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¡El Clásico! Looking back at the first FC Barcelona - Real Madrid clash of 18-19 as the giant rivals prepare for tomorrow’s EuroLeague battle

What can we learn from Barcelona’s November 26th 86-69 Liga Endesa victory over Real Madrid at the Palau Blaugrana? What questions does the first match up pose which the second December 14th clash may answer? The return of Sergio Llull (who did not play due to injury) and Rudy Fernandez (limited to 10 minutes of playing time,by injury I believe) is sure to have a large bearing. In addition, Anthony Randolph’s participation was limited by an offensive rebounding foul, compounded by a technical foul, that rapidly took him from two to four late in the second quarter. Randolph’s length combined with shooting is very valuable for Real, especially in the absence of fellow stretch 4 Trey Tompkins.

Barcelona starts a big front line with two ala-pivots, or 4s, in Victor Claver and Chris Singleton, plus a pivot, or 5, in Ante Tomic.

This alignment gives Barcelona an advantage on the offensive boards, as Singleton appears to be too strong for Randolph to box out, and Claver is both too strong and too long for Gabriel Deck. Real’s reliance on Walter Tavares for help defence and rim protection gives Tomic ample opportunities to carve out offensive rebounding position. In the first game Barcelona secured 25 of 30 available defensive rebounds, for a DREB% of 83%. This gave them a 16% advantage over Real, who only secured 22 of 33 available defensive rebounds, at 67%.

The trade-off for starting the additional size, gaining a rebounding advantage, is a possible lack of shooting, and a consequent lack of gravity leading to congested spacing.

Real basically dared Barcelona’s marginal shooters - Singleton and Adam Hanga in particular - to hit 3s, and they obliged to the tune of 13/26 3-point shooting. Singleton went 2/5, Hanga went 2/3, and Pierre Oriola went 1/2, whereas Claver went 0/2. Felipe Reyes disregarded Singleton on the perimeter in order to dig in the post versus Kevin Seraphin, perhaps a reluctant passer, against Gustavo Ayon. Twice Real dug off of Hanga on post ups and he hit 3s on the kickout passes.

Interestingly Real did seem to respect Singleton’s and Oriola’s shooting on pick and pops, multiple times being reluctant to help off of them and abondoning the ‘centrefield’ prematurely. Kevin Pangos exploited this for an easy lay up early in the game. However, the tactic appeared to be deliberate, as Real stayed attached to Oriola in the fourth quarter, allowing the penetrator to get to the non-rim 2 area, where Tavares awaits at 2.2 metres tall.

The overriding impression in the game was that Barcelona beat the scout. It will be interesting to see if Real pursuits in their beliefs that Hanga, Claver and Singleton are effectively non-shooters, and if they do, can the aforementioned trio continue to make shots on the road in Madrid.

Singleton did show the capacity to bypass any issues with shooting by making one excellent string cut as his man left him to help on a Tomic screen-dive catch. Singleton cut to the rim for the big-to-big pass and an easy dunk.

Playing Reyes as an ala-pivot, or 4, negates Barcelona’s size advantage and in fact tilts the scales back in Real’s favour. But it comes at a significant cost!

In an attempt to counter the big Barcelona front line Pablo Laso inserted the veteran legend Reyes at the 4. Reyes had a “weight room” advantage as he was too broad and strong for his defenders, both in the post and on the offensive boards. Barcelona tried to negate the post up advantage of Reyes but three quarter topside fronting, but Real immediately exploited this with excellent intelligent situational habits and drove baseline versus the front for easy lay ups (Reyes does an excellent job of sealing his defender high side so he can’t help). Unfortunately for Madrid foul trouble curbed Reyes’ dominance as he was judged to have fouled upon becoming tangled up with Singleton while contesting a rebound late in the second quarter. This sent Reyes to the bench.

The dual big combinations (Reyes-Tavares, Reyes-Ayon, Ayon-Tavares) weren’t entirely positive for Real however. Barcelona completely disregarding these 5s masquerading as 4s when they were on the perimeter and this allowed them to clog the interior versus penetration and post ups without consequence. For example, Reyes’ 3-point shooting stats in recent years involve low volume and low efficiency (0/2 in 18-19 across EuroLeague and ACB games; 4/14 in 74 games in 17-18; 5/26 in 73 games in 16-17). Rudy Fernandez did employ some “red light” tactics (in these instances, when you drive and are forced to kick out to the non-shooter you try and maintain your separation but morphing straight into a 2 on 1 hand-off) in conjunction with non-shooters but to no avail.

The lack of shooting and defensive floor balance of these bigger Real line ups lead to some long rebounds that sparked excellent transition opportunities for Barcelona. Hanga is dynamic pushing the ball off defensive rebounds and turnovers, while Thomas Heurtel is a world class kick ahead passer in transition.

Barcelona successfully forced Real into playing within the big line up context that it is accustomed to.

Barcelona had success disrupting Real’s timing and spacing with extended pressure and situational denial. Will the return of Llull alleviate these issues for Real?

You would imagine Llull’s return will indeed mitigate Barcelona’s success with pressure, both by increasing the quality and diversity of Real’s ball handling.

