By: Rob Scott / @robscott33
Halfway through the Regular Season, and there have been some surprises, but also some things we all knew would happen. Group C being a dogfight, that’s one we all called. Anadolou Efes and EA7 Armani Milano behind Partizan? That would have been a braver prediction. Real Madrid swinging from facepalm to phenomenal? That should have been easier to work out, as Los Merengues have been predictably unpredictable so far. Last night they put on a show, sending Efes back to Istanbul with a twenty-point dent in their rear end.
In a week where the constancy of the rumour mill and the NBA-centrism of the mainstream basketball media started throwing up every name under the sun to “choose to play overseas, ACB.com’s Alberto de Roa had the perfect response: “we must thank the lockout for bringing great players to Europe like Jaycee Carroll… oh wait”. Although, lockout rental (of a kind) Rudy Fernandez did terminate a fledging Efes comeback in style, with two threes and an alleyoop jam in the fourth after Dusko Savanovic led a charge that closed a 22 point gap to seven.
It was a night when all of Madrid’s pieces slotted into place - Sergio Rodriguez has never looked more like the point guard they desperately need. Ten assists, only two turnovers, hitting cutters, pushing the pace with purpose over recklessness. Carroll did what they wished Clay Tucker would have done last year - if only there had been more boom to Real’s backcourt in that Final Four loss to Maccabi? Nineteen points, 5/8 from three point range, laying waste to Efes in the third quarter. Real only shaded the penultimate stanza by 5 points, but the 31 points they poured in showed their offensive game at its best - Carroll bombing from deep, Rodriguez pushing the ball up the floor, Nikola Mirotic rejuvenated from his recent bout of shyness, Carlos Suarez looking like the multi-dimensional threat he was at the start of last season, and then there was Ante Tomic.
Pablo Laso had relegated Tomic to the end of his rotation recently, playing him for 13, 8 and 9 minutes in the last three Euroleague games. The Croatian played 15 minutes last night, totalling 9 points, 6 rebounds and 1 block for an 11 ranking, and was part of the lineup where Madrid looked most effective offensively. Two plays in the second half highlighted his value and maintained Real’s momentum - a pick and roll with Sergio Rodriguez on the right wing seemed to be going nowhere, Efes had trapped Tomic, but he reversed the ball to Suarez at the top of the key, who knocked down a three ball. In the fourth, after Efes had opened with a 9-0 start with Ibaka and Reyes manning the middle, he used all of the agility that comes with his 2.17m frame to get to a tip in to break that run. His combination of height, passing and low post moves offers things no other Madrid big man can give you. But that hasn’t been enough for Laso, until last night.
A conversation I had with your Editor (@euro_adventures) on Twitter sums up Laso’s problem with finding a big man rotation: “That’s the only problem, though. Laso treats/subs Begic like he’s Ante Tomic’s missing defensive half.” Laso has been so frustrated with Tomic’s defensive shortcomings that he couldn’t keep him on the floor, but it looked like the damage to the young man’s confidence was such that it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The third quarter last night didn’t even paper over those cracks - Mainly guarding Ermal Kuqo, who racked up 15 points in just under 10 minutes, he constantly allowed good post position and also got lost on a simple pick and roll. Assigned to guard Ersan Ilyasova for a couple of possessions in the fourth, Tomic got blown by from the perimeter, but that’s a little unfair - Ilyasova is so dangerous precisely because he’s a constant mismatch due to his height and quickness.
However, Laso kept him in, and good things happened at the offensive end. Even if Begic is the defensive “better half,” Tomic is Begic’s missing offensive 90%. Since you can’t play six guys, all the better to play the guy who opens up offensive possibilities for your team that neither Begic, Ibaka or even Mirotic can provide. It’s been well established that Mirotic and Ibaka shouldn’t play together, such are the problems it causes with spacing, and Begic hasn’t done anything to justify more than the spot minutes he got last year. Madrid made it to the Final Four with Tomic playing a major role, and they are a much more coherent team with him on the floor.
This big win doesn’t mean that Madrid are “back” any more than their two defeats previously meant they were finished. But the fluency with which they put points on the board, with Ibaka and Llull both off the floor, leaves some interesting decisions for Laso to make. Playing with no point guard, two big men who can’t post up and letting the wings just freestyle isn’t going to take them very far, so this high tempo, hot shooting lineup deserves more of a chance. It might not be able to take down Europe’s elite, but it would be exciting as hell to see them try.
Milano threw away a 21 point third quarter lead at home to Partizan to slip to 2-3. Only Spirou are out of the running in this group at 1-4, so this isn’t disaster. Not yet anyway. It’s one thing going to Pionir Arena and coming away with a narrow loss, as happened to Madrid last week, but to not be able to defend your home court, in this group is a bigger problem. So is any game in which you’re outscored 30-9 in the fourth quarter.
Nikola Pekovic and Milan Macvan did the damage again, and the latter has been one of the most inspired pickups of the year – Acie Law shot 2/13 from the floor with three assists and two turnovers. Law doesn’t really have a backup, and averages nearly 37 minutes per game, so it’s perhaps inevitable that his stats will suffer. I didn’t see much of the game, so don’t want to get into boxscore scanning. But it’s another indication that European experience often trumps the ‘NBA’ tag.
Rob Scott writes Switching Screens every Friday. Follow Mr. Scott on “The Twitter” at @robscott33.