By: Rob Scott / @robscott33

Rudy Fernandez. There, I said it. It’s OK, take a deep breath and step away from the screen. The end of Real Madrid’s 75-74 victory over Zalgiris Kaunas came straight off the page of a script written by anyone around Europe who thinks Spanish players, and Fernandez himself, are unsportsmanlike provocateurs. Reaction from around the continent seems to have been along the lines of Nicolas Batum when he punched Juan Carlos Navarro in the crotch at the Olympics.

Is this fair? As ever with Rudy, a little bit, but not entirely. I’m a dedicated Rudy apologist, while admitting that not even I can justify some of his more egregious flops over the years. This latest episode was the conclusion to a perfect storm of questionable refereeing calls, several Madrid players pouring petrol on the fire, and, to my mind, the continent-wide dislike of Los Blancos’ omnipresent and infamous footballing cousins.

The ugly ending at la Palacio de Deportes should not obscure what was a fascinating game of intensity and drama, but let’s examine the final 41 seconds, with Madrid leading 72-70:

Ksistof Lavrinovic steals the ball away and is grabbed by Rudy Fernandez near midcourt. An unsportsmanlike foul is called. It looked like a 50/50 call, Rudy did grab him from behind so it was probably the right one. Many players’ instincts would have led them to do the same. Earlier in the quarter, Kaukenas had done something similar to Llull but no foul was called.Verdict: Good call, no villain points for Rudy.

Lavrinovic makes both free throws, tie game, 72-a-piece. Sideline possession Zalgiris, Kaukenas to inbound. 5 second violation, turnover. The video below shows this was a bad call. Yes, Real Madrid were at home. Many people will make more of this than is fair. After all, if the pressure to give 50/50 calls to the ‘evil empire’ was so great, would Rudy’s foul not have been called straight up, rather than unsportsmanlike? Verdict: Bad call.

Sergio Rodriguez misses a three pointer, rebounded by Lafeyette, who Rodriguez then fouls intentionally with 8.7 seconds on the clock. Insanely high risk strategy by Pablo Laso, given that Lafeyette is an 88.2% free throw shooter this year. I didn’t like this strategy when Dule Vujosevic used it on Marcelino Huertas and I don’t like it any more now, regardless of the end result. Lafayette makes both, Zalgiris lead 74-72 with 8.7 seconds on the clock. Here’s where it started to get silly. Verdict: Never give away the lead, no matter how much you trust your offense.

Following Lafayette’s second make, Rudy retrieves the ball under the rim and it looks like he taps it to the ref on the baseline whilst turning away, except the ball accidentally hits Ksistof Lavrinovic on the head. Rudy’s back is turned as Lavrinovic shoves him angrily in the back. Lavrinovic’s reaction is understandable, but you have to remember he probably had no idea the ball had hit the Lithuanian, and so didn’t know why he’d been shoved. Regardless, Mirotic wades in, Rudy walks away, the refs do a great job in controlling the situation, warn everyone they’ll be T’d up, and nothing bad happens. Verdict: Misunderstanding.

Following back-to-back timeouts, Madrid set up with the floor spread, Rudy handling the ball with Llull and Rodriguez in each corner. Rudy drives and kicks to Rodriguez in the right corner, and it looks like he was probably fouled making the pass, although the no-call benefitted Madrid and it probably qualified for ‘swallow your whistle at crunch time’ status. Ibrahim Jabeer helps just a little too much on the drive and slips trying to recover to the corner. ‘Chacho’ buries the three, Madrid lead 75-74 with 3.5 seconds to go.

Here’s where Laso’s decision to foul on the last play makes even less sense – Madrid fouled to get the last possession, but because they scored too early, it wasn’t even the last possession. You can’t wait until the last few ticks to put up the shot to win in case you miss, but if you score “early”, the other team gets it’s chance anyway. Granted, it’s harder to set up a winning shot in 3.5 seconds rather than 8.7, but the risk is there.  Verdict: as our friend Savas Birdal of put it:

Marko Popovic got open from a crosscourt inbounds pass, and fired up a three that was just long. Jankunas went up for the putback and got hands on the ball only for Rudy to get there at the same time and swat it away.

Game over, Madrid win.

In the aftermath of the buzzer, it looks from the video that Rudy said something to Jankunas on the floor which sparked a mini-brawl, though a pretty tame one, in the grand scheme of things. Madrid players surrounded Jankunas, although there didn’t seem to be any punches thrown and the whole thing was over pretty quickly. Verdict: If Rudy did spit at Jankunas, he should be suspended. Otherwise, he’s just a jackass, not public enemy number one.

The Rest of the Game

Madrid won without hitting any real high notes, which has to be a great sign for the rest of the campaign. Their three point shooting, until the crucial moments, was poor, finishing 8-of-29. One thing that mitigates this poor shooting is the way they crash the offensive glass, with 12 offensive boards to Zalgiris’ 21 defensive, not including team rebounds. Nowhere was this more crucial than Reyes’ putback of a missed triple by Llull that put his team up by two in the final minute.

Madrid’s fastbreak game was also about as effective as it normally is, but Zalgiris’ transition defense was superb, limiting its impact on the game.

The play of the game in term of clever execution came in the first quarter. This is one of several set plays that Laso runs with Rudy cutting baseline to finish a lob at the rim. This time it was a horns set with Reyes (left) and Slaughter (right) screening up top. Llull used Reyes screen, and Zalgiris as usual hedged aggressively, while Slaughter moves across the paint. The whole effect is to drag the defense away from the weakside, where Rudy is preparing to cut to the rim for the lob. Just before the pass, Slaughter makes like he’s going to set another ball screen for Llull, dragging Kuzminskas away from Rudy, Llull whips the ball to the rim where Rudy throws it down. This play only worked because Plaza has his bigs hedge out very high on ball screens, and that might be something he has to vary as the year goes on. Here’s a video of the play:

Zalgiris are now 1-2 and play CSKA Moscow next week, but they are not out of contention by a long shot. They’ve dropped two tough road games on the final play, and are very much a Top 8 quality team. Popovic remains one of the craftiest operators on the continent, going 5-of-9 from three-point range in his 21 point effort.

However, Jabeer picked up his third foul midway through the second quarter, which affected Zalgiris’ rhythm, and he finished with only three points. Kuzminskas and Jankunas failed to score and for all Tremmel Darden’s excellent defense on Rudy, he only dropped in six points of his own. Madrid overcame off-nights from the likes of Carroll and Llull, but Zalgiris cant afford for so many of their guys to score so little.

This wasn’t an elite level game in terms of execution, but the intensity level took a step up. It’s after Christmas and although the Top 16 is a lot longer now, it feels like the true contenders will begin to emerge from this point on.

The return game in Kaunas is on March 7. This season now has its pantomime villain. Be prepared for another classic.

Rob Scott writes ‘Switching Screens’ every week for ELA. He also writes for and The Basketball Post. Follow him on Twitter @robscott33.