This text was written for a video commentary, and this piece should have been published in video format. Following issues with the rendering, and the video not looking to be ready for publishing before the semi-finals, I scrapped the video format and chose to publish the text while adding a minority of the clips from the video. It was a back-up plan but also a last minute change and thus this text of the video commentary might lack the coherence of a written piece, as it is only the script text for a 20+ minute video commentary.
For the second season in a row, Barcelona finished the EuroLeague regular season as the 1st seed, matched up with the 8th seed in the quarter-finals and got unexpectedly pushed to the series deciding match at home court and prevailed in the elimination match to grab a Final Four spot. At mid-point of the regular season, I wrote that this Barcelona team was not all that similar to previous season’s Barça and unlike the previous season, they would have to be named as the clear title favourite by then the mid-point of the EuroLeague regular season. So if Barcelona solved their offensive issues from previous years in this season, why were they so pushed by an injury depleted Bayern in quarter-finals this time around?
The first leg in Barcelona actually showcased a typical matchup between these teams. Vladimir Lučić played his heart out on either side of the ball, but his brilliant performance was not enough to elevate his team over a great Barcelona side. Barcelona looked much more composed and played much more like champions in comparison to their troubles against Zenit St Petersburg in last year’s quarter-finals. Something in Bayern’s disposal was revealed however. Augustine Rubit is likely the most well-equipped EuroLeague power forward to defend Nikola Mirotić.
Unlike the Zenit series though, Mirotić has come out of this one looking considerably better. Which fits, despite the fact that Zenit did not have a one-on-one defender as well-suited to defend Mirotić as Augustine Rubit is, because Nikola Mirotić has had his most efficient, resilient and durable EuroLeague campaign at scoring the ball yet. Rubit’s defence on the Spanish international has had its effect though, lowering Mirotić’s scoring efficiency to levels around the previous two EuroLeague campaigns Mirotić had. That, of course, is a much better scenario compared to the regression Mirotić displayed in the Zenit series a year ago.
For Bayern, a negative result of this first match beyond just the loss itself, was the injury Darrun Hilliard experienced. Hilliard was sidelined for the remainder of the series which meant Bayern lost its most prolific wing attacker and keep in mind they were already deprived of point guard Corey Walden for the entire series. With Darrun Hilliard being the creative force behind so many of Bayern’s attacks in the first match, and with Barça seemingly imposing their collective superiority despite Bayern’s best efforts, Bayern’s road to Belgrade looked quite thin.
Hilliard’s injury allowed Jasikevičius to assign Calathes on Lučić because Abrines could defend a player like Nihad Đedović who is mostly uninvolved with the ball during Bayern’s attacks or even Nick Weiler-Babb who sometimes creates with the ball in his hands but not often.
Whereas with Hilliard playing, Abrines would have to either defend him or Lučić and in the first match Vladimir Lučić had taken complete advantage of Alex Abrines’s weak one-on-one defence. This worked to a degree, even though Lučić has a height advantage over Calathes, at least now he couldn’t attack a weak defender off the dribble.
So, with Hilliard unable to play and Lučić being neutralised offensively, how the hell Bayern managed to win in Palau Blaugrana 90 to 75 and earn home court advantage?
DeShaun Thomas is known for his scoring outbursts that happen every now and then, and when he’s in the zone, contests don’t really bother him. But beyond his epic shooting night, Andreas Obst and Ognjen Jaramaz stepping up in place of their injured teammates were enormous for Bayern’s scoring production.
Cory Higgins hasn’t appeared in EuroLeague since January but this was definitely the match his team felt his absence the most. Whenever Barcelona’s attacks got stuck, Cory Higgins has been the sole perimeter creator who could produce the required baskets for his team to stay in it. Although he is not a creator, Kyle Kuric’s outside shooting is another such instant scoring mechanism for Barcelona to lean on when their attacks get unproductive. In fact, in the aforementioned series against Zenit last year, that was often the scoring utility that they reverted to. One year later, Kyle Kuric had a horrible shooting performance in this entire series (3/20 3FG), including this second match (2/7 3FG, 2/8 FG). Therefore Barcelona was not only affected by the absence of their only reliable self-creating wing in Cory Higgins, but also the absence of Kyle Kuric’s instant scoring as a result of his inexplicable shooting contra Bayern. Of course Barcelona has a stacked squad, something Bayern doesn’t have and Bayern had their own absences in Walden and Hilliard, but neither of these facts change the realities of Barcelona’s vulnerabilities in certain areas, as stacked as their squad is.
One theme in this series was also underwhelming set direction by Šarūnas Jasikevičius, which really started to reveal itself with this match. In this loss in particular, the Lithuanian head coach opted to utilise Nikola Mirotić from post positions, interior isolations and as an inside out threat.
