By Rob Scott / @robscott33
The uniforms may be more or less the same, but in case anyone was wondering, this is not the 2013 Final and these are two different teams. Real Madrid may not have exorcised the ghost of that defeat, but they are a third of the way there. Psychologically, they may be even closer than that. Their 88-71 win was just as comprehensive as the scoreline suggests.
It goes without saying these days that Olympiacos are known not just for slaying the favourites but also for mounting incredible comebacks as they do it. After Madrid led 27-12 at the first break, only to see the game tied 35-a-piece with three minutes left in the half, they could have been forgiven for experiencing an uncomfortable deja-vu. Real’s footballers have been know, and cursed, down the generations for their improbable remontadas, but their hardwood cousins seemed to be on the wrong side of another one from the spirited Greeks.
Spacing over storylines
There was a much simpler explanation for why Olympiacos had come back from a 15-point deficit inside seven minutes, outside of the narrative context, but where’s the fun in that? Sport is a collection of stories, played out for our amusement, but the coaches can take plenty from this game whilst the fans debate over who has the biggest cojones and who seeks the favour of the referees with the most shameless gusto.
Olympiacos have been cursed with injuries minor and major since halfway through the Top 16, which has forced coach Giorgios Bartzokas into some unwanted changes. Most recently, Giorgios Printezis and Stratos Perperoglou have been forced to take a back seat due to persistent injuries, which has forced Bryant Dunston to play at power forward and young Ioannis Papapetrou to start at the three.
For an offense built on Spanoulis’ penetration, this is a pretty big problem. Right in the first couple of minutes, a textbook drive and kick sent the ball to Papapetrou wide open at the top of the arc. He paused, dribbled and reset the offense. It wasn’t that he had to make the shot, he just had to take it. Things improved when Brent Petway subbed in for Dunston, almost immediately hitting a corner three as Spanoulis tempted the help defender to cheat away from the American for the fraction of a second he needed to find him.
Real, Rudy on the rampage
Meanwhile, Madrid were rampant. Rudy Fernandez’s feed to Mirotic on the run, wrapped around two hapless defenders, was one of those plays where those of us who can appreciate his nonchalant genius for what it is just grinned. Those who can’t see past his vainglorious strutting had to grit their teeth. A lot of people probably did a bit of both, then wrestled with the cognitive dissonance of admiring him. That was just a trailer for the second half, in which his playful and provocative sides both dominated the narrative.
Perhaps the most impactful improvement in Madrid this year has been the elevation of Sergio Rodriguez to the elite. His brilliance has birthed a single word to signify his placid execution of the spectacular: Chachismo.
Having fought their way back into the game, Olympiacos suffered from a brief but damaging attack as the first half wound down. A slippery drive for a layup plus the foul for Chacho and a pull up three pointer as time expired, either side of a lob from Rudy to Marcus Slaughter that may or may not have been a wayward floater. Madrid had turned a 40-40 tie into a 48-41 halftime lead in little more than a minute.
That seven point lead had doubled by the end of the third quarter, as Madrid’s superiority in depth and talent began to show. Rudy expanded his repertoire from deep threes to meandering, elusive darts through the paint capped by a scoop and kiss high off the glass to finish. Mirotic and Darden blocked shots and turned them into instant layups for teammates at the other end. Real’s momentum was irresistible.
Laso switches strategy
Speaking of the other end, Madrid’s showy offense shouldn’t divert attention from their commitment and skill in protecting their own basket. Only a few times did any of the intermittent problems of this year give the Reds an opening to exploit. Bourousis froze under a screen only once, punished by a Spanoulis three, but otherwise he switched and contained in pick and roll pretty impeccably. Sergio Llull put all of his energy into forcing Spanoulis towards the second defender, particularly in the second half. The MVP still dropped 18 points but was kept away from the paint for the most part, shooting 4-of-7 inside the arc.
Only in the second quarter, when Olympiacos put Sloukas and Printezis alongside Spanoulis and Cedric Simmons did they punish Madrid’s backside rotations through floor-spacing. In their only dominant spell of the game, which lasted about eight minutes, Sloukas, Spanoulis and Simmons all punished weakside help that came a fraction too late, either from the three point line or the paint. Simmons’ emphatic dunk and block of a Rodriguez layup as the Reds fought back only reminded everyone that this is the point at which Kyle Hines used to ride into town and restore order.
Olympiacos will need to replicate that surge over three full games, to take advantage of the way Pablo Laso has his defenders on a string, recovering after the switch-and-contain, eliminating their main weakness defending ball screens. The fitness of Perperoglou and Printezis will be key. Matt Lojeski did nothing to suggest he belongs in a game at this level, and the Reds won’t survive getting nothing out of their swingmen.
No love lost
The visitors hung around in the fourth, down twelve, but never closer than an arm’s length. The Madrid offense did look a little less swaggy, a little more hesitant with Rudy on the bench, but a couple of tough Reyes finishes kept home heart-rates on the level. By the time Mejri popped out for a three and Chacho pulled off a behind-the-back dribble and finish that for him has become more or less mundane, it was time to celebrate.
Brent Petway didn’t agree, throwing Bourousis to the floor as he tried to hammer down a dunk in the final moments. That sparked the last of a series of minor fracas between the two sides, with tension clearly bubbling. There was posturing, no punches, but another four games played in this surly atmosphere, and we could see this bubbling animosity spill over into something more, especially in Piraeus.
If Olympiacos can’t adjust to what Madrid threw at them in Game One, the series will be over a lot sooner than that.