The top two defensive teams in this season’s 7DAYS EuroCup – in fact, two of the most difficult teams to score on in all of Europe – survived the semifinals to forge a marquee matchup in the finals, which start on Tuesday. Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar has dominated the EuroCup standings all year, but Darussafaka Istanbul is battle-tested, too, having come out on top of several close games already this postseason.
The Anatomy of the EuroCup’s Elite Defenses
As the graphic above suggests, this pair of teams have been the EuroCup’s gold standard on the defensive end during the 2017-18 season. Both teams were not just good on defense, but stellar, dramatically outperforming the 0.97 points per possession EuroCup average. Though they share some similarities as to how they achieved that level of success, they have several significant differences as well.
The qualities that they share on the defensive end are common across the top defenses in most of the world’s best leagues. Spot-up shots account for the highest percentage of possessions in nearly every competition around the globe, and the EuroCup is no exception, with 22% of all possessions this season resulting in a spot-up opportunity. Lokomotiv and Darussafaka both contest shots on the perimeter at a very high level, allowing just 0.756 and 0.835 points per spot-up possession and finishing first and second, respectively, by a comfortable margin. Third-ranked Grissin Bon Reggio Emilia allowed 0.957 points per possession. Elite defensive teams almost universally make crisp rotations to extend to the ball when it is passed around the perimeter, and effectively every player on both of these finalists compete with a great sense of urgency.
Dribble jump shots are increasingly taboo in modern basketball, especially those attempted inside the arc. It is not hard to figure out why. In half-court situations in the EuroCup this season, pull-up jumpers yielded 0.87 points per shot compared to 1.05 points per catch-and-shoot jump shot and 1.23 points per finishing opportunity around the basket. Teams that can force or coax opposing offenses into attempting dribble jump shots put their opponents at a significant disadvantage. Both Lokomotiv and Darussafaka finished among the best four EuroCup teams in forcing pull-up jumpers by forcing opponents into taking 22% and 23% of their shots, respectively, in that way. Making teams shoot low percentage shots is typically the culmination of a lot of different defensive strategies. Whether it is denying swing passes out on the perimeter, dropping defenders who guard pick-and-roll screeners to give the ball-handlers space in the midrange, preventing dribble drives with strong one-on-one defense, or forcing offensive players to put the ball on the floor with aggressive close-outs, there is no shortage of ways that these two teams put pressure on opposing teams to beat them with low-percentage shots.
When opposing offenses do create high-percentage opportunities inside, both of these finalists have fared well in protecting the rim by committee. Having a dominant shot-blocker is always a plus defensively because that last line of defense allows teams to pay for fewer of the mistakes they make on the perimeter. Darussafaka’s JaJuan Johnson is one of the EuroCup’s best individual rim protectors and thanks in part to his shot-blocking prowess, the Turkish club ranked fourth by allowing just 1.14 points per finishing opportunity. However, it was Lokomotiv that led the competition by allowing only 1.03 points per inside attempt, and did so despite having no particularly dominant shot-blocking presence. Length and athleticism can always be a difference maker inside, but both teams play a physical, position-centric brand of defense that allows for few easy shots in close, whether they get blocked or not.
For all the things Lokomotiv and Darussafaka have in common, they have some distinct differences on the defensive end of the floor. Most notably, Darussafaka does a far better job limiting easy opportunities in transition. They led the EuroCup allowing only 7 transition points per game and 0.83 points per transition possession while Lokomotiv ranked 11th, allowing 1.13 points per possession while giving up 10.7 points per game.
Lokomotiv, in contrast, sat at the extremes of several significant defensive metrics this season, setting them apart from their finals opponent. The Russian club allowed just 38% of the shots they faced this season to come inside of five feet (1.53 meters) as compared to 43% for Darussafaka. Lokomotiv also held opposing teams to only 28% shooting from beyond the arc within their half-court offenses. Not only has this team forced opponents into difficult shots, but they have defended the good shots they have faced as well as any team in any competition in Europe on paper.
EuroCup Players to Watch
Though defense is one main attraction of this year’s EuroCup Finals, there is plenty of offensive talent on both teams as well. Lokomotiv rose to rank among the best offensive teams in this year’s competition thanks in large part to excellent catch-and-shoot efficiency. Almost a third of the shots Lokomotiv generates out of its half-court offense are catch-and-shoot jumpers and they convert those attempts for 1.23 points per shot, the second-highest mark in the EuroCup, behind only ASVEL Villeurbanne. Though the team will be without its best shooter, injured small forward Ryan Broekhoff, they have no shortage of capable perimeter threats and some very reliable finishers inside. Lokomotiv’s ability to draw the defense off the dribble and move the ball to find the open man will be critical to their success against a Darussafaka team with a few excellent perimeter defenders and plenty of athleticism inside.
Darussafaka, in contrast, will rely primarily on pick-and-roll play and the EuroCup’s hottest player, Scottie Wilbekin. Almost 45% of the Turkish club’s possessions this season have been created through pick-and-roll actions, the fifth-highest mark in the EuroCup. Scott Wilbekin is coming off one of the top single-game performances in Europe this season, scoring 41 points over only 25 possessions against FC Bayern Munich, including 15 points in the pick-and-roll alone. Darrussafaka has struggled to score off the dribble this season, averaging only 0.72 points per pull-up jump shot to rank second-to-last in the EuroCup. But Wilbekin has shown the ability to lift this team with his scoring ability on his best nights and is clearly the player to keep an eye on as he looks to make things happen against a team that will put a lot of pressure on him every time down the floor.
There was no shortage of exciting moments in this year’s 7DAYS EuroCup Semifinals, and if that was any indication of things to come, this series has all the ingredients to be a very compelling one.