Pablo Laso ended another season smiling. Somehow the understated, quiet man in charge of Real Madrid came out on top. Five years into his reign, chalk up a third ACB title - the second in a row - to go with one Euroleague, four Copas del Rey, three Supercopas and, yes we’re counting it, one Intercontinental Cup.
Yet he is still seen as a survivor. Still fending off suspicions that he’s merely incredibly lucky to have coached a team full of supremely talented players. Still the ‘loser’ of back to back Euroleague finals. But clearly Madrid has its mojo back, and a pair of domestic trophies from a ‘bad’ season.
Meanwhile Xavi Pascual is a sitting duck. At the time of typing, he isn’t officially unemployed, but reports are strongly linking his post with Blaugrana legend Saunas Jasekivicius. General Manager Joan Creus has announced that he will be stepping down. It looks like Barca is cleaning house.
This Real Madrid team seems to have more lives than its Cheshire Cat-like coach. Swept in embarrassing fashion in the Euroleague playoffs by Fenerbahçe, beaten three times already prior to this series by their eternal Catalan rivals, without homecourt advantage, this should have been an uphill struggle. But they were one clever baseline-out-of-bounds play away from sweeping their way to the Spanish title.
In truth, this series showed why both of these clubs came into the playoffs rested, having been spared the mental and physical strain of competing in a Final Four. The ability of both teams to put points on the board outweighs their capacity to stop the other. Madrid just hid their soft spots more cleverly, whilst exposing Barcelona’s numerous flaws.
Numbers can tell a story: Barcelona shot 50% from three-point range in Game One, then 22%, 31% and 33%. Look at the turnover percentages from Games Two and Three. The margin for error in this series was way tighter than that.
— Stats LI (@StatsLi) June 23, 2016
Llull Leads, Rudy Helps
The battles on which the series turned may have been subtle, but they were unmissable. Firstly, let’s not get bogged down in second-guessing coaching decisions, the players ultimately decide games. Sergio Llull ran away with the Finals MVP trophy, averaging 19 points, seven assists, shooting 43% from three point range. More than that it was the way he scored - diving through, round and between defenders, pulling up deep for threes - it was as demoralising for Pascual’s team as it was energising for Llull’s teammates in white.
Another major difference between this Madrid lineup and the one that limped into and out of the Euroleague playoffs was that Rudy Fernandez was back to his best as a defender, darting in from the weakside to poke the ball away or alter a shot like a lizard flashing its tongue out to catch a fly.
No player in Europe divides opinion outside of Spain - you either don’t like him or really hate him - but for such a maligned practitioner of the performing arts its a a rugged defender that Madrid really missed him for a large part of this season. It was more than fitting that the key final possession of the the decider for Barca ended with Rudy helping along the baseline, altering Tomic’s tentative finish enough that the ball could be knocked off the rim.
The hopped-up help defense also created turnovers, and Madrid punished them ruthlessly. Off missed shots and turnovers alike, Madrid pushed the ball up the floor even quicker than normal, running Barca’s old legs into the ground. This play shows it all - Rudy protecting the rim, then the ball finds its way to the other end in a flash before the defense could set up. Doellman is just about in the frame as the net ripples.
— Liga Endesa (@ACBCOM) June 22, 2016
Role players from Madrid stepped up where they had been silent before, whereas Barcelona’s shrunk from the moment. Trey Thompkins might have saved his career in a white jersey. Here at last was the inside/out force, able to bully his way through the paint, control the glass and hit threes. He finished the finals shooting 12-of-14 from two point range, 5-of-8 from three, none more important than the calm, smooth hook shot he tumbled in in crunch time of Game Four. He would be even more valuable roster-wise if they could get him a passport from a European state that Spain recognises, but he must have at least given the front office pause to think about giving him a contract extension.
— Liga Endesa (@ACBCOM) June 22, 2016
Rewatching Game Two I started to wonder what the outcome of the series would be if it was decided in a ‘penalty shoot out’ - five one-on-one battles, score or miss, football-style. I would put good money on it going to sudden death after reaching 5 - 5. Satoransky is probably Barca’s best isolation defender, but Llull put him on his heels multiple times. This hypothetical scenario might be the best use for Jeffery Taylor - he’s a toolsy individual stopper but still completely lost when defending in a team context.
Taylor was given the job of checking Satoransky, given the nod to start the series in a lineup with Llull, Rudy or Carroll. The first play of Game One, the Czech handed the ball off, crossed to the opposite wing and cut backdoor behind a ball-watching Taylor. The latter took 11 minutes of court time to rack up his five fouls, and if he at least made Satoransky work a little harder over the course of four games, it wasn’t a tactic that really worked - not the first time this season either. Taylor showed again that while he put in the effort, he doesn’t have the awareness or innate sense of positioning to be a plus defender.
On the flipside of the coin, Gustavo Ayon absolutely busted his behind on defense, and came up with two huge plays towards the climax of Game Four that spared the prospect of going back to Catalunya for the decider. He has always been a dropback defender in pick and roll, and his lack of explosiveness in challenging shots at the rim was exploited ruthlessly in Euroleague, none more so than in the playoffs. But here he lept up to deny a lob perfectly late in the fourth quarter and then again stuffed Tomic at the rim as Barca tried to mount a remontada.
Pascual goes down with the ship
Pascual looked like he had run out of ideas by the end of the series, going down with the Good Ship Zone Defense just as he had in the Euroleague series with Lokomotiv Kuban. Although initially Madrid may have been hesitant in probing its weaknesses, it was no match for Sergio Rodriguez. Pull up three, drive and dish to Reyes for a three point play then another pull up, he figured it out and held his opponents at arms’ length.
The zone made sense as a throw of the dice - throughout the series Pascual’s team struggled to keep up with Madrid guards - Jaycee Carroll in particular - curling round elbow screens. They often had to switch off the ball which led to a mismatch for the screener - a big, often Reyes - inside. Madrid exploited that frequently. The zone, a kind of matchup 2-3, was not even as successful as it once was - one screen was enough to get a switch, a mismatch and a score.
The play below shows in microcosm the problems Barça had with Carroll’s gravity as a shooter when they tried to chase round the screen rather than switch. Three man go to the ball, Samuels and Doellman fail to rotate quickly enough, Hernangomez has a layup.
Justin Doellman has been in the spotlight lately for an embarrassing passport mishap, but the inconsistencies in his game were highlighted in the finals. In Barça’s Game One win, he buried 6-of-8 from three point range, then went 0-for-7 over the remainder.
Doellman’s series probably sums up his Barça career. He’s a very good shooter, a cerebral, capable passer, but struggles when made to move on defense and doesn’t assert himself enough. It’s not that his shooting is streaky, but his ability to influence the game wavers a little too much for a starting power forward on a team that hopes to be the best in Europe. His future must be uncertain now - remaining in an import slot significantly narrows their options for retooling.
That shaky grip on the ability to enforce their will is replicated throughout the roster, and might be the final word on the end of Pascual’s tenure. Even though Game One turned on the final play, Barça looked strong throughout - Tomic on the short roll picking holes in Madrid’s rotations with laser precision and delicious invention; Satoransky beating the press, Doellman bombing from deep. When this team is hitting threes and getting to the line, surprise surprise, it looks great. But it just didn’t last, and there were too many non-factors in the backcourt.
Pau Ribas was supposed to be the marquee signing of the summer, but he was underused as Pascual refused to let go of Navarro and Oleson, even Arroyo. The stubborn commitment to ‘his guys’ is probably great for motivation, and every indication is that his players love him. But there must be a point at which the team makes a clean break with the past. It looks like that has just begun.
Rob Scott / @robscott33