Pangos’ extended pressure at times appeared to bother Facundo Campazzo. Barcelona was successful in taking the ball out of Campazzo’s hands, forcing less accomplished ball handlers to advance the ball. This significantly disrupted Real’s timing (burning a lot of shot clock to initiate the offence) and spacing (forcing players out of position to advance the ball and alleviate pressure), while limiting Real’s play package, as secondary ball handlers tend to revert to a few choice sets they’re comfortable with from the unfamiliar point guard, or el base, position.

Real tried to counter by having their point guards take the ball out of bounds as the inbounder, but Barcelona simply did not sink back to the line of the ball as is typical when a big inbounds, but instead locked up with the Real ball handlers and denied the pass back. When Klemen Prepelic, an escolta, or 2, had to moonlight as a point guard, Barcelona turned up the pressure even more, looking to “trap down” from behind the ball. Luckily for Prepelic he was bailed out by Heurtel who reached for the steal and fouled.

Barcelona also had success with situational denial, including on sideline out of bounds, where they shaded off the inbounder to prevent the pass to the preferred receiver.

Real was able to exploit Hanga’s aggressiveness in the passing lanes after time out (ATO). Can they maximise their exploitation of Hanga’s predilection towards getting back doored?

Who wins the cat and mouse games of cross matching?

Barcelona’s preferred match up for Real’s brilliant shooter Jaycee Carroll, predominantly a 2 (escolta), sometimes a 3 (alero), is Claver. Claver’s combination of quickness, footwork and length makes him well suited to navigate turnout screens, shirt tail, close down any separation, and contest with his length. In addition, this allows Claver and Singleton to switch pin downs if need be. Carroll was able to backcut Claver for a lay up on one occasion where Claver cheated through a double down screen early.

Therefore with the two starting units on the floor (Campazzo-Carroll-Deck-Randolph-Tavares versus Pangos-Kyle Kuric-Claver-Singleton-Tomic) Claver being on Carroll meant that Kuric was cross matched onto the bigger Deck. Real had some success posting Deck versus Kuric. On one early possession Deck in the post drew excessive attention from Tomic and was able to find Tavares on the rim. This caused Barcelona to match up conventionally temporarily, as the cat and mouse game to find the optimal match up to attack - Deck in the post versus Kuric or Carroll in turnouts versus Kuric - ensued on each possession. Barcelona found some success having Kuric full front Deck and then sunk their big (Tomic) back to prevent the lob when Tavares flashed for a high-low. Justifiably Barcelona was not worried about Tavares punishing them on mid-range jumpers. I believe Barcelona is happy for Real to forego other options in order to play through Deck in the post. Heurtel also found himself cross matched onto Jeff Taylor for the same reason (Claver on Carroll), who posted him to wildly varying degrees of success - a beautiful dominoes possession combined with a turnover.

On the other end, Claver is too big for Deck, scoring through and over him, even if Deck was able to go under the DHO or ball screen and arrive on the other side in front. Deck found a much better match up in Hanga, who he contained well on penetration. Carroll on the other hand held up well versus Claver in the post, especially in the half court where he can front and rely on having help on any potential lob. Where Claver did find success was following being cross matched onto Carroll, contesting an above the break shot, and then leaking out into a lead post. This allows Claver to establish position while the entirety of the Real defence is not yet back and the help is not loaded in, therefore the front is not an option available to Carroll as there would be no help on the lob.

The two teams have very differing approaches to guarding shooters coming off of screens. Who will be better at administering the poison of their opposition’s choosing?

Barcelona chooses to tilt their entire help towards the cuts of Carroll in 2008 Boston Celtics style. This prioritises eliminating catch and shoot opportunities for Carroll, and rotates the entire defence towards Carroll so that the screen is also closed down on the slip. These leaves the defence more exposed on the weak side and susceptible to bi-lateral offensive actions where the passer can throw opposite the slant of the help.

In contrast, Real asks their defenders to shirt tail Kuric with minimal help. On the initial turnout for Kuric Tavares did drop down onto the cutter’s path to bump him, which opened up a potential face cut or duck in for Tomic but he either didn’t see the opportunity or chose to decline it in favour of setting a ‘hard’ screen in an attempt to free up Kuric. Kuric was able to exploit the minimal help curling the turnout - Tavares, offering late help on the rim, blocked his shot - early in the game and then later with a dagger 3 that put Barcelona up 81-64 with 2:57 to go in the fourth quarter. Ribas provokes no help from Real when he comes off turnouts.

Real tried to go under on ball screens and were punished with two early 3s

Both Pangos and Heurtel made 3s versus the under. Will Real adjust their coverages?

The game featured a lot of going under on ball screens, and Twisting to re-screen in response.

Tomic works exceptionally hard to sprint in to screens, to sprint out of screens, and sets multiple screens per possession to force two defenders to commit to one offensive player. Here Tomic twists the screen creating a 1 Side Back Side, meaning there’s minimal help on the screen-dive. Therefore Tomic is able to cut into space for the lob.

Can Barcelona get Tavares to bite on shot fakes or will he be disciplined and stay down?

In the first half Tomic had success with getting Tavares to leave his feet on shot fakes. Tavares was much more disciplined in the second half, although Claver was able to get him to bite on an interior close out to a cutter in the second half. When Tavares stays down and forces opponents to score over his immense length he is able to control the interior.

Positive Transfer of Front Side and Back Side Reads to Other Offensive Concepts

"Moves" - Ball handling warm up game (based on "Signs")