As recently as two weeks ago, a diary on this website focusing on the playoffs race described Baskonia (with Panathinaikos and Crvena Zvezda) as a team “trying to avoid the seventh seed” and the duel with CSKA or Real that goes with it. But Baskonia was already at that moment navigating an awful sequence of 5 losses in their last 6. With that in perspective, Friday’s game against Efes, one of the main playoff contenders, could be seen as a way to get back on track… or flinch and fall back to the eighth seed, the team having seen a real possibility of a complete breakdown in EuroLeague.
And the breakdown, in this very game, looked like something probable rather than simply possible. To be clear, the 96-85 final score almost says it all – Baskonia can’t stop 2anyone at the moment. For sure the roster wasn’t really built as a defensive powerhouse; but Hanga is one of the best perimeter defenders in the competition, while Larkin is quick enough to apply some sort of ball pressure on opposing point guards. Then it becomes worse – Beaubois, as well as being their potential leading scorer, has never been known for his defense.
But for all the things the perimeter players can do, they need someone behind them to help them contain ball handlers and allow them to be more aggressive. That’s exactly where the problem is – missing Shengelia since week 17, they have to rely on really bad defensive frontcourt combinations. Kim Tillie knows his limits, Voigtmann lacks the rim protection of a true modern center, and Bargnani is the same he’s always been so you have to cope with the other team attacking him. Their only defensive option, Ilimane Diop, absolutely crumbled in this game, committing 5 fouls in exactly the same amount of minutes. 4 of them came before halftime, the first 2 were used on a silly foul in transition, and then a moving screen. Such a young player making costly mistakes may happen, but it’s a problem when he is as important to his team as Diop is to Baskonia. The contrast offered by a dominant Dunston on the other end was absolutely critical.
Lacking a defensive presence in the paint, Baskonia never was able to stop the Efes guards’ drive-and-kick game. 26 assists on 34 field goals made is a pretty impressive number (especially considering the rampage of heat-check midrangers Heurtel took) that says a lot about pick-and-roll coverage problems – the more help you have give to your frontline, the more vulnerable you’ll be to ball movement, having to scramble, and giving up putbacks because everybody is out of position to box out and rebound. Not to mention going for the zone defense at the end of the third quarter turned out a disaster …
The main question in all this is how can Baskonia find a solution to a problem that is killing all the chances they could have to reach not only the Final Four, but even just the playoffs. The clock is ticking on player additions since it any move has to be made before next round (24). If no surprise comes in terms of personnel (they’ll probably see Shengelia as a late addition), their offense can obviously ease them through games against Milan and Galatasaray. It certainly won’t be enough against better opponents. Diop may see better days too. But it’s a surprise not to see Alonso act more creatively – Hanga in particular (but also Budinger, to a lesser extent) may be able to play the 4 from time to time in switch-heavy lineups that could solve part of the pick-and-roll coverage, even if the rebounding suffers. Giving up a few mismatches seems like a fair trade if it closes some of the boulevards leading to the rim. They also have to reconsider the level of aggressiveness their guards put in man-to-man defense, and decide to be a little more conservative, even if it doesn’t fit their point guards (Laprovittola and Luz were non-factors in this one anyway). To add to this, Alonso plays Larkin for very long stretches that, given his greyhound-racing playing style, tend to encourage him to take possessions off on defense.
Now sitting on the edge of the eighth seed, the Basque country players face the danger of being leapfrogged by Darüşşafaka and most notably Žalgiris… whom they face in the last round of the regular season, and lost their first game to. Betting their playoff berth on this last game would be awesome for the neutral observer, but a clear setback for a team that played in last year’s Final Four.