Žalgiris are on a roll, moving up to 4-0 after dispatching of EA7 Milano 92-87 in Kaunas on Thursday night. Showcasing versatility, creativity and discipline, all embedded in an unusual brand of basketball, the Lithuanians are the story of the Euroleague season thus far.
Žalgiris head coach Joan Plaza went 12-deep and saw seven Žalgiris players finish with nine points or more. They got 28 points on 10 for 13 shooting combined from point guards Oliver Lafayette and Ibrahim Jaaber, plus, as Dimitris Itoudis pointed out in his newest video analysis, another solid performance from the versatile Lavrinovič brothers. Žalgiris are currently sitting atop the offensive scoring rankings, leading the league with a formidable 124 offensive rating through four games.
Milano on the other hand have been immensely dependent on three point shooting thus far. They went 13 for 28 from long range in Kaunas, finishing with 87 points in what was a clinical offensive performance for long stretches but eventually caught a string of three point misses in crunch time. Safe to say: it could have gone either way.
On the defensive end, however, Milano were burned for 95 and 93 points respectively in the last two Euroleague games. Milano are on a three game losing streak after falling to Caja Laboral, Reggio Emilia and Žalgiris all within the span of seven days.
Changing the defensive set up
Žalgiris have been hedging hard and trapping on every pick and roll so far this season, but Milano came in well-prepared, methodically picking the Žalgiris defense apart with patience, intelligent passing and players that threaten to score from every distance (therefore posing an immediate threat right after the out-of-trap pass). Milano rarely took the 1st shot available, though, usually finding a better shot after at least one dribble penetration.
Antonis Fotsis needs to be singled out for his top-notch decision-making here. Having gone through the Željko Obradović school and having played with top-quality pick and roll passers for years, Fotsis routinely faked the defender off his feet in close-out situations before putting the ball on the floor and delivering precise kick-outs to the three point line. With both Keith Langford and Malik Hairston also showing a willingness to pass the ball that belies their reputation as score-first-score-second players, Žalgiris were more than once caught on the back foot.
Plaza changed the defensive set up in the second half, moving towards a more standard pick and roll defense that wasn’t waterproof but still proved more effective than hard hedging had been in the first half.
It was, though, a number of factors that kept Milano from repeating their 1st half 51-point outing. Firstly, Žalgiris prevented transition baskets. As screenshots show, Žalgiris were at times overaggressive on the offensive glass, crashing the offensive boards with 4 (!) players on a free throw (1) and three players on another occasion (2). Their full court press only saw Milano’s heels in several sequences, such as right before halftime, when Melli escaped Kuzminskas for his buzzer-beating triple on the baseline inbounds (3), or when Cook beat Popovic down the floor and found Fotsis for a wide open long range shot in the left corner (4). Secondly, Milano failed to capitalize on their still-clinical ball movement by missing their last 5 long range shots in the 2nd half. Thirdly, aforementioned pick and roll defense made the creation of close-out situations more difficult for the Italians.
Milano: Selfless and clinical for long stretches
Milano’s halfcourt offense had been patient for long stretches in this game, exposing a Žalgiris defense that had held Caja Laboral to 71, Olympiacos to 61 and CSKA to 66 points. Here are some examples: In screenshot (1), Lafayette offers too deep help against a Fotsis drive from the right corner. (2) is a good example of what went wrong with hedge & recover: Kaukenas is a little late on his recovery to the deadly scorer Langford while holding ground for Lavrinovic, who himself has a long distance to cover on his recovery to Bourousis. In (3), a miscommunication on a broken play leaves the Žalgiris defense at a disadvantage. In (4), Langford goes one-on-one in what Scariolo rightfully identified as a mismatch (Langford vs. Juskevicius). (5) is another case where slick passing against Žalgiris’ hedge & recover defense leaves D.Lavrinovic in no man’s land, giving Fotsis the chance to pass-fake and drain the open triple. In (6), Darden is too far inside versus Gentile on the strong side, who drains the triple on Cook’s assist. In (7), Bourousis is keeping his calm against the double team and finds Cook with the diagonal pass for a great look from long range. In (8), Fotsis again fakes & drives past Jankunas before finding the shooter in the opposite corner. In (9), Langford fakes to use the side pick but goes baseline past Kaukenas, forcing a rotation that frees Hairston in the weakside corner. Finally in (10), 3 defenders collapse on Langford’s dribble penetration, who has no difficulty finding the weakside option.
In-game decisions and their consequences
There’s a thin line between hero and villain in basketball. With Cook at the foul line down 3 in crunch time, Plaza got away with a blunder when he decided to go small for the upcoming offensive possession, with Darden intended to play the power forward position. Too bad there was a free throw to shoot first. Giving up 15 centimeters on Fotsis on the box out, Darden was unable to secure the defensive rebound on Cook’s missed free throw, giving Milano an additional scoring chance. Plaza quickly inserted Foote for another pair of free throws on the resulting possession, which ironically resulted in another offensive rebound for the guests. To his credit, on another important defensive possession one-and-a-half minutes from time, Plaza went with zone defense on Milano right out of the time out, resulting in a near-shot clock violation for the guests.
Another key in-game decision came in the final seconds, when Sergio Scariolo ordered his players to foul despite a seven-second difference between shot clock and game clock. Considering good foul shooters are more likely to score two points on a trip to the foul line than one, as well as the relative inefficiency of crunch time shooting from the field, the odds weren’t in Milano’s favour.
Milano, now threatened to drop four in a row, face Siena for Serie A’s top clash on Monday evening.
Around the league
A favourite chart of mine: Point Guard tendency (mentality).
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Pablo Laso used the Slaughter/Begic PF/C combination for the first time on Thursday: Played six minutes, outscored Cantu 13-7.
Regal FC Barcelona played four minutes with the SG-SF-PF combination of Abrines, Rabaseda and Todorovic against Partizan – a 23.7 years minute-weighted lineup. They were still almost a full year older than Partizan’s 22.8-year-old lineup on the opposite side.
Brose went nine minutes with the young Neumann/Zirbes combination and outscored Rytas 17-16 during the span. Fleming: “Neumann and Zirbes really showed that they only needed time and really played well, both offensively and defensively.”
Siena was just 2-13 against Chalon in three minutes that Bobby Brown sat on the bench.