After overcoming a 14-point fourth quarter deficit to beat Montepaschi Siena 91-89 in overtime, Unicaja Malaga are sitting at 2-1 in Group B, but don’t seem to have impressed many regular observers of European basketball. It’s easy to see why: Including myself in this, we love players who move intelligently off the ball, who find the open man, who make the extra pass, teams masterminded by coaches who can draw up the perfect out of bounds play. Isolation plays? Pull-up threes? Dribble-drive offence? Keep that stuff to the other side of the Atlantic, please. Down on the Andalusian coast, Jasmin Repesa has assembled a team based around two shot-happy, dribble-happy guards, a posse of bigs who can’t really shoot, and a power forward whose lack of awareness of the game and variable effort distracts almost entirely from the fact that he’s an energetic rebounder and devastating finisher.
Shoot first, ask questions… never
The front office in Malaga has never been shy of playmakers whose first instinct is to shoot. In recent years, Omar Cook, Rod Blakney, the ghost of Terrel McIntyre, EJ Rowland and Kristaps Valters have been manning the point in green. The one thing the brain trust has shyed away from, is recruiting a stable, pass-first ball handler. So, this summer, when former UConn guard Marcus Williams and Earl Calloway from Cajasol Sevilla arrived as the new point duo, it was easy for folks to roll their eyes, sigh about more of the same and write this team off as a serious contender, at least for anything beyond the Top 16.
Chaos at Carpena
Week three of the Euroleague was not a thrilling one, if you like close finishes. Sure, there were some good performances. But before the overtime buzzer had sounded at Martin Carpena Arena and Unicaja triumphed in a breathless, thrilling game with Montepaschi Siena, there hadn’t been much in the way of drama. So far through three games, Malaga has come up on the good side of two close ones, on the back of superb three point shooting, particularly from Williams, who is converting 50% of his triples, and has hit 9 of his last 14 in the two wins. As a team, they are putting away 46.8% of their threes, which comprise a whopping 41% of their field goal attempts from downtown. As per In The Game, only two teams had a 3PA/FGA ratio of 0.4 or higher last season, Prokom and Caja Laboral (fare thee well, Mirza). In The Game says of Malaga’s deep-ball heroics “this won’t last”. Williams was a 25.8% three point shooter in China, of all places, last season. He boasts a 32.1% NBA career mark and 37.3% in Krasnoyarsk two years ago. So, on the basis of past evidence, 50% is very unlikely to be sustainable, particular of the stepback variety like he buried on Friday night.
Park your brain
But just put that to one side. So it won’t last? Can’t we just enjoy it while it does? Might there be other elements of the game that could see this team make some waves in the Top 16? Calloway and Williams are both adept at using ball screens to attack the rim, so having the big hedge out to stop them turning the corner seems like a good strategy. Both are also good at drawing contact in this situation, and through three games, Malaga are averaging 24.3 fouls received. This is more than Siena’s 23.9 to lead the Euroleague last season. A small sample size perhaps, but a good sign that Malaga may be able to compensate for the times when Williams, Calloway, Simon and Urtasun can’t score as freely from the perimeter. James Gist actually played a controlled, disciplined game, by his own standards, hit some vital threes, threw down the dunk of the week and blocked Bobby Brown’s game tying attempt at the end of overtime. Calloway played superb denial on Brown to force David Moss into holding on to the ball, resulting in a key stop just before that. There are seeds of solid play here, even if the timeout microphones did pick up Repesa telling Gist not to switch off Sanikidze only moments before he did just that.
Use what you’ve got
This team might be oddly built. But is it so weird that it uses the weapons it has? Calloway and Williams can both get to the cup, and Williams is actually a skilled passer. If it had been Sarunas Jasikevicius or Dimitris Diamantidis whipping the ball down the lane to Fran Vazquez for a go-ahead dunk, Euroball Twitter would have been on its knees paying tribute. Calloway scored his team’s last five points in overtime, burying a stepback three (that he may have set up with a charge, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt) and then zipping through the paint for the game winning layup. This kind of thing takes more than just skill. They may be lucky, it may not be sustainable, but isn’t it thrilling to occasionally just turn off the amateur-GM side of our brains and admire the talent, the swagger to take and make shots like that?
Malaga will have to close out, to stop covering up for lazy on-ball defense by fouling, and Luka Zoric will have to up his 40% mid-range field goal percentage if they want to be truly taken seriously. But by continuing their recent tradition and going with aggressive, ball dominating point guards, at least this year Malaga seem to have chosen a pair that can actually do some things right, and give us some truly fun moments while they do it.Rob Scott writes Switching Screens every week for Euroleague Adventures, within spitting distance of the 2013 Final Four venue, and you can follow him on Twitter @robscott33