By Rob Scott / @robscott33 - Saturday 8 February - Malaga, Spain
Barcelona defeated Valencia 89-81 in the second semi final of the Copa del Rey to advance to the final. Maybe it was inevitable that they would face Real Madrid, before the first tip off on Thursday. After all, this is the fifth year in a row that Barcelona have reached the final, all but one against their oldest rival. It seems that the biggest basketball games in Spain still only ever have the same two names on the guest list. As last year’s epic showed, even when it’s not the final, really it is.
Still, Valencia came into the tournament with the best offensive rating and the second best record in the league, and could have been considered the favourites in this matchup. Maybe they were still exhausted from their draining quarter final, facing a rested Barcelona, but nobody could have expected a 31-9 deficit at the end of the first quarter. With good reason too: The 22-point deficit after one period had never happened before in the history of the tournament.
The early signs were ominous. Juan Carlos Navarro hit his first three triples and Barcça led 9-0. Coach Perasovic burned a timeout inside three minutes. It didn’t work. A Tomic three point play and back to back transition layups by Papanikolaou pushed it to 16-4. Sam Van Rossum briefly stemmed the flow with a three but Papanikolaou responded from the corner.
The points kept on coming - a lob dunk and delicious turnaround bank shot by Tomic; Nachbar from deep after a perfect pick and roll drew help, and yet still Valencia couldn’t get a break. Their first legitimate defensive stop forced Barça to inbound with two seconds on the shot clock. Nachbar swished an impossible turnaround three from the right corner.
There was nothing La Taronja could do. Even as Doellman crashed the glass, three stops on the same possession by Barça slammed the door shut. Pullen’s lob to Dorsey capped the record-breaking ten minutes. Down by 22 points, and disbelief all around. This game was the one everybody - other than Baskonia fans - wanted, and it was over after one quarter?
Well, not quite. Slowly, Valencia chipped away in the second. They took it 24-17, and as the game neared halftime, interest began to drain back into the arena. Before that, Dorsey had abused Dubljevic in the post, Nachbar hit another one of those smooth jumpers that make you realise why coaches believe in him so much, and Oleson stepped into a customary corner three. With the score at 41-18, the question was how could Barça do what they did to Tenerife, to a team of Valencia’s quality?
A 15-5 run for Valencia could have been much more damaging, and this was the start of the second phase of the game - the part where the deficit remained an almost constant three-to-four possessions, always threatening to squeeze closer. Doellman drained a three to cut it to 44-33 with just over a minute ’til halftime. But Valencia were unable to stop giving away needless off-ball fouls, and Barça scored eight points in a row from the stripe to push the deficit up to 48-33.
In the second half, Valencia were never quite able to string together a run when they needed it, to put sufficient pressure on their opponents. They could never get the defensive stop that could have built momentum to close the gap to single digits. Sato and Van Rossum both hit from downtown and the Belgian guard, whose play kept Rafa Martinez mainly confined to the bench, began to get to the rim. But Dubljevic unfortunately continued his disappointing tournament, getting his weak layup attempt blocked by Tomic, who then beat him down the other end for an easy two.
Pau Ribas started to twist and dart through the lane, and had a great nose for loose balls at the offensive end. Sato ducked in for two on an extended play and van Rossum split a pair at the line to cut it to 61-48. Inevitably, Valencia couldn’t keep up the pressure, and Pullen stroked a step back three on an isolation quarter-ending play. The gap between 13 points with momentum, and 16 without it, might as well have been doubled.
Although the lead was cut to six in the final minute, by then the endgame fouling situation meant that Barcelona were home and dry. Valencia kept the pressure up, but were always at least two plays away from real contention. A 9-0 run early in the fourth brought the atmosphere back to a frenzy and the score to 68-57. But, as if scripted, an off-target lob pass by Pullen was deflected straight to Lorbek and he was fouled converting a tough runner.
Lafayette was way short on a contested three after more great rotation and recovery by Barça’s defense. Those were the kind of shots that both he and Dubljevic made in volume during their team’s comeback win last Sunday. It didn’t happen on this occasion, although they have both made similar shots on a regular basis.
Navarro had been quiet since his opening triple of triples, but he returned to put the game to bed in his own trademark style. First the picturesque: turning the corner to lay in a two, and firing back a give-and-go from Huertas to set the Brazilian up for a three, not for the first time. 20 points on 10 shots in 26 minutes was more than enough to see Barcelona home.
Then, the flipside to that irresistible skill. The fouls that Navarro picks up to ice games from the line are rarely unanimously bad whistles. There is always contact of a kind. The referees could call it, or they could ignore it. That Navarro tends to get those calls - an aggressive hedge here, a slight push-off there - is not cheating, it’s knowing how to take control of the culmination of the game. Basketball has a deep history of sacred cows and ‘superstar calls’, and this is Navarro’s territory.
Barcelona would have won the game anyway, but there was an inevitability about how they made sure in the final moments. What should be remembered is how they blew it open early on. Valencia ran out of time, but after that record-breaking opening period, theirs was borrowed anyway.
Why FC Barcelona won
They scored 31 points in the first ten minutes and 33 in the twenty that followed. After that purity of ball movement in the opening quarter, their defense went to work either side of halftime, so much so that a 33-25 reverse in the final was no big deal. Despite Sato’s energy and agility to getting to the rim, Dorsey shut down the paint and forced the Valencia bigs into clumsy, needless fouls that kept Barça at the line and the cushion pretty comfortable. Then they had Navarro.
Why Valencia lost
It bears repeating a few more times just how dumb some of their loose ball fouls were. Already missing Serhiy Lishchuk, the combination of JJ Triguero, Dublejevic, Doellman and Lubos Barton was outfought and shut down. Doellman was probably more tentative given his facial injury, and clearly the mask was hampering his confidence. He continually pulled up short of the rim and there were some awkward attempts in his 3-for-12 performance from inside the arc. That probably explained why he disappeared on the bench in the fourth quarter.
Dubljevic was the biggest disappointment of the tournament. I came in wanting to see the things that are best observed in person - his defense, his boxing out, how he matches up physically with different types of opponent. Over both games he was soft, rarely put in full effort on defense and lacked the bulk and height to deal with centres like Dorsey and Tomic, and the foot speed and effort to contain Nocioni. Shooting slumps happen, but those other things are more concerning. Scouts will surely have left with more questions than answers.
A star from each team:
FC Barcelona: Navarro bookended the performance, but Kostas Papanikolaou was central to Barça’s early rampage, flying all over the court on defense, running the break and shooting from deep. Brad Oleson also kept up impeccable defensive discipline, never over-helping from the wing and shutting down the Valencia perimeter in his 21 minutes of action.
Valencia: It was great to see Romain Sato un-retired from his year at Fenerbahçe. Leading his team with 21 points on 6-of-8 from inside, 2-of-4 from deep and 11 rebounds, he kept forcing his way to the rim as Valencia’s desperately tried to come back.