However, Barcelona is sneakily a team of questionable outside shooters, especially with Cory Higgins out and this ultra inefficient shooting performance by their most prolific outside shooter in Kyle Kuric. So this particular usage of Nikola Mirotić worked in the favour of Bayern’s defence. Barcelona could have garnered more dynamic attacking positions had Šaras used Mirotić as an outside threat instead, benefiting his gravity to create driving and cutting paths for his teammates and utilising Mirotić’s pick and pop prowess.
Bayern also was well-prepared with frequent double teams and their help and recover execution against Mirotić’s interior touches. Considering Nikola Mirotić is more of a straight scorer instead of an inside creator who equips the necessary court vision, passing execution or feel for the game to create against defences which double team him, Bayern’s defence benefited greatly from the way Jasikevičius used him in the 2nd match.
On the flip side, offensive rebounds and 2nd chance points drilled a hole in Barça’s defending. Augustine Rubit has magnet hands as an offensive rebounder, but the 5 offensive rebounds Nick Weiler-Babb sneaked in for, hurt Barcelona’s defensive integrity more than anything in their first loss in the series.
The biggest difference between the first two matches in Barcelona’s home court, was that in the first one Vladimir Lučić played dominant on both sides of the ball but that wasn’t enough for Bayern to prevail over this great Barcelona side. In the second match however, Lučić looked ordinary on offence with the aforementioned Barcelona defensive adjustment taking away a solid portion of his scoring. But much more importantly, Bayern was able to perform well as a team and managed to beat Barcelona as a team, with impressive collective performances. In that regard, the game discipline, motivation, preparation and continuity Andrea Trinchieri instills his team with is the most impressive.
Next week the series carries over to Audi Dome and some of Barcelona’s troubles repeat. Bayern continues to benefit greatly from offensive boards and 2nd chance points. Even increases its margin there. Kyle Kuric continues waste away possessions by missing open shots. And this time around Bayern even gets an enormous edge in the most efficient shot in the game, the free throws (Bayern shot 22/27 from the line to Barcelona’s 11/12).
But one crucial adjustment by Šaras allowed Barcelona to score 1.19 points per possession on 63 attacks they had, which means supreme scoring output at an incredibly low tempo game. Mirotić was utilised as an outside threat from the get go, off pick and pops, empty side plays, hand-off actions which immediately boosts Barcelona’s offence because they no longer so desperately yearn for a perimeter self-creator like Cory Higgins and their squad is much better suited to outside in attacking than inside out.
However it would be ignorant to say this offensive adjustment took Bayern defence out of its comfort zone because hardly anybody is as prepared as Andrea Trinchieri’s team. Augustine Rubit is not only tailor made to cover Nikola Mirotić one-on-one, but he also hedges and recovers brilliantly when defending Mirotić’s on-screens. And Bayern was using deter rotations when Laprovittola threatened the middle in different ways.
This is amazing preparation by Bayern’s coaching staff, because it would be a great tactical adjustment in the series, if Barcelona’s attack destroyed them in this 3rd match with their change in attacking strategy and Bayern defence came out with this defending in the fourth match. Although they lost the match, Barça didn’t destroy them thanks to how well-prepared they were for this sudden strategic shift in Barcelona’s attacking and Bayern’s loss here absolutely cannot be blamed on their defence. Which takes us to the other side of the ball where Bayern’s shooting performance returned back to normal so the sum of Barcelona’s very good attacking and very good defending in this match managed to overcome Bayern’s very good defence and insufficient offence.
The next match in Audi Dome strayed away from the general course of the series and offered more of a standalone defensive war. Bayern managed to carry the series to a decider in Palau Blaugrana by outdefending Barça in this defensive battle. If they beat Barça by outdefending them, the difference mostly stemmed from better discipline in the continuation of their defending, a more consistent attention to and execution of defensive rebounding, and not missing some great, open shots like Barcelona did.
However if there was one aspect that was relevant to the series at large, it was a continuation of aforementioned underwhelming set direction by Jasikevičius. Much like in Barcelona’s previous loss in the 2nd match, Šaras’s set direction left a bunch to be desired in this one.
Nicolás Laprovíttola has rejuvenated his career this season after a dry spell with Real Madrid and that has largely come as a result of his dynamic guard play and the off-ball actions that get him going next to Nick Calathes and Rokas Jokubaitis who assume the more point guard-like duties.
After Kyle Kuric, the Argentinian combo guard has been the player who was utilised by off-screens the most in Barcelona’s offence this season, but as Kuric was bricking the few open shots Barcelona created in this match, Jasikevičius hardly ever reverted to off-screen actions to get Laprovittola going instead. Laprovittola shot the ball terribly himself in this match, but that cannot be an excuse to the way he has been used within Barça’s attacks as much as it could be the explanation behind his shooting performance.
