When you hear about teams having a lot of athleticism, you usually think of offensive-minded dominators who run and gun, slam and jam, shoot and ask questions later, and generally rain points.
But if you think about it much, you might ask yourself why athletically-gifted teams shouldn't be great at defense, too. The more agile and strong the players of any team are, the better they should be able to anticipate and trace the movements of their opponent in order to prevent any easy shots – the essence of good defense.
Perhaps its because athletic teams find scoring so easy that making other teams play catch-up all the time is, in itself, a form of defense for them. In theory, the best defense would be about being where an offensive player wants to pass, shoot or penetrate with the ball before he arrives there – by reading his intentions and reacting faster than he can. That takes athleticism, of course, both mental and physical.
Eight other Turkish Airlines EuroLeague teams had better offenses than Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul during the regular season. In fact, the defending champs didn't reach 90 points in regulation time in any of their 30 regular season games. The other 15 times reached that 90-point threshold 82 times combined, an average of more than 5 times each, and nine of them topped 100 points at least once. CSKA Moscow, which finishes first to Fenerbahce's second, scored 90 points or more 17 times.
But you know what? Fenerbahce didn't need to.
Fenerbahce looked like nothing less than the Harlem Globetrotters of defense throughout the early going of its Game 1 win over KIROLBET Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz.
Only the lightning-fast Rodrigue Beaubois was able to score for Baskonia during the games first 5 minutes while Fenerbahce took a 12-4 lead. Otherwise, the visitors were signing "Me and My Shadow" on possession after possession. Before Baskonia's attackers knew where they wanted the ball to go, Fenerbahce's defenders were there.
Baskonia not only couldn't get good shots; the visitors couldn't get any shot off for a few of possessions, while others ended with desperate heaves just to avoid another embarrassing 24-second violation.
There were no complaints to the refs by the visitors, either. They were caught in a web of in-your-face defenders who denied the first dribble, the first pass, the post position, the lob and every other escape route that Baskonia may have sought.
The most telling stat at game's end was assists. Baskonia averaged 19.8 this season, which was not only second in the entire EuroLeague but the sixth-highest average all-time in the competition coming into this series. Baskonia had a season-low 11 assists on Wednesday and a mere 3 at halftime. Fenerbahce's Kostas Sloukas matched the entire Baskonia team with his 11 assists.
It was clear in no time that the injury to Baskonia point guard Jayson Granger – the team's top assist-maker and fifth best in the competition at 5.4 per game – was going to be the major obstacle for the visitors to overcome. But even more than Granger's absence was the intimidating reality of facing a team full of players who seem to enjoy defense like other players enjoy dunks. More than one time, Baskonia players passed up open shots – some of them at very close range – because they seemed to be looking over their shoulders for defenders instead of forward at the basket.
But if the first half was a lesson in playoffs intensity for some of the visitors, you have to say that they learned quickly. Baskonkia outscored Fener 39-47 after halftime and dished 8 assists in those 20 minutes. Both figures, prorated over 40 minutes, exceed what Fenerbahce normally allows. At the same time, it was clear that once Fenerbahce established a 17-point halftime lead that was really never in danger thereafter, its early defensive intensity was no longer required.
Tonight in Game 2, all eyes should be on that all-seeing Fenerbahce defense and its long tentacles that reach into every corner of the court.
In recent seasons under legendary head coach Zeljko Obradovic, Fenerbahce has patented switching defenses that welcome mismatches – big against small on the perimeter, and the opposite inside. Fenerbahce doesn't mind mismatches because Obradovic's players are so well-versed in how to defend, both individually against a perceived disadvantage and as a group to mitigate the effects of a mismatch. The opposing big man who receives the ball inside can expect a steal attempt or foul on the catch, or if he evades both of them, a storm of shot-blockers racing at him from behind – which explains Baskonia's players looking over their shoulders.
The biggest plus to switching on defense is that it takes away the open spaces for driving, cutting, passing and shooting that pick-and-rolls, the main offensive tactic in modern basketball, are designed to create. Fenerbahce would rather another team's guard try to shoot or pass over its big men on the perimeter, or try to drive at them and risk a block, than to leave spaces uncovered for other offensive players to use. Another benefit of not switching is that Fenerbahce's defenders "stay home" a lot, while opponents who don't switch spend a lot of energy fighting over screens, hedging and recovering, and generally chasing the ball a lot once it moves. By the end of a game, that can lead to fatigue.
If Fenerbahce can play defense that well on-call again, Baskonia will need some creative solutions to moving the ball and, as in martial arts, use their hosts' aggressiveness against them. None of that will be easy, but if you watch the tactical back-and-forth between them tonight, you might well be as entertained by the athletic-minded defense you see as by the ball going through the hoop.