Going into the ACB playoff final series as favourites against a team from the Basque country is nothing new for Regal FC Barcelona. Last year, Caja Laboral upset the then-newly crowned Euroleague champions 3-0 to take the crown, but the opponents this time round are not the perennial contenders from Vitoria, rather the ‘Men in Black’ from Bizkaia Bilbao Basket. ‘Los Hombres’ have only been in existence for 10 years and were only promoted to the ACB in 2004. Rapid progress has been made, and their back to back runs to the Eurocup Final Four in 2008/09 and 2009/10 saw Marko Banic earn the 2009/10 tournament MVP award. Whatever happens in this series, they will be assured a Euroleague place next season, which may have been the deciding factor in this week’s news that key American guard Aaron Jackson will remain in black next season along with incoming veteran point guard Raul Lopez who can join Axel Hervelle, Eduardo Hernandez-Sonseca, Alex Mumbru and (sort of, if he stays) Josh Fisher in reminiscing about their time in Madrid.
Despite the momentum gained by this success over the past two years, Bilbao are upstarts and underdogs when compared with a Regal FC Barcelona team whose sponsors’ soubriquet is anything but inappropriate. Despite a disappointing Euroleague exit where they were overmatched at both ends by eventual champions Panathinaikos in four games, Xavi Pascual’s squad is deep at every position (perhaps too deep) and should have too much frontcourt power for their opponents to handle. They remain unbeaten in this year’s playoffs, having swept Unicaja Malaga and Caja Laboral already, but neither of those teams were in a position to challenge the Blaugrana – Unicaja just didn’t have the depth of talent and looked beaten before they even tipped off, and Caja Laboral were a depleted, disrupted mess, their season having come apart following a Euroleague exit to Maccabi Tel Aviv in which they should have gone 2-0 up, and some late season roster tinkering that did more harm than good. And going back to last year, had they not also swept through the first two rounds by an average double digit margin of victory?
Jackson vs Sada, Rubio – advantage Bilbao?
Bilbao will provide a stern test, at both ends, particular in terms of their tough perimeter defense and the question marks over who on the Barcelona side will guard Aaron Jackson. The American guard completely exposed Pablo Prigioni’s vulnerability to speed (Prigioni has had an awe-inspiring career and can still time a bounce pass to the nanosecond, but there are only so many miles in any player’s legs) in the semi finals, but unlike some lightning-quick American ball handlers in Europe, his aggressiveness is controlled and considered – his drives to the hoop are purposeful, rarely reckless. Ricky Rubio has been benched in favour of Victor Sada, primarily due to his continued abysmal shooting, but he may have the footspeed to keep up Jackson and I would not be surprised to see him bow out of European basketball with a flourish, and perhaps if indulgence in pop-psychology is allowed for a moment, the resolution of his NBA future may release some pressure?
If they have to funnel Jackson towards the mass of bodies Pascual is able to call on to fill the paint, Marko Banic could be the prime beneficiary of the close attention focused on his quarterback. However, one of Bilbao’s strengths is their balanced offense – Alex Mumbru is equally capable inside, and Chris Warren, Janis Blums and Kostas Vasileiadis can inflict punishment from behind the arc. Warren in particular is an experienced veteran who shouldn’t be affected by the occasion. However, regarding a balanced offense, the same could equally be said of Barcelona, and with a higher level of talent to call on. Juan Carlos Navarro was slowed by injury around the time of the Euroleague playoffs, but he remains the continent’s most dangerous backcourt scorer. Alan Anderson is prone to calling his own number and has at times threatened to gun his own team out of games, but the Bilbao perimeter defense that held Real Madrid to 26.2% three-point shooting in the semi finals will have to do even better to eliminate these threats, not to mention that of Jaka Lakovic.
Battle of the Trees
Upfront is where Barcelona have the most significant advantage, and it is this facet of the game that is likely to cause Coach Katsikaris the most painful headache. It is not so much only in terms of depth that the Catalans pose danger – although it never hurts to have so many bodies to choose from, arguably a weakness of this team is that the overcrowded rotation has confused and hampered each individual – Fran Vazquez for one remains confusingly under-employed while the converse could be said of Kosta Perovic – but with Bilbao’s big man rotation quite shallow, and with only true centre – Dimitris Mavroeidis at 2.08m given that Edu Hernandez-Sonseca will miss at least the first two games with the injury that kept him out of the semi final series – instinctively one might think that securing rebounds may be an uphill battle for the Basque side.
Well, yes and no – in the ACB regular season, they ranked as a decent defensive rebounding team, 6th in the league at 23.59/game. Barcelona were top, with 25.24. However, look at the offensive rebounding charts at Bilbao sat second in the ACB at 12.35/game, meaning in total rebounds, Katsikaris’ men sat right at the head of the table with 35.94/game. Barcelona’s comparatively low offensive rebound total of 9.18/game, third from bottom in the league, pulled them down to 7th overall – and it wasn’t necessarily a case of comparatively poor shooting from Bilbao giving them more opportunities on the offensive glass, both teams shooting virtually identical percentages from the field from both two and three point range. Having said all this, the ‘eye test’ would have to give the advantage both offensively and defensively in the paint to Barcelona, particuarly with Hernandez-Sonseca absent. Despite the aggressiveness and craft of Banic and Mumbru down low, Barcelona’s bigs are that much more athletic – if they choose to play Vazquez and N’Dong – and as normal, Juan Carlos Navarro should be able to take advantage of switches whenever they happen. His absence through injury in the Bilbao’s 83-78 victory in April renders that result almost entirely irrelevant. Navarro is the glue that holds Barcelona’s offense together and it’s almost unbeatable get out of jail free card when faced with robust defense.
How Can Bilbao Win?
If their perimeter defense can both shut down penetration by Navarro and frustrate Anderson into inefficient hero-ball, if Jackson can penetrate at will and make good decisions when he gets there, if Banic and Mumbru can stay out of foul trouble, if they can match Barcelona on the boards, if they can get second chance points and shoot the most free throws, if the soon-to-leave Barcelona players allow that to affect their concentration, if the Miribilla crowd is deafening… they may stand a chance. Those are a lot of ‘ifs’.
Why Barcelona Will Win
Because Juan Carlos Navarro is the best pure scorer in Europe, because they are too deep and physical upfront for Bilbao, because they have the most talent on the floor and most of the time, that’s what matters.
Regal FC Barcelona 3 – 1 Bizkaia Bilbao Basket – the gap between these teams is not so great that the underdogs can’t steal one game, but ultimately Navarro and the bigs will be too much to handle. That might have been confidently prognosticated at this point last year, but Aaron Jackson isn’t quite Marcelino Huertas and Tiago Splitter left Bilbao a long time ago. Beyond that, Bilbao isn’t the high screen and roll machine that that Caja Laboral – or this year’s Panathinaikos team was. I can’t see any blowouts, at least early in the series, but Barcelona take this in four.