Dante Exum who has been up and down like a rollercoaster as an attacker, despite consistently being great as a defender from day one as a midseason addition, tried to attack Bayern’s defence as a perimeter threat and did horribly in this one with a bunch of turnovers at worst and unproductivity at best. Jasikevičius could have benefited from some attacking dynamism through his sets that got back Laprovittola on track this season but he didn’t. At least as equally detrimental was Jasikevičius not directing enough sets Nikola Mirotić’s way, who as a result, was not used like Barcelona’s ace scorer in this match, which he is.
Besides Šarūnas Jasikevičius leaving some meat on the bone as far as Barcelona’s attacks go, the sheer defensive battle of this match was something to watch. Barcelona displayed their hand, showcasing the strength and unity of their defence through brilliant collective positioning.
Bayern displayed their hand, showcasing brilliant help and recover execution and harmonious defensive movement.
Barcelona’s containment defence at its best is like a singular rock formed by the stifling positions their five defenders get on in unity. Bayern’s containment defence at its best is like separate stones being frenetically thrown at the opponent, embodied by perfectly timed help rotations taking away the good shots and recover rotations leaving the attacking side desperate taking one option away at a time.
Thus the series carries over back to Barcelona for a Final Four appearance decider in Palau Blaugrana. With another super efficient scoring output by Barcelona, at 1.23 points per possession on the 66 attacks they had, the Catalan side managed to carve out the win and move onto the Final Four for another chance at their third EuroLeague title, the last of which won 12 years ago. This time around not only Nikola Mirotić was utilised like the scoring ace he is for this team, Nico Laprovittola was unleashed through Šaras’s dynamic offensive actions that reinvigorated his form. Barcelona also did a much better job in securing rebounds this time around and even though Bayern still kept it competitive until the end, Othello Hunter’s clutch two-way play, Ognjen Jaramaz stepping up for the wounded Bayern attack once again, Nick Weiler-Babb assuming some of the creative responsibilities and doing well could not grant the German side their first ever Final Four appearance.
As for what’s ahead, the Final Four week to conclude the 21-22 EuroLeague season, Barça will have to defeat eternal rivals Real Madrid in the semi-final to face either Olympiacos or Efes in the championship match. One simple reason alone still makes me believe Barcelona is the ultimate championship favourite still, despite the fact that they were pushed to the edge by a wounded Bayern team which already has a clearly inferior squad AND despite the fact that this is so reminiscent of Barcelona’s pattern last season, when they escaped Zenit St Petersburg in five in a surprisingly competitive 1 to 8th seed quarter-finals, before barely overcoming Milano in the semi-final to then lose the championship match to Anadolu Efes. And this reasoning pertains to Barcelona’s attacking in these two seasons. What you might already infer from the analysis of the Bayern series is Barcelona’s attacking output against a menacing Bayern defence greatly varied based on how Šaras Jasikevičius
a) set up their larger attacking strategy
and b) directed Barça’s sets
Barcelona’s surplus attacking output in the 3rd and 5th matches in the Bayern series is indeed personally encouraging enough to have Barça as the ultimate favourite of the title still. I don’t believe this was an attacking potential or ceiling they had or could tap into in the previous season. Instead I think their attacking last season was way too Nick Calathesised so to speak, to have this higher ceiling, in spite of Cory Higgins being healthy then.
When push came to shove, with a spectacular Barcelona defence throwing the kitchen sink at the monstrous Efes attack, the Turkish powerhouse prevailed thanks to their attacking resiliency and durability which both pertain well to a high ceiling offence. This season Efes and Barcelona have pretty much the same scoring efficiency. So why not have Efes as the frontrunning title favourite again? Well, because even though, most of their attacking resiliency in the 2021 championship match were spearheaded by Vasilije Micić and Shane Larkin and those guys are once again coming to the season finale up to great form, a third dimension to Efes offence has always been significant. If Efes’s attacking monstrosity has taken a step back this season in comparison to their standards of previous seasons and it really has, this is largely due to this third dimension being absent from Efes’s offence this time around rather than any notable regression in the dual impact of Larkin and Micić. Kruno Simon being injured, if Efes is able to get an extra dimension of finishing at least, via either Adrien Moerman or Rodrigue Beaubois, or perhaps both of their Frenchmen, they could be the first team to win successive EuroLeagues in nearly a decade. I don’t think this scenario is unlikely but I also do not find it as dependable as the scenarios in which Barcelona or even Olympiacos achieve continental coronation. The depth and defensive excellence of Olympiacos could provide a tougher challenge to Barcelona in a potential final, than Efes’s potent attacking and clutch defence in play-offs.
With that said, this is a truly stacked Final Four in my estimation, and we could realistically see all four of the championship match combinations, which, is not something we can say for most of the Final Fours. Real Madrid might have been the most troubled team out of the four season finale participants, but they still have incredible defensive output, maximised by their dominating stunt rotations.
