Euroleague Playoffs: Regal Barcelona vs. Real Madrid
Will Rubio and Navarro ever lose again?
by Nick Gibson
Pionir Arena was half annoyed and half restless. Then just mostly annoyed. Ten minutes after watching Pete Mickael’s would-be gamewinner rim out, Partizan waited for the referees to confirm their victory. They conferred with one another then watched the replay, then conferred, then waltzed again to the video monitor to see if Partizan had interfered with the basket or not. Over the loudspeakers came the news, a Partizan win! But wait, an appeal was filed and the call went to arbitration. A week after that the Euroleague made it official: Barcelona had lost their first game of the year.
That’s how hard is to beat this year’s Barcelona team, who took down Real Madrid 79-57 in their December ACB match. Despite the total destruction that took place that evening, Real Madrid is second to Barcelona in the ACB and they’re sporting an 11-5 record in the Euroleague. Running the gauntlet in the impossibly difficult Group F will help them prepare for Barcelona. Hopefully.
Whippersnapper Watch: Ricky Rubio, PG Barcelona | 6-4 | 180 pounds | 1990
Oh, you’ve heard of him? Then I can skip all the hyperbole and tell you he’s playing extremely well keeps getting better. In his last ACB game against Caja Laboral he went 5/5 from downtown and he sits fifth in the EL in assists in only 20 minutes per game. One of the two times he played over 25 minutes in the EL, he wound up with Week 10 MVP honors based on this line:
14 points (2/5 FG, 9/10 FT), 3 rebounds, 10 assists, 4 steals, 1 turnover in 25:06
All in all he’s averaging 6 points, 4.6 assists and 1.4 steals per game and he’s hit a Calderon-ish 37/39 from the line (if I said ‘Nash-ish’ the sky would surely have come crashing down). He’s playing the most important position on Europe’s best team in the world’s second (Euroleague) and third (ACB) best leagues. He won Eurobasket gold for the world’s best LeBron-less team and will try to do the same this Summer in Turkey. Personally, I think he’ll be top five in NBA assists his rookie year and a staple in the top three for many years thereafter. So there it is. I know there are varying opinions on this kid and that’s fine. I’m not here to change your mind, just to let you know Señor Rubio impresses the hell out of me. That is all.
Barcelona Theme Song: Man in the Mirror by Michael Jackson. Barcelona’s depth goes beyond deep. ‘Interchangeable’ might be more appropriate, or maybe ‘upside downable.’ At any given moment Xavi Pascual could send a fresh five out on the court and Barca wouldn’t miss a beat. Such a luxury grants each individual the piece of mind necessary to worry only about himself; his role, his intentions, his defensive assignment. Rubio’s job is to swing the ball around a zone or run his man off a screen and look to dish. Erazem Lorbek camps out in the lowpost and scores in small bunches. Fran Vazquez swats anything he can reach and Boniface N’Dong is there to finish at the rim. Pete Mickael slams the door on anyone who thinks a dribble drive might be a good idea, while Terrence Morris is on the floor for his efficiency on both ends. Leave Jaka Lakovic alone and he’ll nail it. And Juan Carlos Navarro gets paid to score whenever he feels like it.
Real Madrid Theme Song: Trap or Die by Young Jeezy. After Madrid closed out a 1-point ACB victory over Gran Canaria over the weekend, I asked swingman Travis Hansen what they needed to do to beat Barcelona. Before the question mark left my lips he piped up with this: “We’ve got to stop their pick and roll. Their pick and roll is so fast, they’re very good at it. Their big guys are really athletic and they go to the basket very quick.”
A pause, and then again, “We’ve got to stop that.” The ex-BYU Cougar turned Atlanta Hawk is spot on with this one. Whether Rubio takes it himself, kicks it to Navarro for a trey, hits Morris popping out or throws it toward the rim for Vazquez, Barca’s personnel makes their P&R unstoppable. Conversely, Madrid’s slothfooted bigs—Felipe Reyes and Darjus Lavrinovic—will be left for dead if the perimeter guys can’t stop it at the source. To do this, Ettore Messina needs to mix things up a bit, and I think he’s smart enough to figure that out. While Vazquez and N’Dong are incredibly lanky and springy, neither has much in the way of a jumpshot. To exploit this, Madrid’s wing guys—Rimantas Kaukenas, Travis Hansen, et al—need to cut off the screener’s initial path to the basket while Lavrinovic, Reyes and Ante Tomic hang back and protect the paint (remember: no defensive three seconds in European ball). Sure this leaves Pete Mickael with an open jumper once Barcelona figures out what’s going on, but I’d make them beat me deep before I let them dump it inside.
Barcelona will lose if they abandon the balance and resolve that have gotten them this far. A single point away from a 16-0 record, Barcelona is as close to perfect as you’ll get. Only Olympiacos can score more creatively and there’s not a single team that plays better defense, as Barca leads both the Euroleague and the ACB in points allowed. Head Coach Xavi Pascual deserves a lot of credit for successfully blending egos and keeping his stars happy even on nights when they play 17 minutes; not even Navarro logs 25 minutes a game. There is another basketball league out there where you wouldn’t see that happen.
Madrid will lose if a leader doesn’t emerge. At the start of last week’s fourth quarter against Maccabi Electra, I didn’t think I’d be writing this preview. After all, Madrid was up by nine and the group championship looked to be theirs. But while Maccabi’s Chuck Eidson and David Bluthenthal knocked down big shot after big shot, Madrid stood on their heels and prayed for time to speed up. Through quarters 1-3, Kaukenas is usually good for some emotion, Reyes stoically goes about his business and Llull plays to the crowd with lively celebrations and exaggerated facial contortions. But for whatever reason, things unravel when the clock heads for zeroes. With Holden, Langdon and Siskauskas on board, Ettore Messina never had to deal with this in Moscow. He’ll need to whip up a hell of a halftime speech or five to keep his new team chuggin’ along.
Prediction: Just because I’ve pointed all of Madrid’s weaknesses doesn’t mean they are a bad team. And just because I haven’t pointed out any of Barcelona’s doesn’t mean they’re flawless. That second one’s a lie; yes it does. Somebody had to play these guys in the playoffs, it just sucks for Madrid that it had to be them. Barcelona in three (in other words, a clean sweep).
Game Schedule (*if necessary)
March 23 – at Barcelona
March 25 – at Barcelona
March 30 – at Madrid
*April 1 – at Madrid
*April 7 – at Barcelona
Nick Gibson is the co-creator and producer of Slam and Freaknick’s Euroleague Adventures, which features a blog, podcast, prospect watch and a closer look at Americans playing overseas. Gibson is a broadcast journalism student at Syracuse University and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.