A little over a week ago, FC Barcelona lost 77-60 to Rio Natura Monbus and things did not look good. Fast forward a week, and not only did they eclipse CAI Zaragoza 73-50 on Sunday, more notably, on Friday they overcame Fenerbahçe Ülker 94-81 at home and put their Euroleague campaign back on the front foot.
In only ten minutes of action at Palau Blaugrana on Friday night, Xavi Pascual’s team hung 35 points on Obradović’s squad, as they took a 20 point lead into the second quarter and reminded everyone that they can’t be written off as a genuine contender. Not that a lot of people had done so, but there were enough warning signs in both results and performances to raise a few questions. Some tactical differences between Obradoiro and Fenerbahçe’s offenses, plus a huge improvement in effort and a little luck was enough for a 20 point lead that the Turks couldn’t overcome, despite cutting it to 12 at half time and just five in the second half.
Navarro saving himself for offense
Navarro had a tough time sticking with Alberto Corbacho in the Obradoiro game. Corbacho is a player who has made a career mainly from sprinting from wing to wing, curling round screens and making catch and shoot threes. That’s when he’s not just pulling up from way beyond the arc. Navarro doesn’t have the legs to keep up with a player like this - or Jaycee Carroll - and it showed in Corbacho’s 4-of-8 behind the arc and 14 points total. On Friday though, he mainly guarded Emir Preldžić. You might think guarding the multi-talented magician Preldžić may be tougher, but not so for Navarro. Preldžić either handled the ball, or tried to post up Navarro. Emir may have scored 20 points on 4-of-7 on 2FGs and 3-of-6 from behind the arc, but the energy he saved on defense by playing in a relatively contained area of the floor, allowed him to drop 13 points of his own, including some trademark floaters, and generally have more of an impact on the offensive end. Navarro probably can’t be even an average defender anymore, and will always need hiding to some extent, so putting him on the playmaker might be the best option going forward.
Jacob Pullen never left the bench, and Marcelinho Huertas only played 14 minutes. That meant 25 minutes of Victor Sada at the point. He was, as always, left wide open to shoot and finished with eight points on 4-of-6 from the field, but the huge lead Barça opened up meant they had room to breathe while Sada came in and stablished the offense. Sada keeps the ball moving and that’s all they needed in this game. It remains to be seen whether Sada’s inability to hit open threes might handicap the offense later in the year though.
Pap and Boki take over
In that first quarter, Barcelona consistently made the extra pass to take advantage of Fenerbahçe’s over-rotations to get open layups. Navarro drove straight down the lane, Bogdanović and Žorić looked at each accusingly, each assuming the other would help across. Kleiza was even more uncertain, hedging when he should have stayed flat, lost on an island all alone, withdrawn completely in the second half. You have to wonder how long Željko will tolerate such defensive bewilderment
Sometimes they didn’t even need to force a defensive error, as Papanikolaou and Nachbar grabbed offensive rebounds and scored off the dribble, removing any need for creativity to open up the Turkish defense. When a team scores 35 points in 10 minutes, its usually by a combination of converting high-percentage shots and making a few more low-percentage ones. Papanikolaou had his best game in a Barcelona uniform, using his ability to float around the offense to grab the ball when needed and just get to the hole.
Defensively, Papanikolaou stuck to Bojan Bogdanović better than anyone has done this season. Held to eight points on 3-of-13 overall shooting, he even had his shot blocked by the Greek. Pascual’s teams are built on their defense, which had slipped in recent games, particularly in the ACB. Perhaps its a mental thing, unwilling or unable to concentrate in domestic play, but Papanikolaou stopped Bogdanović from getting to the spots he loves, above the free throw line and around the elbow.
Should Fenerbahçe be worried?
Yes and No. Obradović has instilled a fighting mentality, and the first time a Euroleague giant hit them, Fenerbahçe responded, even though it was always going to be near impossible to peg back that first quarter deficit.
Offensively, there was little to complain about. Their spacing was mostly exemplary, as normal, as McCalebb hid in the corner to sink threes, where a lot of teams think he can’t hurt them. They shot 13-of-23 from three point range overall, including 5-of-8 by Nemanja Bjelica. The big Serb hit them with a hand in his face, but he is another player for who Obradović will have to balance his delight in his scoring with distaste for his defense. Allowing Boki Nachbar to blow by to the rim will not endear a player to Željko.
It was the defensive end that will worry the Serbian legend on the sideline. Transition defense was woeful, in both the effort to get back and in organisation as players lost their man. Kleiza was exiled and Luka Žorić was unable to stay on the floor, as everything he did was a minus for his team, literally in the case of PIR as he ‘earned’ a -14 in nearly 16 minutes’ play. Travels, offensive fouls, moving screens, blocked shots - Žorić is clearly not this bad a player, but he will have to offer much more if Fener want to challenge for the title.
Pick and roll defense is another worry that was exposed in this game. Huertas is the master of keeping centres guessing in pick and roll. Stay flat and he’ll hit the floater, show hard and he’ll throw up a lob to the roll man. It’s hard to stop, but Vidmar and Žorić were far too passive and left themselves isolated in the middle of the paint. Huertas and Navarro took full advantage.
As long as Fenerbahçe can make the shots they did, and tighten up the effort in transition, they are still a contender. Last year’s team would have merely capitulated. But in not knowing how to defend simple, if brilliantly executed ball movement, cutting and spacing, they showed a soft underbelly that has been hidden so far this season. It would be a surprise if reinforcements in the middle are not forthcoming.