And the mental effect of a clásico in the semi-final, on the first day of the season finale, cannot be understated. Barcelona will go into the semi-final as the favourite so the pressure will be on them. Accumulated historical pressure, potentially, is also at play.
When we put on a previewing lens on the 2022 Final Four, the incessant race Real Madrid and Barcelona are in, to be the ultimate sporting giant of the world cannot be glossed over. After all, it is at the very least a partial cause of Barcelona’s increased spending in basketball since the summer of 2019. Current personnel of Barça was gathered as a result of the club’s will to win EuroLeague again first and foremost, and domestic competitions later. So they know it and it is inevitable at least some of them have that pressure to deal with. They ended a 7-year ACB league championship drought last season but since Barça last wore the continental coronation in 2010, Real Madrid added two other EuroLeague trophies to their cabinet and inarguably has been the superior club in the decade of 2010s. Not to mention, besides Real Madrid’s edge in league championships and Copa del Rey titles, they are the most decorated EuroLeague club with 10 championships. Barcelona lags behind with 2 EuroLeague championships and they kind of carry a history of having these very ambitious teams who end up getting bested in the championship matches, which is a historical baggage reflected onto this season’s Barcelona one way or the other. They were unable to snatch a EuroLeague trophy during their 1980s renaissance, losing the 1984 championship match to Virtus Roma. Following the Jugoplastika defeat in the 1990 final, they snatched away Boža Maljković from Jugoplastika but still ended up getting beaten by the Croatian powerhouse in the 1991 final despite the crucial departures of Dino Rađa and Duško Ivanović as well. The following year, their Catalan archrival Joventut Badalona came this close to winning a EuroLeague before Barça did, and two years after that Joventut actually took the trophy home before Barcelona ever did. The season after that, their Spanish archrival Real Madrid had won its 8th EuroLeague title when Barça still didn’t have one. The very next year Barcelona was back in the EuroLeague final, with another re-organisation and an ambitious group to finally bring the elusive trophy home, when this happened. No worries though, the historic split between the clubs and FIBA Europe was not to happen until a few years later, and Barcelona was back for their fifth EuroLeague Final appearance the next season. Which, resulted with another Greek club winning their first EuroLeague in their first final appearance.
It wasn’t until 6 years later with a complete re-organisation of EuroLeague this time around, not only a re-organisation in the club, and with a different group of ambitious and talented personnel, that Barça managed to win their elusive EuroLeague trophy; in Barcelona. 7 years after that they changed the meaning of Paris forever for the club. Fast forward to now, with a Real Madrid dominant 2010s behind us, Barcelona re-organised again, has spent tens of millions of euros to stack talent on their side and get back to EuroLeague championship contention. They are a better team than Real Madrid this season, but if they could not shake off this historical baggage and feel the pressure of the clásico they are taking the court early on sunday to play the most dreaded match in their careers. If not, Barça should overcome their historical rivals and await the more formidable challenge in either Olympiacos or Efes. But when it comes to championship prospects of all the Final Four participants via the lens of 21-22 EuroLeague basketball only, Barcelona is in the driving seat. Going back to my season overview at its mid-point, Barcelona is finally at the driving seat because Šaras Jasikevičius has managed to resolve their systemic attacking problems, which is why unlike before, based on his own coaching performance, Barcelona is able to display excellent attacking efficiency against the tense background and intense contents of play-offs. This is the insight their quarter-finals contra Bayern can give us, that the ball is on Šaras’s court, with regards to all four championship hopes in play, not only his own team’s. And if they are exceedingly well-prepared, if their attacking strategy is optimised and Šaras’s set direction is good enough, Barcelona’s output shall be enough to be crowned as champions, one way or the other. Because the means and utility of this team, unlike in Barcelona’s previous seasons including the cancelled one, are already in place, formed by the players and built by the coaching staff, to reach the productive resiliency and wide durability necessary, to actually go ahead and win the EuroLeague. Without it, you do not win EuroLeague, with a few exceptions here and there. Oftentimes we have multiple championship contenders who have that, just like we have this season, and in a lot of these cases, the best coaching performance ends up determining the champion out of them in the Final Four. The make-up of the Final Four, unlike the mano e mano coaching battles in play-off series, largely take away the match-up oriented tactical exchanges out of the play, and instead, demand coaching performances far more relevant to the true identity, scope, depth and level of the structure & the content the coaches have built and unleashed with their teams, all season long. That is why most frequent differentiator in EuroLeague Final Fours, is the intertwining coaching performances that week and for this one in Belgrade, the ball is on Šaras’s court. And there is no better lens to understand that apart from Barcelona’s quarter-finals against Bayern.