A frame-by-frame review of yesterday’s El Clásico reveals the key strategies by both defenses in their attempt to limit two of the best offenses in European basketball.
If a game ever lived up to the hype, this was the one.
In what goes down as an instant Copa del Rey classic, FC Barcelona Regal edged Real Madrid 111-108 (boxscore, video recap, shot chart) in a double-overtime thriller in Vitoria-Gasteiz on Thursday evening.
Barça are first in defensive rating in both the Euroleague and the ACB, while Real Madrid are second and sixth, respectively (the Euroleague rating is adjusted for strength of schedule), but neither of the two had been able to get stops in their first ACB encounter past December. Barça won 96-89 in a high scoring affair in Palau Blaugrana, going 12 for 21 from beyond the arc, despite Erazem Lorbek’s one for five.
The level of individual talent on both sides may have something to do with it. Barça are fourth in the Euroleague and sixth in the ACB in offensive rating, whereas Real Madrid are fifth in the Euroleague while posting a staggering 120 points per 100 possessions (first) in the ACB.
Keys to the game
Now that we’ve settled that they do well, here is what they do well.
If you were to list the keys to limiting the Real Madrid offense, it should look something like this:
- Put priority on limiting transition opportunities
- Find a way to contain Jaycee Carroll and Rudy Fernandez when they come off of those baseline/down screens
- Keep Real Madrid, Felipe Reyes in particular, off the offensive glass (2nd in the Euroleague in offensive rebound percentage, 3rd in the ACB)
- (In limited volume) deal with Carlos Suárez in post-up
- Find a way to deal with the otherworldish pick and roll quality (executed by Juan Carlos Navarro, Marcelinho Huertas and Šarūnas Jasikevičius with Ante Tomić and Nathan Jawai)
- Defend the post-up plays they run for Erazem Lorbek and Pete Mickeal (the latter is also featured in high post isolation), as well as the post-ups they create for Tomić in pick and roll
- (In limited volume) Contain Navarro on the spot-up/curl, which Pascual uses in smaller doses than in previous years
How it played out
Transition: Transition baskets were extremely rare, with the first one, as the TVE announcers noted, coming as late as the 14th minute in most unorthodox style (Marcus Slaughter running the fastbreak and finding Suárez for the lay up). The official boxscore lists five transition baskets: three for Barça (two for Mickeal, one for Huertas) and two for Real Madrid (Suárez and Nikola Mirotić). Granted, those do not include free throws drawn in transition. The game was played at a pace of 79 possessions per 40 minutes, artificially enhanced through stop-the-clock and foul-”up three” strategies at the end of both overtimes.
Offensive Rebounding: Barça collected 11 offensive rebounds on 38 rebounding opportunities, whereas Real Madrid got 14 out of 49. That’s 29 percent for both, which Xavi Pascual must have been more than happy to take.
The Rest: Follows.
How Barça defended the Carroll/Rudy spot-up/curl
There’s a reason Jaycee Carroll has been one of the top volume scorers whatever continent he set a foot on: He is lightning quick when moving laterally around screens and possesses an equally quick shot release. If the spot-up isn’t there, Carroll curls inside to drop a deadly floater. But there’s also a weakness in his offensive game: Once that basket is in sight, he’s unlikely to kick the ball out for a better shot. Carroll is 37th of 37 shooting guards in per-minute assists in the Euroleague. He’s a finisher, period.
Pablo Laso likes to run Carroll off of two screens by his 4′s and 5′s (he does so with Rudy, too, but there is another play they often execute for Rudy, where he either flashes off of a downscreen or goes back door for the alley oop). If things go as planned, Carroll has long lost his defender once arriving at the three point line.
A common strategy has generally been a switch on the second screen, should Carroll’s defender lose track of his assignment on the first screen already. This is what we see in the following two screenshots.
Carroll is passed on to first Jawai and then Lorbek. Therefore there is no open immediate scoring opportunity, but you re-assign at least two (in this case, three) of your defenders to new matchups, which is generally considered a bad thing.
The two recent Euroleague champions have had a lot of success by consistently switching on ballscreens, but both Dušan Ivković and Željko Obradović had a great number of fantastically versatile players at their disposal. This is not a strategic day-to-day decision, but something you have to design your roster for in the off-season.
