Real Madrid, despite as blatant a no-show as I remember in Game 1, turned the tables on Panathinaikos on Thursday evening and returns to Madrid having stolen the home-court advantage from arguably the toughest arena in Europe. After a whopping 30 point crusher on Tuesday, with a fantastic Calathes running the show to the tune of a Euroleague playoff-record 16 assists and with a Real Madrid offense that crashed time and again against Panathinaikos’ switchy and athletic defense, Pablo Laso’s veteran team changed the game plan up — and it worked.
In Game 1, Real Madrid looked completely suffocated. Pablo Laso coached almost as if it were a normal regular season game. Laso is well-known among Euro fans for a certain lack of improvisational skills: instead of calling quick timeouts or ordering snap substitutions to punish mistakes or simply to switch things up, Laso is more prone to sticking to his guns and trusting his players to figure problems out.
This did not work on Tuesday evening.
Panathinaikos’ intensity in the first few minutes of Game 1 was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Calathes and Mike James were hyperactive, and Antetokounpo, for all his flaws, has an infectious intensity that spread to the whole team. There were arms in every passing lane, and Green jerseys collapsed the paint and closed out on shooters and ran the lanes in transition before the dudes in white even knew what was going on. Within the first ten seconds, Anthony Randolph had already committed two quick turnovers and Panathinaikos gladly did what a team at this level is supposed to do: punish them ruthlessly.
At that instant, Laso could have called a timeout. He could’ve subbed Anthony Randolph for a cool-minded, iron-fisted veteran — say, someone like Felipe Reyes. Other European coaches past —Messina— and present —Obradovic— would’ve gone in that direction. Laso didn’t. Real Madrid tried to get back in it as Panathinaikos’ intensity returned to normal playoff levels, but ultimately the Greens kept piling it on and ran away with a 30 point lead.
Perhaps more disconcerting that this intensity mismatch was Real Madrid’s apparent lack of preparation. I caught Real’s defenders going over screens on Calathes —renowned non-shooter— at least a couple times, and going under screens on Mike James a few others. They were seemingly unaware of Gist’s and Singleton’s ability to take pick and pop jumpers, and conceded a few too many.
Laso also puzzlingly attempted to attack the Greens’ defense using a high central pick-and-roll — the set that has made Doncic dominant this year— despite Panathinaikos’ prowess in defending this play and their dominant ability to switch it or trap it and thus deny Doncic any possible advantage. In fact, just 6 weeks ago, Real Madrid had beaten PAO using precisely the opposite style of play: making the ball go through the high post, taking the pressure off of Los Blancos’ guards and then attacking through a maze of off-ball screens and cuts.
Watching Game 1 on Tuesday, it almost seemed like Laso’s coaching staff had misplaced the scouting report and just decided to go out and play the game the way they knew best, ignoring any sort of match-up considerations. The ensuing 30 point demolition job by a fantastic Panathinaikos team set off all the alarms.
The changes were quickly evident on Thursday. For starters, Walter Tavares and Anthony Randolph rode the bench to begin with. The Capeverdian rim protector not only hadn’t likely ever played a game at this level of intensity — his presence was also a hindrance on both ends of the court. On offense, despite his north-south mobility and finishing ability, he struggles to make quick reads off the catch and find shooters or cutters. The Greens’ excellently executed swarming defense proved effective against him. On defense, his normally dominant skillset —huge human with huge arms, essentially— was negated as Panathinaikos’ starting bigs just took him out to the perimeter and forced him to defend in space. Anthony Randolph, on the other hand, is just inconsistent, and his skillset —athleticism and shot-making ability— was simply not adjusted to what Real Madrid needed in this particular matchup.
In came Gustavo Ayón and Trey Thompkins. The Mexican has spent long chunks of the season out with injuries, but his passing ability both from the high post and on short-rolls makes Real Madrid’s offense hum – indeed, he was probably the only White player who even showed up at OAKA for Game 1. Ayón scored 8 points by smartly occupying space and racking up offensive boards, and he also gave out a team-high 5 assists by finding cutters. Thompkins, beyond being a dead-eye shooter, is also deceptively capable of playing in traffic, and swims rather comfortably in thick waters. He essentially ran the offense from the post for a few minutes in the second quarter, receiving constant diagonal cross-screens and alleviating Chasson Randle’s playmaking duties.
