Only seven points total separated Bilbao and Valencia in their two regular-season meetings this year.
Bilbao won both games, including a 78-73 victory to clinch home-court advantage less than two weeks ago. Repeating those results won’t be easy.
Valencia’s high-powered offense features elite shooters all over the floor. Pau Ribas was a legitimate MVP candidate, and he played sparingly in their most recent matchup. With their best player receiving his usual minutes, Valencia should be a force offensively.
Bilbao has their own MVP-quality star in Marko Todorovic, and his foul trouble two weeks ago wasn’t enough to derail Bilbao on the road. If he can stay on the floor, and Bilbao receives a scoring boost from their role players, this should be the best first-round series of the 2015 ACB playoffs.
Schedule – All times CET
Game 1 – Thursday, May 28 at 20:30 in Bilbao
Game 2 – Saturday, May 30 at 18:15 in Valencia
Game 3 (if necessary) – To be decided
When Bilbao Has the Ball
Bilbao head coach Sito Alonso understands the value of the 3-point line.
His team shoots the 2nd-most threes in the ACB, launching 41.2 percent of their field goals from beyond the arc. Dairis Bertans, Axel Hervelle, Alex Mumbrú and Ethan Wragge all shoot between 37.9 and 40.4 percent on threes, and Alonso creates space for them in clever ways.
Bilbao likes to start their offense by dragging their 2-guard from right to left around the arc. Quino Colom then passes it to the 2-guard (in this case Bertans) who throws a post-entry pass to Mumbrú.
As Mumbrú backs down his defender, Bertans jogs to the top of the circle, presumably so he and Latavious Williams can set a staggered double screen for Colom. Colom curls around Bertans and raises his hands as if to receive a pass.
But this is just a decoy. Instead of using the Williams screen, Colom dives to the free-throw line, where he and Williams set the double screen for Bertans. Bertans explodes out to the left wing and hits the open three.
Bilbao busted out similar trickery in the fourth quarter.
On this side out-of-bounds play, Mumbrú enters the ball to Hervelle on the right wing. Mumbrú and Colom then jog nonchalantly toward the free-throw line. As soon as they step inside the arc, Bertans begins his sprint around the 3-point line toward the ball.
At this point (5 seconds into the clip below), Bertans’ defender Nemanja Nedovic is screwed. Colom uses his own defender to bump into Nedovic. Mumbrú occupies potential help-defender Pau Ribas by jab-stepping as if he is the one who is going to use the Williams screen, then dives into the key to further obstruct Nedovic’s path.
Bertans curls around Williams and buries another open 3.
Of course, these Bilbao sets feature various counters. If a defense doesn’t fall for the initial scheme, they’ll cycle through options until they get a shot they like.
Check out the progression on this play.
While Colom and Williams run a pick-and-roll at the top of the key, Hervelle sets a down screen in the corner for Mumbrú, who pops up. Colom’s first option is to drive hard, but Bojan Dubljevic has helped off Williams to block his path. His second option is to hit Mumbrú, but he turns it down. He then looks toward Williams for the lob, but turns that down too.
Colom swings the ball weakside to Bertans, who enters it to Williams in the post. Hervelle flashes to the right elbow and sets a pick for Bertans. Bertans’ man plays it well and denies a potential pass to the rim. But after he sets the first screen, Hervelle turns and sets another for Mumbrú, who flashes to the right wing for the three.
Mumbrú misses, but because Hervelle’s defender (Luke Harangody) had to contest the shot, Hervelle is free to dive to the rim and finish the easy putback over three Valencia guards.
Alonso is also good at creating mismatches for Marko Todorovic, one of the most talented post players in Europe.
In this play, Todorovic starts at the top of the key. Hervelle jogs to the right elbow to set a screen so Mumbrú can sprint across the free-throw line. Mumbrú jabs toward the screen and his defender (Romain Sato) takes the bait. As Sato attempts to navigate the on-coming screen, Mumbrú pops to the top of the key, forcing Todorovic’s defender to jump out and deny the pass.
The instant his defender leaves him, Todorovic dives to the hoop and posts up the much-smaller Sato. The result is an easy bucket plus the foul (although you won’t see that because OrangeArena glitched out when the shot went up).
