Like any playoff series worthy of our attention, the matchup between Barcelona and Olympiacos has been a great reminder that the more we see, the less we know. Here’s what we don’t know, in the form of questions.
Will Barcelona pack the paint effectively?
Even though Olympiacos shot lights out from beyond the arc in Game 2, the paint was just as an important area of concern for Xavi Pascual. Barcelona allowed the Reds to hit seven of their first eight close range shots in game 2, before perimeter shooting did the blaugrana defense in. Facing a rejuvenated Vassilis Spanoulis attacking off the pick and roll, Barcelona attempted to meet him as far away from the hoop as possible while also building a second line of defense, anchored by their power forwards. Whether it was Justin Doellman helping off Giorgos Printezis:
or Macej Lampe basically ignoring Dimitris Agravanis:
Barcelona seemed perfectly fine with conceding a bunch of open threes to Olympiacos’ fours, regardless of their stretchiness. On Friday there were three problems with this strategy: first, Printezis hit his open threes. Pascual could play the percentages here and test Printezis’ ability to sustain his long range success. If that calculated risk pays off, coach Giannis Sfairopoulos could really use Brent Petway, who’s been battling a shoulder injury and shooting poorly this season, but is the closest thing to a prototypical stretch four in Olympiacos’ roster.
The second problem for Barcelona was execution. The quality of rim protection provided by the blaugrana forwards has been an issue all season long and Friday was no different. Remember that play above, where Doellman rotated toward the rim? Well, here’s how it ended up:
How about Lampe helping inside? No luck there, either:
That’s two dunks allowed, mainly because help defenders did not stick with the roll man long enough. It’s safe to assume that Barcelona will be better prepared in Game 3 to see their risks through and execute with much greater precision. However, their centers will also need to do a better job of stopping the ball. This where the loss of Brad Oleson could really hurt the blaugrana. Alex Abrines and Marcelinho Huertas got beat by Spanoulis more than once on Friday, whether he was taking them off the dribble or coming off pin downs. If Spanoulis is not forced toward the help, then he will be able to at least find the roll man. And as ALBA Berlin demonstrated earlier this season, finishing in traffic against this Barcelona frontline is doable.
The third challenge for Barcelona arises when Olympiacos’ power forwards and weak side shooters move closer to the basket:
While corner threes are all the rage these days, Printezis is more of an old fashioned power forward when it comes to moving along the baseline - and for good reason. The effectiveness of his old-man-playing-pickup-ball hook shot was in full display on Friday and allowed him to a lot of damage from unconventional mid-range spots in the openings of Barcelona rotations. In the picture above, Nachbar is where he is supposed to be: ready to pick up the rolling Hunter or get back to Printezis when Tomic recovers. The problem is that in these situations Printezis does not need to catch the defense out of position in order to score. This means that Barcelona cannot rely too much on formation - they also need to do a much better job on the ball. Especially when Satoransky sits.
Will Olympiacos keep the pressure on for forty minutes?
On the surface, hedging out against Barcelona on the pick and roll is a risky proposition. The short roll by Ante Tomic allows the blaugrana to take advantage of openings as help defenders rotate. However, if you hedge out hard enough and push the ball handler way beyond the three-point line, the court becomes smaller for any defense:
A proper hedge out starts before the pick is set. In this picture, Olympiacos’ pressure force Navarro to receive the handoff by Tomic in a position where the defense can live with the short roll:
Tomic can usually attack the basket directly once he makes the catch, but in this case Olympiacos has pushed him out of his comfort zone. This allows his man enough time to recover after hedging out. Neither weak side defender has to fully commit on the ball, which means no shooter is wide open. The only catch is that this level of defensive activity requires a lot of energy. Olympiacos were incredibly successful in taking the blaugrana out of their sets in the first half of Game 2. Barcelona average only eleven turnovers per game this season, but had eight by halftime on Friday. However, the hedge out frenzy subsided in the second half:
This more like a typical Barcelona pick and roll - Navarro drawing the defense and Tomic having either an open path to the basket (he did finish this possession with a dunk) or a few palatable passing options to the perimeter if help defense gets in his way. Olympiacos can adjust. They have already been giving Satoransky the Sada treatment and could further capitalize on it by having his man covering the short roll area, instead of helping on the ball (like Spanoulis does on the picture above). Or they could mix and match their defensive strategies, throwing in a switch here and there.
