled converting the tip-in, which pretty much summed up his evening, and CAI’s.

By the end of the game, a demoralised and worn out Zaragoza were giving up points in semi-transition without any fastbreak happening, they just couldn’t set up their defense in time. Such is the luxury of Dontaye Draper coming in fresh as a third point guard. There was time for Bourousis to show off, faking a handoff to Carroll, to whip a pass crosscourt to Rodriguez for three. Extraneous to the outcome of the game, but few centres can pull off that kind of creativity.

Shermadini left the game towards the end of the third period with 19 points, on 7-of-8 FGs, 5-of-5 FTs, eight rebounds and two blocks, and his team down 71-46.  It was impossible not to feel sympathy for the big Georgian. There was nothing he could to stop his guards from throwing pass after pass to opposition hands.

Rodriguez dribbled out the clock for a 98-66 win, attention turned to the headline act, the second semi-final between FC Barcelona and Valencia.

Why Real Madrid won

Steals, steals and more steals. 17 of a total 22 turnovers forced, no less. Llull and Carroll are not known as lockdown defenders, but they do a great job of stunting towards the paint without leaving the corner open, and denying simple passes from the middle of the floor to the wings, Llompart, Tabu and Roll were guilty of simple giveaways and the points kept piling up at the other end. It allowed them to shoot 59% from two-point range, and stopped Zaragoza from ever getting into an offensive rhythm. Game over.

Why CAI Zaragoza lost

As active as the Madrid defense was, some of the ball-handling turnovers were very poor. Sanikidze never got a chance to get out in transition himself, and open threes were hard to come by. Zaragoza finished 2-of-17 from behind the arc.

A star from each team

Real Madrid: Plenty to choose from, but Sergio Rodriguez’s mastery of the ball and that space between the three point and foul lines is just damn nice to savour.

CAI Zaragoza: Georgi Shermadini has reportedly attracted the attention of Olympiacos management, who think he would be a good replacement for Mirza Begic. Well, they got there eventually…