Blogging through the Copa del Rey (Part Three)

Blogging through the Copa del Rey (Part Three)
Feb 10, 2008, 11:31 am
The Copa del Rey continues to storm through Vitoria, and we’ve still yet to be disappointed for even a second so far. In the first semifinal, local Tau Vitoria managed to hold off their underdog rivals from nearby Bilbao 68-66. Igor Rakocevic and Pete Mickael paced Tau with 16 points each, while Tiago Splitter contributed on both ends of the floor with 13 points, 5 rebounds, and terrific interior defense that helped hold Bilbao to just 38% on 2-point shots.

For Bilbao, Quincy Lewis did a lot of damage with his mid-range jump-shot on his way to 16 points, while Marcelo Huertas struggled from the field this time around (4/16 shooting), but still managed to hit a few threes and get to the free throw line to finish with 14 points. Bilbao was coming from behind for most of the game despite an incredibly hot start, but the one thing that kept them in the contest for three quarters—their offensive rebounding, also ended up being their downfall. Their defense and use of the pick and roll offensively was pretty inspiring, though, but the fact that Frederic Weis was in foul trouble really hurt them in both these categories and was a huge factor when it was all said and done.

The energy in the building throughout the night was, as expected, outstanding. The entire crowd once again united against the Evil Empire of Real Madrid in their game against Joventut for the nightcap. This one was a dramatic, up-tempo, high-scoring affair, dominated by the guard play of both teams. Real’s super-experienced American duo of Charles Smith and Louis Bullock was fantastic in the first three quarters, scoring 36 of their team’s 61 points in just 42 combined minutes on the court. Real’s coach needed a spark in the fourth quarter, though, as his team’s offense was starting to get stagnant, so he decided to go in a different direction with Alex Mumbru and surprisingly, the youngster (and 1987 born draft prospect) Sergio Llull, who played outstanding defense on Rudy Fernandez. When his team needed points in the clutch, though, Charles Smith had cooled down, and Bullock was still sitting on the bench, creating a situation where the team’s best 3-point shooter was not on the court for the final possession in which they were down by 3 points. Ironically, DKV decided to go underneath a screen set by Felipe Reyes for Raul Lopez, and the Spanish point guard hesitated and decided not to take the open shot, instead forcing a turnover and seeing his team lose the game.

For Joventut, this was a clear-cut team effort, with a heavy emphasis coming from behind the 3-point line, where they attempted just as many shots as from inside the arc. American combo guard Demond Mallet led the way for them with 16 points (4/7 3P), while Jan Jagla contributed 15 points (3/6 3P) and Rudy Fernandez had a bad shooting night scoring 13 points on 4/13 from the field, although with 9 assists. Check out the incredible shot he hit at the end of the 3rd quarter, though…

Besides providing a great deal of entertainment value that won’t soon be forgotten, the semifinals continued to highlight the stark differences between European basketball and the NBA regarding the importance of individual players in the context of the entire team, and the unusual substitution patterns that we often find. Whereas not putting your best players in the starting five would be considered an act of disrespect in the NBA (besides possibly the Spurs and Manu Ginobili), in Europe it seems commonplace for coaches to try all kinds of different rotations in hopes of finding the optimal combination that will help them win the game. This trend was probably affirmed by the success CSKA Moscow’s head coach Ettore Messina has found in bringing the Euroleague MVP Theodoras Papaloukas off the bench for a number of years now.

In this cup alone, we watched with amazement as players like Tiago Splitter, Felipe Reyes, Ricky Rubio, Fernando San Emeterio, Axel Hervelle, Pablo Prigioni, Pepe Sanchez, Will McDonald, Charles Smith, Roger Grimau and others came in off the bench, despite being considered among the best players on their team (if not THE best).

The reason we feel for this difference has to do with the importance European coaches place on every single minute of every game they play—which is to be expected when you consider that their league has less than half the regular season games the NBA does, and only plays one league game a week, creating much more of a build up amongst the fans, media and players for each individual contest. Many European coaches we’ve spoken with over the years feel like they cannot play even their best players more than 30 minutes at most in any single game, as they would not be able to get as much as they need from them on the defensive end of the floor from a conditioning standpoint otherwise.

As evidence consider that in the ACB league, there are only four players in the league that average over 30 minutes per game. In the Euroleague, we see the same thing amongst Spanish teams in particular…not even one player from a Spanish team played more than 30 minutes per game in the first round.

One look at the statistical leaders in minutes played in the NBA shows you how different this league is when it comes to their philosophy here. We get a similar impression when evaluating the same list in the NCAA where again it’s normal for a team’s top player to barely rest at all.

Different strokes?

There is also no shame at all from what we can tell in making game by game adjustments to a team’s starting five for tactical reasons alone—which is to be expected when a team has four or five days to prepare for their opponent rather than one or two (at best), like in the NBA. Coaches tinker with their starting five constantly in Europe depending on who they are matching up with on any given night, and there is a lot to be said for bringing a big-time scorer into the game fresh at the end of the first quarter to lead a team’s second unit on the offensive end in order to not lose any momentum on the scoreboard while the starting unit is resting. If an unexpected player (like Sergio Llull, who played almost nothing this weekend previous to the huge crunch minutes of the fourth quarter, but still replaced Real Madrid’s go-to guy Louis Bullock from the bench for the entire fourth quarter) comes into the game to give a star player a breather and delivers above and beyond what the coach needed from him, it won’t be surprising at all to see that player stay in the game against all expectations, something that is a bit rare in the NBA, especially in big games.

At the end of the day, this is largely a philosophical difference we find that highlights the balance that needs to be found between the greater good of the team versus the importance of keeping individual players happy. It’s just another way that modern basketball is evolving in terms of evaluating the way coaches utilize the talent at their disposal, and is extremely interesting to note from the side.

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