Then again, Barcelona have done a good job scoring on mismatches inside in both games, especially with Lampe at power forward, and will not always shoot 30% from beyond the arc like they did in Game 2. Simply put, taking the blaugrana out of their sets seems like a safer bet than trying to keep up with their movement. The question is whether Olympiacos, having three key players - Spanoulis, Hunter and Petway - recovering from injuries have enough left in the tank to do so.
Where will extra offense come from?
Both teams struggled offensively when they couldn’t get their shooters going. Pascual might even bring out one of his seldom used zone schemes. Sfairopoulos will always rely on rotations toward the paint. So what happens if the threes don’t fall?
Barcelona could respond to their opponents helping off Satoransky, by making the Czech guard the focal point of certain sets. Especially when he is matched up against Spanoulis:
Posting up Satoransky would force the Olympiacos captain expand more energy on defense. It would also make help defense a more complicated affair - notice how both Mantzaris and Printezis have their back on the ball, as they anticipate the Barcelona shooters to work their way off screens. The easy answer to Barcelona’s scoring droughts is more Huertas, but the Brazilian makes an odd defensive pair with Navarro. This is why Pascual should have a plan B if Satoransky does not hit the open threes that the defense will surely give him.
Another promising idea for the blaugrana would be to initiate their offense through Tomic on the low bloc, as opposed to the high post:
On this play, running a screen the screener action for Navarro not only catches Hunter by surprise, but could have also produced an open look for La Bomba at the top of the key. By having their two offensive pillars work together away from the ball, Barcelona could ease the pressure on their perimeter game. And if the pressure is too much, they could always go with the flow and slow down their execution.
The blaugrana move the ball really well and really fast. This allows them to have an elite offense without relying on an elite slasher. On Friday, though, Olympiacos’ work on the ball caught up with them for large parts of the game. Mario Hezonja picked up his dribble coming off the ballscreen and tried to hit Tibor Pleiss befor the latter had a chance to gather himself:
Then Huertas left his feet without having a clear idea of what he wanted to do against the hedge out. He ended up throwing a crosscourt pass that was picked up by Matt Lojeski on the right wing:
Barcelona guards would be better off had they kept their dribble alive or make a simple pass instead of going for the killer assist. When Olympiacos resort to their hedge out defense, the blaugrana centers have an opportunity to establish deep position inside. Their teammates have to wait for them. The offense won’t look as clean, nor will it flow, but it could generate high percentage looks in the paint, or force their opponents to foul, like Hunter does below, as he tries to recover on Pleiss after chasing Huertas off the three point line:
For Olympiacos, post ups for Printezis were an efficient alternative to Spanoulis pick and rolls, as the Greek forward scored six points on three possessions and drew three fouls with his back to the basket. Game 2 provided Pascual with enough reasons to try a more aggressive trapping defense in these situations. If Printezis doesn’t get the same looks on Tuesday, Sfairopoulos will need more from Sloukas. The good news is that the Olympiacos guard should be allowed to get to his spots:
With Pleiss and Tomic having to cover so much ground in order to contain Spanoulis, Sloukas’ turn at shot creation is treated by Pascual as an opportunity for a more conservative approach. The show and recover defense is not as aggressive. The flat coverage is, well, flatter. Sloukas is probably the best pull up shooter in Olympiacos’ roster and he simply has to take advantage. This would be another way for the Reds to draw more attention on the ball and open up cutting lanes on the weak side:
Whether it’s because defense on the ball doesn’t slow down opponents’ pick and roll execution or simply because their weak side defenders lack the proper instincts, Barcelona have occasionally been guilty of ball watching this season. Sfairopoulos actually encouraged his players to look for backdoor cuts during a timeout in Game 2. This type of movement could benefit athletic finishers like Tremmell Darden or Ioannis Papapetrou.
These are some of the questions that need to be answered. Or a few openings that could be exploited by both teams. Look for the answers, or a bunch of brand new questions, on Tuesday evening.