View from the bench: The effects of pressure in a Final Four!

May 23, 2012 by Aito Garcia Reneses - Barcelona, Spain Print
Aito Garcia RenesesWorld-renowned as a master teacher of basketball, Aito Garcia Reneses holds a place as one of the most prestigious coaches in Europe. He won a silver medal at the 2008 Olympics to go with a ULEB Cup, two Korac Cups, nine Spanish Leagues and five Spanish Cup titles, just to name a few of his accomplishments in almost four decades on the benches of basketball powers like FC Barcelona, Joventut Badalona and Unicaja. Aito, as everyone in European basketball knows him, is also a regular contributor to the Mastermind Coaching Seminars of the Euroleague Basketball Institute. He joins to give his coachs point of view and analysis on Turkish Airlines Euroleague games.

Never in my sports career have I talked about favorites. When I coach a smaller team, it doesn't matter, and in fact I like it, if we are considered favorites, because that helps to increase ambition. However, when the team I am coaching is bigger, it worries me when the favorite label is stuck on us because often it causes some members of the team to freeze. On the other hand, I was never as skilled as others in hanging the label of favorite on the rival teams. It's not totally true, but while referring to aspects like the one we are commenting right now, in private I used to say: "FAVORITES NEVER WIN."

Consider the two teams that landed at the Final Four in Istanbul as favorites: FC Barcelona Regal lost in the semis and CSKA Moscow almost fell in the first game to Panathinaikos. While the Barcelonans and Muscovites reached the Final Four with hardly any losses during the season, the Greek teams arrived in Istanbul with several defeats each. The best game in Istanbul, for me, was the one between Panathinaikos and CSKA. Zeljko Obradovic's team started very strong, dominating the scoreboard. CSKA had a hard time ridding itself of the pressure from that deficit until it started to play well.

From this game, I will highlight a tactical change that proved decisive in CSKA's recovery. Throughout the first quarter, Panathinaikos scored many baskets off the high pick-and-roll by reading magnificently the soft defense of CSKA.

In the following clip you will be able to see the pick-and-roll recital put on by the Greens, conducted by Dimitris Diamantidis and Sarunas Jasikevicius, two masters of the pass. They received screens from a teammate guarded by a rival big man who, since they didn't want to leave either guard open to shoot, recovered late to defend their own big men. For that reason, and because no other help was on its way, the Panathinaikos big men received the ball alone under the basket to score easily. When CSKA regrouped and started helping a little better underneath, Panathinaikos found an open shooter, like Romain Sato or Jasikevicius himself, to score three-pointers.

Also notice that there were several options while running the high pick-and-roll, one in transition, as soon as the Panathinaikos players arrived to play offense. Another used previous move to put the receiver in ideal position for the pass. A third triangulated the pass through a power forward who could shoots and passes well, like Kostas Kaimakoglou.

I am sure that coach Jonas Kazlauskas knew that CSKA was defending this play badly, especially facing rivals of the level of Panathinaikos, and that the main weapon would be switching on defense, as his team did later. However, I think that if CSKA had lost that game, he would have been criticized for making that change too late. As things evolved, I would guess that he didn't want to show his hand early in the game.

In any case, it's a spectacular to see how Saras and Dimitris pass the ball after each screen, always choosing the right moment and the right type of pass so that their teammates enjoy the maximum advantage with which to score.

Starting from the second quarter it was amazing to see the skill with which the players of CSKA made those defensive switches systematically between the guards and big men. We also have to take into account that for any big man, it's very difficult to defend a player like Diamantidis. He is a great shooter and also a great penetrator, so the defenders have to cover the outside shot well - which those of CSKA did thanks to their wingspan - and be ready block any layup attempts. Few big men can do both well.

A second problem challenge happens when the big man who screens and rolls to the basket is defended by a small guard after the switch. In this case, we have to say that this advantage was non-existent during the minutes when Andrei Kirilenko guarded Diamantidis, because once the switch happened, he easily moved to defend the big man inside. What's fascinating about Kirilenko is that he guarded Diamantidis perfectly even when no pick-and-roll was executed. Amazing. Even when Kirilenko wasn't defending inside, Ramunas Siskauskas and Milos Teodosic were both able to keep the Panathinaikos big men from scoring after switches by stealing the ball or drawing offensive fouls. All this can be seen on the following clip:

The other semifinal, between Olympiacos and Barcelona, was less interesting for a neutral spectator. The Reds played the game they needed in order to have more chances to win, while Barcelona played stiff and slow, maybe influenced by the pressure and the physical condition of Juan Carlos Navarro, who was effective but without being able to use the fast and joyful style he plays when healthy.

The title game was played for a long time under the domination of CSKA Moscow, but without particular brilliance, which might have led some spectators to stop watching, although they almost certainly regretted that once they learned later what had happened.

One of basketball's biggest attractions was witnessed by the final outcome on Sunday, when Olympiacos won a game that it seemed to have lost during most of the 40 minutes. The team of Duda Ivkovic has rightly been recognized by everyone in the basketball world as having shown the kind of heart, belief in itself and togetherness that is needed to overcome great obstacles - in this case, a 19-point deficit with 12 minutes to play against a CSKA team that was the season-long favorite.

When Olympiacos started coming back, its reserves on court playing intense, team basketball with nothing to lose and everything to win, with Kostas Papanikolaou and Georgios Printezis making shot after shot, the the pressure of having to win as favorites began to show on CSKA. It was not just that outside pressure, but the ability of Olympiacos to change the momentum and keep adding to the pressure on CSKA that ultimately led to the exciting finish.

I don't want to finish this blog without sincerely congratulating the champs for the title and their faith in each other. At the same time, however, I think it's a mistake to celebrate basketball based solely on the thrilling finish. I think that teams that play more intensely and spectacularly for the fans during the greater part of the game, not just at the end, need to be rewarded most. I think that rules interpretations should take into account this point. For sure, the end of this final was played and officiated perfectly according to the current officiating criteria as understood by the teams, the players, the fans and the referees. However, I think we have become so used to an interpretation of the rules that nobody questioned whether the foul by Vassilis Spanoulis on Ramunas Siskauskas with 10 seconds left was a normal foul or not. In my personal opinion, it should have been unsportsmanlike, which would have meant ball possession for CSKA after the free throws. I say that because the regulations state: "If a player doesn't make any efforts to go for the ball and there is a contact, the foul is unsportsmanlike". Some call such a foul "tactical", and it's generally approved by the referees, but I think that kind of foul normally takes away from good basketball.

In this case, the fact that Siskauskas missed both free throws - the pressure, again - meant that not only did Olympiacos get the ball back, but with the chance to win, as well. The rest, as they say, is history, which you can see it in the last clip: