In the first half of their recent game at Gran Canaria, Madrid found themselves trapped in a half court game. This is not necessarily a problem for them – Pablo Laso has a reputation as a coach who teaches an uptempo offense – yet in this Euroleague season his team gets its 89 points per game on a very modest 73,3 possessions. But as they kept missing shots from the perimeter, the hosts were able to cut off driving lanes which are vital to the games of Pocius and Llull, among others. Their response came in the form of a thirty-point third quarter, anchored by a flurry of three pointers. However, there were other aspects of their game that night which could turn out to be quite useful in the long run. When neither isolation plays nor long – range shooting work, it’s time to execute. Early in the game, though, Madrid found it difficult to change habits.
Let’s start with the good. The first possession is the type of secondary break which has proved quite effective for Madrid in the early stages of the season. Llull brings up the ball in a hurry, Rudy runs a quick pick and pop with Mirotic and turns the corner before Spencer Nelson can get in front of him .
Savane rotates over, Beiran helps the helper, wide open shot. Yes, Suarez should have taken a step back and shoot a three. And yes, Gran Canaria give Madrid a taste of their own medicine a few seconds later, when Nelson hits a wide open three in a similar situation. But explosive one-on-one players like Fernandez (and Llull and Pocius and Caroll) need room to operate. One way to give it to them is attacking early in the shot clock, as long as they take the ball to the basket. Which is exactly what Rudy doesn’t do at the video’s one minute mark. I understand that he has been white-hot from beyond the arc to start the season and that heat checks are part of the whole superstar experience. But Madrid has to take better shots now, so that they will be there for them when it matters the most.
On a more positive note, the missed lay up by Sergio Llull on the previous possession is a good example of a way Laso could balance the skills of his perimeter players with the need for better ball movement (or less improvisation). Once Ante Tomic receives the ball on the low post and doesn’t have a good look, Real Madrid do not resort to Rudy or Llull trying to take their man off their dribble. Instead, they move. Fernandez heads to the top of the key to provide good spacing, along with Nicola Mirotic and Suarez on the weak side. Llull cuts to the basket and gets a great look. Even if Nelson comes over to help (which he should) Mirotic or Suarez have an open three. Also, Fernandez is open and the fact that two Madrid players go after the offensive board shows how balanced this possession was. This is not always the case.
On the last possesion, the ball does not enter the post. The pick and roll between Llull and Tomic is only a misdirection play, which leads to the two man game between Fernandez and Mirotic. The only somewhat acceptable option on this play is a three off the dribble when Mike Bramos goes under the screen. I guess Gran Canaria can live with that. The only purpose this pick and pop serves is to open up a driving lane for Fernandez. Maybe Real should have this first and the Tomic pick and roll second, because once the defense takes away the middle, there is no plan B – even if Rudy had taken the ball to the basket, Tomic’s defender would be waiting. It takes more to beat elite defenders like Bramos, which is evident in the video below.
Again, the decision to quickly establish a big man inside is very wise; it forces the defense to rotate before it even sets up. But this time, after the first option (Reyes with his back to the basket) does not work, Madrid players decide to stand around and watch Rudy do his thing – even though he doesn’t really have anywhere to go.
When Fernadez makes his move, three Gran Canaria players have at least a foot in the paint, not to mention Mike Bramos keeping up with him. This not the way a gifted one-on-one player should be used. Rudy has made some incredible baskets in similar situations because he is that good, but he will not hit enough of them to make up for poor execution. In other words, Madrid need more plays like the one that they run in the second possession of that video. Ettorre Messina used to call a lot of high-lows and it was one of the few things that worked. Tomic has had an admittedly poor start to the season, but he has a reliable mid-range jumper and can pass the ball pretty well. Maybe Laso needs to take a closer look to these aspects of the Croatian’s game. Against Maccabi for instance, I was surprised that Reyes got very few touches on the post against the undersized David Blu.
One could argue that with so many ball-handlers and so few pass-first point guards (please stay awake, Sergio Rodriguez) it is not unreasonable for Laso to put an emphasis on isolation plays. However, it is also true that if Madrid combines the slashing and three point shooting that has worked really well so far with a conscious effort to attack from inside out, then even the best defensive teams will have a hard time adjusting. Even if the player inside is Carlos Suarez. Again, the two possessions below take us back to the Messina days. The only difference is that in the second there are much more options, before Tomic sets a clever back screen for Rudy: Reyes at the post, a Rudy-Tomic pick and roll and of course Suarez taking the shot himself.
The fact that Real Madrid managed 82 points in a reasonably paced game, on the road, against a fellow contender, with Llull, Fernandez, Pocius, Mirotic and Tomic struggling should tell you everything you need to know about their depth. The problem is that their productivity so far results mainly from the individual talent of their players – at Tel Aviv it was Caroll being unconscious from the perimeter, Reyes getting to the free throw line and hitting his mid-range jumpers, Ibaka making the most of loose ball situations. Pablo Laso deserves credit for putting most of his players in a position where they can make the most of their abilities. But if Real Madrid are to get back to the Final Four, he will have to make them work together for more than ten seconds in each possession. Also, he must do something about their defense, but this should be the subject of another post.