Live from the Palacio de Deportes, Madrid, Spain
To check out the post-game wrapup from the first Semi-Final of Olympiacos’ win over CSKA Moscow: Link.
How Real Madrid Won
Sometimes this is a pretty simple game. Real Madrid moved the ball, they shot the ball and it went in, a lot. This team can be volatile, but when they reach the level of tonight’s 35-point second quarter performance, it’s both beautifully organic and coldly automatic. They often appear to be a team of individuals, but when those parts combine it’s like they absorb each other’s muscle memory and mutate into an unstoppable force of nature. It’s like a robot programmed with artificial intelligence that has learned how to love.
Before the threes started raining down, that individual flair could be seen pretty clearly too. Gustavo Ayon ripped down a rebound, ran the floor himself and dished off to Andres Nocioni for a layup plus the foul. The Mexican centre has shown off some impressive interior passing this season and he found Rivers out of the post for one of the first of a torrent of threes that sank Fenerbahçe’s chances to win before they could even think.
The first half display was as close to perfect as offense can really get. 8-for-14 from three-point range, 18 assists and zero turnovers. Fenerbahçe didn’t really make many egregious errors, they just couldn’t move quicker from side to side than the ball - to stay with shooters on the weakside would have just led to earlier threes that were just as open. They would have needed six men on the floor to have stood much of a chance. Led by Sergio Rodriguez, the extra pass always found the open man, sometimes it was the extra pass leading to another.
Storyboards of certain plays remain in the memory. Ayon flicked a touch pass out of the post to the corner, before another swing, another reverse and another open three. Rodriguez danced around the arc, the ball on a string, probing, waiting and carving an opening to set off the chain reaction of passing that led to another three points.
It’s tempting to excuse Madrid’s lapses of concentration, their apparent lethargy, some would say complacency, in other games because to play ‘hard’ basketball must be so different to making the game look this simple, this easy. But make no mistake, ‘hard basketball’ is what awaits them on Sunday.
The climax to the game was a little less inspiring, the game slowed down, frustration built and Fener started to foul. But this is not about how Madrid didn’t maintain their 26-point lead and walk away with a blowout. That was never likely to happen anyway. Fener would have had to keep Madrid out for three, four, five minutes to claw back a double-digit lead. Llull and Rodriguez made tough, pull-up jumpers to keep them at arm’s length. It’s like that those are the kind of shots they’ll have to hit to win the championship. But if they get the kind of open shots they created tonight, there will likely be nothing Olympiacos could do to stop it.
How Fenerbahçe Lost
He’s the closest thing we have to a cult figure in Euro Ball. Zeljko Obradovic or when speaking in more legendary terms just ‘Zoc’. He’s a master tactitian and an eight time Euroleague Champion. He indeed has a cult following, many from his tour in Athens as Panathinaikos’ head coach. People swear by him not only because he is a great coach and general X and O mastermind but because he is a great public figure too. He’s the type of guy who plays games with the opponents’ mind, sometimes through the press, and is the hardass, intense character that people love to talk about.
This week Obradovic owned the Final Four from a media perspective. He was the star of the opening press conference where his player Nemanja Bjelica was named MVP. He was messing around and continued to throw little bits of pressure onto Pablo Laso and Real Madrid. He did 13 extra interviews this weeks, playing the mind games the whole time. He knew Real had everything to lose at this Final Four For Real and Laso, everything was indeed on the line. Four year of trying to win a Euroleague championship and finally they had the grand finale at home, with all eyes on them.
But the moment the game started, all of Obradovic’s tricks and games became no match for the high powered Real attack. An attack that when it’s really churning, scores at a historic pace. Real Madrid threw the ball down the court with almost hail-mary like passing. They wanted to push the pace to the peak that it would go and see if Fenerbahce could hang. And even the times Fenerbahce could get back and set up on defense, Real swung the ball quickly and hit open shot after shot. How do you defend that?
With a comfortable 20 point lead at the half the question was could Fenerbahce get back in the game? And if so, how? This is a tactically smart team that plays position-less basketball with a lot of freedom and movement. But when Real Madrid is pushing the ball up the court with such pace and hitting shots with such efficiency, it takes you out of your ability to play the way you want to. You can’t find your rhythm when Real is scoring at such a high rate.
It’s tough to say if Fenerbahce could have changed anything and it would have mattered. When Real is that hot they are close to unbeatable. Could Obradovic have started Bjelica and not Luka Zoric and Kenan Sipahi? Possibly. Could he have thrown away any offensive rebounding chances for Jan Vesely and others and just had everyone sprint back on defense? Maybe. Could he have just given Andrew Goudelock the ball in the second quarter and prayed he could match Real point for point? Iffy proposition. Could he have gone to some sort of zone trap or played an ultra big lineup to try to throw Real off or contest more shots? The answer is who knows and Obradovic tried his best to throw Real off their game but the thing is, Real was on their game. And as much as coaches want to control the game, when an incredibly talented offensive team is rolling at that high of a clip there isn’t much you can do.