Another common strategy is to have the big man who is defending the second screen step outside to deny the curl. This may help prevent Carroll from getting his shot off, but it leaves you vulnerable to the 4/5′s roll to the basket. In Panathinaikos’ top-notch defensive effort two weeks ago, Argiris Pedoulakis had Kostas Tsartsaris step far outside to deny the spot-up and barricade Carroll’s driving lane, while Stephane Lasme covered the area left vacant by Tsartsaris’ out-rotation. The key here is right timing with quick recovery, but you’re unlikely to stay mistake-free for 40 minutes.
Pascual had something else in mind: He made his point guard rotate off of Sergio Llull, a 36.1 percent three point shooter in ACB and Euroleague combined (32.4 percent in 2011/12). Llull is usually the guy to execute the first pass. With his defender rotating over, and Carroll passing the ball back out of the double team, Llull frequently found himself in close-out situations.
This is similar to how Željko Obradović had Panathinaikos defend the Juan Carlos Navarro spot-up/curl in the 2010/11 Euroleague Quarter Finals, but the passer on the 2010/11 Regal FC Barcelona, Ricky Rubio, had made just 25.1 percent of his shots from downtown that season, on less than two-and-a-half attempts per game. Obradović, though, had taken it a step further than Pascual yesterday, double-teaming Navarro not only on the catch, but already off the ball.
It should be said, however, that the majority of Llull’s 17 three point attempts did not result from said defensive strategy. In fact, he took seven three point shots in situations where an imminent shot was needed: He had two halfcourt heaves as time ran out, made a wild running three pointer to cut the margin to one point at the end of the second overtime, took a potential game winner with three seconds on the shot clock at the end of regulation, took a three pointer (this one is debatable, but was probably ordered by Laso) while down three in the second overtime, when Barça were or were not looking to go through the foul-”up three” free throw routine (with a killer free throw shooter as Huertas on your side, that may not be the worst idea), and missed a forced nine meter three pointer as the shot clock expired midway through the second half.
Llull was two for four in situations like the one displayed in the screenshots above.
Barça did rotate off of the passer, too, if that passer was Rudy, Sergio Rodriguez or Suárez. In that case, however, the defender from the weak side corner would rotate over towards the passer far quicker to prevent the shot.
In one single case Jasikevičius failed to rotate. Carroll used the open lane for one of his trademark floaters.
Carroll and Rudy combined for 32 points on 9 for 23 shooting and a combined 0.971 points per possession, but did so largely in other situations. Real Madrid finished with an offensive rating of 110, which is below their season average in both Euroleague and ACB. Had a couple of long range shots that looked deep in but fell out found their target, they would be right on season average.
We need far more data here, but Pascual’s strategy changed the nature of Real Madrid’s key play on offense, and that made for an extremely intriguing Thursday evening.
The four’s role in pick and roll defense
When facing a high-efficiency offense, one usually has to give up something. Pascual opted to concede the semi-open jumpshot of a 32 to 36 percent long range shooter to take away the spot-up/curl of two creative and deadly wing scorers.
Against a clinical pick and roll offense, that something is often a considerable room of space to operate for the opposing power forward.
Except for switching, where ball- and screen-defender switch their defensive assignments, some rotation has to be made to stop the screener from having a free roll to the basket. The strong side “2/3″ can rotate over diagonally to some extend, but the gap is usually too wide against any well-spaced pick and roll, and you cannot give up the easy pass & shot in the near corner under any circumstances.
The disadvantage of rotating over the weak side “2/3″ is that the player will have A) a long distance to cover, and B), when defending the roll man, is having more of a physical disadvantage than the “4″.
When the “4″ helps out, he has to build a solid road block to cut off the center’s straight path to the hoop, delay him long enough for the screen defender to recover, and then sprint back to his man to close out the long range shot.
(The roles and therefore the whole complexity changes when you rotate shooting guard, small- and power forward between the three off-ball positions, assuming we are in a typical 1-5 high screen and roll setting where the three off-ball players are positioned outside the arc.)
