By Rodhig / @rodhig7
The latest version of the hoops Clásico was all about a young gun: Mario Hezonja hit five of Barcelona’s eleven threes en route to a team high fifteen points (on six shots) and a Blaugrana win over Madrid. The Barcelona offense was rolling, to the tune of 85 points on just 64 possessions. However, it was an old geezer that put the wheels into motion:
This is a screenshot from the very first Barcelona possession of the game, when it became apparent that Madrid coach Pablo Lasso would not let Juan Carlos Navarro get a clear look at a three pointer for all the tea in China. Felipe Reyes - playing significant minutes at center on the defensive end - and Sergio Llull defend the La Bomba - Ante Tomic pick and roll by trapping the Barcelona captain. This is not necessarily a good idea against a team featuring so many crafty passers. On this occasion, Navarro found Bostjan Nachbar - perimeter-bound on the picture above - for a wide open three. As the game progressed, Barcelona became more inventive and equally effective in exploiting the gaps created by the magnetic fields in their offense, which kept drawing Madrid help defenders toward Navarro and other shooters not named Hezonja.
Xavi Pascual is not a one trick pony. Most likely he is not even a pony to begin with, but what matters here is that his offense combines Tomic-centric pick and rolls with a litany of floppy, pin down and curl actions, designed to produce open three pointers. Or maybe that’s what he wants his opponents to believe. Take the action above, where DeShaun Thomas is coming off an elevator doors-like double pick set by Tomas Satoransky and Navarro, with Tomic stationed for another screen just above the free throw line.
Reyes, guarding Tomic, has to at least ‘show’ help defense as Thomas is coming off the second screen. This response is supposed to buy Rudy Fernandez enough time in order to get back to Thomas. As it often happens in help and recover situations, though, the timing of this sequence is not ideal. Reyes is a bit late to get back to Tomic. Rudy doesn’t cover Reyes’ back, as the Croatian center rolls to the basket. This is where a help defender would come in handy. Jaycee Carroll has to follow Satoransky towards the left corner, or risk an open three assisted by Tomic. Sergio Llull is the last line of defense but he is glued to Navarro - yet another proof of Juanqui’s gravitas. Tomic gets the open dunk:
Navarro ended up with five assists on Thursday, but this play indicates that his impact on Barcelona’s ball movement was much greater. The same is true for other actions which started with him on the ball but didn’t really highlight his creative instincts:
The starting point for this play is Navarro running off two screens set along the baseline by Hezonja and Tomic. As he receives the ball, Madrid’s concern is evident - three defenders close in on him. Navarro swings the ball to Pleiss, who is posting up against the smaller Jonas Maciulis, as Marcus Slaughter is attempting to defuse La Bomba on the perimeter. Maciulis’ initial defensive assignment was Hezonja, who is now free to set up shop on the far corner. All that’s left is for the ball to find him. Pleiss hits Nachbar on the weakside and he in turn makes the touch pass to Hezonja. Boom.
Barcelona had twenty five assists on thirty three made field goals. Madrid’s emphasis on defending pin down and curl actions with multiple defenders had a lot to do with it - even against Barcelona lineups which could have had problems spreading the floor. With Justin Doellman injured, Pascual used Maciej Lampe at power forward. The impact on spacing can be seen in the defensive positioning of Gustavo Ayon below:
Luckily for Barcelona, their shooters command enough respect to create space on the strong side. Again, Reyes has to help on Oleson coming off the Tomic pick. This time, however, the lack of a stretch four in the Barcelona lineup allows Ayon to anticipate the cutting Tomic:
This is where Tomic’s body control and passing skills come into play. Most Euroleague centers would simply catch the pass by Satoransky and try to score over the help defender. Tomic is not like most Euroleague centers. This is why he finds Lampe along the baseline with a touch pass in traffic. Lay up.
This is how Barcelona combined their effective perimeter game with a strong presence inside. And even though Oleson’s shooting numbers will pop out of any scouting report on Barcelona, it is worth asking whether Laso should have gone with a more conservative approach against the perimeter threat posed by Navarro. The 34-year old legend has been shooting 34% from beyond the arc this season and even though his resume transcends stats, a series of foot injuries have limited his explosiveness.
In other words, a single coverage that would test his ability to make shots off the bounce or coming off screens with Llull on his tale, could be a safer choice. The problem is that basketball coaches cannot be expected to always act rationally. If Laso had opted for a defensive scheme that would allow Navarro more room to operate, he would definitely hear about it in the event of a big scoring night by the Barcelona captain. Would ‘critics’ understand numbers? Not for all North Carolina.
As we head toward the knockout stage of the season, it is likely that opposing coaches will care less about Navarro and more about La Bomba. Pascual appears ready to take advantage of such concerns. Opponents will either have to stick to their rational choice guns, or execute a more aggressive defensive game plan to perfection. This would require extensive and timely rotations against Tomic’s orchestration off the short roll, as well as a concentrated effort to prevent Barcelona shooters from turning the corner off the screen, whether they handle the ball or not. This is a high order and Madrid were not up for it on Thursday. Then again, the stakes will be even higher in the next meetings between the two superpowers.