It’s not all sunshine and puppies for Bilbao when they have the ball. Take Bertans or Mumbrú off the floor, and Bilbao’s flowing offense sputters.
When they hit the bench, Bilbao’s offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) drops from elite (121.58) to among the worst in the ACB (104.76 without Bertans, 102.53 without Mumbrú).
Without both of those guys spacing the floor, Valencia is free to clog the paint. In their most recent meeting, Valencia suffocated Mumbrú’s post-ups by abandoning Colom (28 percent 3-point shooter) and Williams (not a threat outside of five feet).
With no one near him, Colom essentially has three options: Keep chucking up bricks, dive in for a mid-range shot, or set a screen for Bilbao’s other perimeter player.
The third option is the best, but since Bilbao’s other guard in that photo is the punchless Danilo Andjusic — 23.3 percent on threes — it wouldn’t accomplish much. Ditto for when Bilbao goes with Dejan Todorovic (25 percent on threes).
Raul Lopez (32.4 percent from deep) deserves a little more respect, and all those guys will knock down the occasional shot. Dejan just hit crucial back-to-back threes in Bilbao’s season finale against Unicaja.
But if you’re Valencia, you’ll take your chances with Colom, Andjusic, Dejan and — to a lesser extent — Lopez. If Valencia pounces when Mumbrú and Bertans check out, Bilbao is in trouble.
When Valencia Has the Ball
In their most recent meeting, Valencia ran a lot of very basic flex action — the kind you’ll see at any high school JV game in the U.S. I expect a little more creativity from Carles Duran in the playoffs, but with Valencia’s individual talent, simplicity may be sufficient.
Sam Van Rossom, Nedovic and Ribas can all torch Bilbao’s defenders off the dribble. Same goes for Guillem Vives, Vladimir Lucic, Rafa Martinez and Romain Sato in certain situations.
Once Bilbao has to bring even a little help, they’re in serious trouble, as Valencia’s roster is essentially a long list of dudes you don’t want to leave behind the 3-point line.
- Van Rossom – 48.8% on 3s
- Ribas – 47.1%
- Harangody – 42.9%
- Martinez – 38.5%
- Nedovic – 37%
- Sato – 36.5%
- Lucic – 36%
- Vives – 35.9%
Who the hell are you supposed to help off of when your opponent has eight guys who shoot at least 35.9 percent on threes? It’s insane.
In crunch time two weeks ago, Hervelle sagged off Lucic to help on a Ribas/Kresimir Loncar pick-and-roll. Loncar pinned Hervelle in the paint, creating a massive open space for Lucic.
Colom ran at Lucic, leaving Van Rossom — the best Valencia shooter — alone in the corner. Lucic threw a smart bounce pass and the result, of course, was a swish.
Earlier in the game, on a pick-and-roll between Van Rossom and Dubljevic, Bilbao’s perimeter guys stayed home on the shooters. Van Rossom strolled through the open lane for the easy layup.
Beyond their perimeter speed and great outside shooting, Valencia also boasts one of the best offensive big men in Europe (Dubljevic) and they shoot 22.3 free throws per 100 possessions (2nd in the ACB). Once they’re at the line, they shoot 78.9 percent (4th in the ACB).
This is going to be a serious struggle for Bilbao. But if they play smart, sound defense as often as possible, Valencia might just beat themselves.
As good as Dubljevic is in the post, his skills don’t extend beyond the 3-point line (26.1 percent). And luckily for Bilbao, he can get a little trigger-happy.
During their Week 33 meeting, Dubljevic bricked three triples during one third-quarter stretch. Bilbao will be giddy if Valencia relies on this as their secondary offense in transition.
Serhiy Lishchuk will also be invited to take all the mid-range jumpers he wants.
Outside of that, Bilbao doesn’t have a ton of options. Defensively, their margin for error will be almost non-existent. Their on-ball defenders can’t gamble. The rotations of their help defenders must be perfectly timed. They can’t allow offensive rebounds. And, perhaps most importantly, they have to get a little lucky.
It will be fascinating to watch.