There are very few power forwards where the degree of help defense is not negotiable. Like Mirza Teletović, who was often held at barely arm’s length by his defender during his Euroleague days with Caja Laboral. For all the rest, from Matt Nielsen via Pero Antić, Novica Veličković and Antonis Fotsis to Pablo Aguilar, the urgency to recover is determined by the level of threat this player poses at the three point arc.
The same goes for Erazem Lorbek and C.J. Wallace. But first things first.
How Real Madrid dealt with the Huertas/Navarro/Jasikevičius/Oleson high screen and roll
With Víctor Sada more often than not getting the starting nod lately, Laso entered his best perimeter defender, Dontaye Draper, into the starting unit – not to defend Juan Carlos Navarro, but to help off of Sada, a player who has made just eight three pointers in total (Euroleague & ACB) so far this season, on 25 percent shooting. To match a good defender against a low scoring threat is unorthodox but not unheard of. This is a role Obradović occasionally used Dimitris Diamantidis in.
Sada is an off-ball-player in Pascual’s half court set up. He executed just one pick and roll on Thursday, far behind Huertas’ 20, Navarro’s 17, Oleson’s eleven and Jasikevičius’ ten.
Sada’s presence allowed Draper to drop deep and help against rolls/drives, while Nikola Mirotić stayed home with C.J. Wallace, a 41 percent three point shooter in both competitions combined.
The inclusion of Marcelinho Huertas and later Šarūnas Jasikevičius, however, changed the complexity of the Barça offense. Now fielding three shooters in the off-ball pick and roll positions, spacing was guaranteed and the Real Madrid defense had to be extremely quick on their heels to recover from any rotation. It was now for the “4″ to make the rotation over to the roll man and quickly recover to his matchup.
The use of Erazem Lorbek as a stretch four, though, has led to mixed results throughout his Barça career. Lorbek is now 30.6 percent (just 22 makes in 36 games) from beyond the arc in both competitions combined, he’s much of a post presence but not much of a slasher, he possesses a fantastic basketball IQ, but high-low passing is not is forte. In short: he’s a fantastic player, but a bit of a stretch at the stretch four.
Both Mirotić and Felipe Reyes gave Lorbek plenty of space and time to get his shot off, but Lorbek capitalised only once in five tries from the mid- to long range area. This was a typical case of “giving the 4 the shot”, not by begging him to shot, but by recovering late.
That did not keep Mirotić from committing several mistakes, however, and this is where we are getting to the James Gist of things.
Nikola Mirotić’s issues defending pick and roll
Mirotić, tasked with denying the screener a free roll to the basket, was extremely soft in doing so, often causing little-to-no delay and showing poor timing as to when to flash back to his matchup at the three point line.
Here we see one of said plays, where Tomić rolls to the basket right through Mirotić, allowing Jasikevičius to do what he has made a career of – flash a no-look pass to the roll man for the easy finish.
A similar play happened soon thereafter (resulting in a layup for Mickeal following a quick extra pass by Tomić) as well as midway through the third quarter, when Huertas’ difficult pass to Tomić while falling out of bounds caught the Montenegrin out of position.
To Mirotić’s credit: He did a better job getting the timing right as the game went on, staying with the roll man for a split second longer and then jumping out to contest Lorbek at the three point arc.
Meanwhile, during a raw, entirely unsuccessful stretch when Laso fielded a twin tower lineup with Mirza Begić at the five and Rafa Hettsheimeir at the four, Hettsheimeir completely missed his rotation and allowed Huertas to feed Tomić for a thundering alley oop. Not atypical for players playing out of position, as they are outside of their routine.
Xavi Pascual knew what he was doing when he finished the last minutes of regulation with C.J. Wallace at the four instead of Lorbek. Just when Mirotić was finding his comfort zone defending the high pick and roll, Wallace stepped on the court and made a huge three plus foul, hit on the arm by the late-recovering Montenegrin forward.
Pure efficiency: Lorbek and Mickeal in post-up
Pascual puts Lorbek and Mickeal on diagonal paths to gain post-up position close to the basket. Barça were shockingly efficient there, scoring on six of seven possessions, plus drawing three non-shooting fouls.
