By: Rob Scott / @RobScott33

Real Madrid trailed by sixteen points in the third quarter at Caja Laboral on Sunday. They won by eight. They were down seven points with 71 seconds to go in Kaunas against Zalgiris, but won in overtime. Two road wins, two dramatic finishes, and now they sit on a combined 39-5 record in all competitions, virtually assured of the ACB Regular Season crown and looking good to finish at the head of their Euroleague Top 16 group.

Is this team lucky? Their defense has been less than impressive for the past few weeks, at least over a forty minute game. They gave up 52 points in the first half in Vitoria and 29 in the first quarter alone in Kaunas. Can any team be said to be “good” when it escapes with a win attempting 37 threes in 45 minutes, and only 30 two point shots?

It may look good for the cameras, it gets everyone excited and damn is it impressive to watch sometimes, but is this really a team to be taken seriously when the pace slows and the real games begin? These are the questions being asked by the traditionalists up and down European basketball.

Players first

The mentality that coach Pablo Laso employs is that the players are the most important aspect of the team. Yes, he has instilled principles, and will sometimes call plays, but the offense functions by creating opportunities for the players to use their talent to score points. This would be a terrible offense for a less talented team to run, but Laso is using what Madrid’s ample budget and clever recruiting has given him. If you have Jaycee Carroll on your team, it’s OK for him to put up seven threes in 24 minutes. Even if Rudy Fernandez isn’t Kevin Durant, it’s acceptable for him to pull up for that stepback trey every once in a while. Just not too often, right?

Madrid’s style of play under Laso has been characterised as ‘high tempo’ but by all estimates, they are actually only a shade over league average for possessions per game over in Euroleague, and below average over the Top 16. Xavi Pascual’s Barcelona actually play faster, this season. But this piece by Beckley Mason at Hoopspeak, although it focuses on pace, resonates when discussing Laso’s style of coaching. Mason discusses first the conventional opinion on why more teams in the NBA don’t employ a run-and-gun style:

“It makes the coaches look like they aren’t doing anything. I don’t have direct evidence of this, but the Larry Brown style of coaching every possession is just not congruent with the goals of teams like the Nuggets and Rockets. Coaches need to allow for some craziness in these systems, they need to allow players to make decisions. Once players are making decisions, it becomes harder to tell exactly what the coach is doing. It’s a high-risk scenario in a profession that is perversely incented away from such risk.”

In Europe, where the grand puppet-masters like Messina and Obradović are revered, the players-first mentality appears to be mistrusted, seen as illegitimate. And to be fair, those coaches are revered because they have won things, to say the least. But Mason’s defense of this approach to running a team certainly seems relevant to Laso’s time in Madrid:

“As far as coaching is concerned — it’s really dang hard to coach a team to play this way. Look at all the flaming corpses of teams that crash and burn trying to play this way. There are all kinds of coaches with cool plays, but few who can inspire faith in a style that is hard to play. Any coach can call a great set out for an out of timeout situation that gets an open look. And those moments are the ones that are obvious to everyone — look, this coach did some coaching! But getting a team to do the right thing over and over regardless of the situation — that’s the real deal.”

Quasi-analytics

So even if Laso is coaching his team to carry out difficult, but highly efficient plays, throughout each game, did they do it on Thursday? By way of quasi-analytics, I charted all thirty-seven of those long bombs from Thursday night. ‘Good’ means it’s an assisted shot either from a high-efficiency spot, i.e. the corner, or otherwise open and subjectively “in the flow of the offense”. Pull up, contested, early-in-the-clock attempts are “bad”. Debatable ones, for example, a PUJIT that was nonetheless wide-open and by a good shooter, go in the ‘neutral’ category. Whether the shot was successful or not has no bearing on its ‘quality’.

Overall, of the 37 attempts, I categorised 17 as ‘good’, six as ‘neutral’ and 14 as ‘bad’. Of those ‘bad’ shots, only two were successful – one each by Fernandez and Llull. But, of the 16 makes, 12 were assisted. In our podcast with in-the-game.org‘s analytics expert Simon Jatsch, he put forward the case that adding assisted field goals to the standard box score would be a simple way to advance understanding to the game. This was an obvious case in point. “Madrid took 37 threes? Are they crazy?” But a column telling us how many were assisted would shed a little light.

Plaza’s masterplan so close

Clearly, Madrid took some poor shots, but rather than blaming it entirely on bad shot selection, praise should go to Zalgiris for forcing so many contested long range tries, and for large parts of the game dictating where and how Madrid shot the ball. Zalgiris’ bigs executed Plaza’s consistent hedge-delay-rotate strategy almost to perfection, cutting off the dribble penetration at which Rudy and Llull are so adept. The problem was, they were playing a team with such shooting ability, it didn’t quite work well enough to win.

The rare times a pick and roll could develop, Mirotic was fouled most of the time he caught the ball on the move. His perfect night of 18 makes from the line set a Euroleague record, and in the end, Madrid needed all of them. In overtime, Madrid created, and made, three of the best three point looks a team could hope to set up. Carroll open in the corner, Carroll curling off a down screen, and Mirotic open in the corner. This ability to score in spurts is part of what makes them so dangerous.

Zalgiris’ ongoing financial troubles unfolded further just four days after this game, as it proved to be Tremmel Darden’s final one in Kaunas. He will join Madrid purely to play in the ACB run-in. If anything demonstrated what a phenomenal job Plaza has done this season, it was the commitment of his players even as they are owed thousands of euros in unpaid salaries.

Philosophy of chaos

So can they win when it matters? Yes, absolutely. Even though the spectre of “playing the right way to win a championship” will always hover over this, of all teams, until they win the continent’s biggest prize again. They may have only lost five times in 44 games, but the omnipresent personality of the team responsible for two of those defeats looms large in the background. But maybe if this is the year, Laso’s philosophical approach to chaos will even gain some respect around the old continent. Maybe the conversation about “how to win” will have to change.