As a result, Real Madrid’s entire offense looked very different from Game 1. Doncic was reduced to a complement or a bail-out coupon at the end of possessions; a far cry from the on-ball initiator mask he wore on Tuesday. Although he failed to make a field goal —he ended up with 8 points on 0-1 from 2, 0-2 from 3 and 8-8 from the line— the Slovenian teenager did a good job at avoiding turnovers and simply running the offense through his big men. Chasson Randle once again was sort of there, existing on the court while the game happened; normally a criticism, this turned out to be exactly what Los Blancos needed after the myriad mistakes they made on Tuesday attempting to make things happen off the dribble.
Pick and rolls looked to be a decoy action or a last resort, and Real Madrid moved away from them as their bread-and-butter. They instead looked for cutters and shooters. Jaycee Carroll burst into the scene with 17 points and 4 three pointers: at age 35 and in his seventh Euroleague season, everyone knows what Carroll can do — and the guy still manages to go off at some point or another. Rudy Fernández, another heady veteran who avoided turnovers and kept the ball moving, had a couple good cuts and a three off of a pin down. Causeur, in his very limited minutes, was active as a cutter, as was Jeff Taylor all throughout the game. This, beyond constituting a list of Real Madrid’s wing players, also comes to show that Laso gave his players a very clear set of instructions: pass it inside to the big men, move without the ball and find cracks in PAO’s defense.
Oh, and Felipe. Look, I’ve already written about Felipe Reyes this season. The dude is a monster. There’s just no real justification for him playing Euroleague minutes this year. He was meant to be the sixth big man on the roster, providing injury insurance, mentorship and an option to rest the starters in much the same way as Nocioni did last season. Instead, he overtook Maciulis in the rotation and established himself as the most productive of Real Madrid’s big men. He’s not a dominant defender, but he executes the scheme and the scouting report with discipline, boxes out and grabs rebounds without really even realising. On offense, he sets crushing screens, throws his body around to get foul calls, establishes really deep position to maximise his chances to get easy shots and he —again— boxes out and grabs rebounds without really even realising.
Tonight he also made three pointers. Two of them, to be precise.
It’s sometimes difficult in the heat of the moment, but it’s important to remembers that a playoff series has to be seen in its entirety. Just as Panathinaikos’ demolition job in Game 1 was just one of three necessary wins, Real Madrid’s resurgence in Game 2 can easily be a footnote in a month’s time. At the end of the day, Real Madrid won yesterday riding the improbably hot shooting of Reyes and a few threes from Carroll. Just as Real Madrid adjusted entering Game 2, it is to be expected that PAO will give the Mormon even less breathing space than they did last night, and that the law of averages will morph Felipe’s jumpshot from silky to clunky by next Wednesday.
On Tuesday, PAO shot 12-22 from beyond the line, whilst Madrid only made 3-19. Last night, PAO tallied just 7-26 and Real Madrid made 11-20, including those two outlier threes from Felipe Reyes. Just as it was improbable that Madrid shot as poorly as in Game 1, it is likely that PAO will return to better shooting form next week.
That said, I do believe that Real Madrid were stunned in the first contest, and that this second game is closer to what Panathinaikos should expect in Games 3 and 4 in Madrid next week. Real Madrid’s veterans might be on the wrong side of thirty, but they sure know how to play high-pressure basketball games. The Ayón-Felipe-Carroll-Rudy quartet were in tune last night, and, although they don’t make it look particularly pretty, they do play effective basketball — and PAO will have to get in the lab and figure out what they’re going to do about it.
Having managed to snatch a game away from one of the toughest arenas in Europe, Real Madrid can say that, despite an embarrassing loss in Game 1, they are coming home with the job done. There’s an interesting Games 3, 4 and possibly 5 ahead. It’s now PAO’s move in this terribly short chess game between two coaches, Laso and Pascual, who know each other very well from their time steering the El Clásico ships. Now, Pascual will need to counter Laso’s strategic shift and find ways to stop Real Madrid’s offense from humming and get Calathes to move the strings again.
And all the while, the series changing question —at least for Real Madrid fans— still looms. Sergio Llull has been training with the team for a couple weeks now, and there’s a rumoured date for his return already: 6th May, an ACB home game vs GBC San Sebastián. It would be unusual for him to return in a high-stakes, high-intensity playoff series against Panathinaikos. But Llull and Real Madrid are at an unusual crossroads as well: the club might never have anything resembling the Llull and Doncic pairing, and Llull himself might never have another sidekick quite like the Slovenian wonderboy. They might consider it a now-or-never, and, if they do, this playoff series might swing one way or another depending on how Sergio Llull looks upon his hypothetical return.
I can’t wait for Game 3.