Both Lorbek and Mickeal are arguably the continent’s top isolation players on their respective positions. Lorbek shakes off the defense with a series of direction-changes and draws tons of fouls whenever he appears in the post (which is rarer an occurrence than you might think), whereas Mickeal holds a physical edge over most of his defenders, including Rudy, and finishes extremely well with both hands.
The following offense is typical for how Pascual installs one of his go to options in the post. Mickeal gives the ball up on the right wing and starts a diagonal cut towards the left block. Navarro screens for Mickeal and immediately flashes around a Tomić screen to the three point line. Either way, inability to read the Navarro screen results in a scoring play.
Deadly even in small doses: The Navarro spot-up/curl
Juan Carlos Navarro may not be capable of running around screens for 30 minutes a game anymore, but he still is one of the world’s smartest off-ball (and on-ball) players.
Barça had a good idea of what they were doing defending Carroll’s and Rudy’s spot-ups and curls, but Real Madrid looked clueless in the few sequences where Barça ran the play.
In this quarter-finishing play out of the time out, Navarro is left unchallenged as he curls inside for the floater. Two points.
On the following two possessions, Navarro is allowed to spot up for a couple of wide open jumpshots (made the three, missed the two). On the first play, Rudy is late and Mirotić does not show up to challenge Navarro’s jumpshot, whereas in the second play, it is Sergio Llull who Navarro loses on the screen and Begić’s turn to stay home.
I consider a 111 to 108 after a total of 196 possessions a non-difference. It is like when two basketball players take 50 free throws each – one makes 43, the other 44. Yes, we have a winner, but there is no quality difference. That goes for any close game. What matters is long-term performance, and Real Madrid are still ahead there. Not ultimately dominant and by no means invincible, but if I have to pick a team to win it all, Real Madrid is my best bet.
Ante Tomić had a fantastic 20/11-performance against his former team, but Laso is still likely to be happy with performance on the five. Real Madrid knew very well what they were doing last summer. They made a gutsy move in pursuing Slaughter, a top five Euroleague defender this year in my eyes, instead of keeping Tomić. That he would end up in Barcelona of all places, instead of Moscow or Istanbul, is unlucky. The neutral basketball fan wins anyway – Pascual, who teams up with Ettore Messina for all of the top seven teams in defensive rating in the modern Euroleague era was just what Tomić needed, as was the pick-and-roll heavy offense.
Apropos 20/11: With minutes going up to NBA spheres, individual numbers once again appear so much more spectacular, as does the game’s final score and all that. Try to get a double double in 18 minutes, and good luck with that.
In case you missed it in between: With 20 tries, Marcelinho Huertas led his team in pick and roll attempts on Thursday, just ahead of Juan Carlos Navarro (17). That is a refreshing change from last year’s Euroleague semifinal, the last Barça game I charted for pick and rolls, where he had seven. Granted, Huertas did not lead the Blaugrana in pick and rolls per minute. That is where Jasikevičius ranked first, Navarro second and Huertas third. The chart also shows the involvement of Oleson, who Pascual trusted to carry playmaking duties eleven times.
Real Madrid’s pick and roll chart sees Sergio Rodriguez ahead with 21 attempts, and just six each for Rudy and Sergio Llull.
Oleson was fantastic on defense, fighting through screens to stay on Jaycee Carroll’s tail, communicating well on switches and reading rotations.
It was only fitting that both teams went to their go to plays on the last possessions of regulation: First Huertas and Tomić executed a high pick and roll that the Croat finished with a lefty hook in great position, but missed:
Mirotić decided to leave Tomić relatively early here, but still allowing Reyes to get back between Tomić and the basket while positioning himself well enough to challenge Wallace at the three point line. With Lorbek instead of Wallace on the court, Real Madrid would likely have forced the kickout to the Slovenian.
Laso ran Carroll along the baseline. Oleson and Wallace miscommunicated for a split second and left Mirotić open for the jumpshot with five on the shot clock and 9.6 on the game clock. Mirotić did not take the shot, and I am not sure you can blame him for that. With the game tied and the ball in your hands, there is one thing you don’t want: give the opponent a valid possession, an opportunity to win the game. A rebound at seven could easily have led to a good shot on the other end.
And so it lands back in the hands of Sergio Llull – the story of the game.