Sergio Llull has been wowing fans with his video game like performance in Euroleague and it’s a problem for defenders everywhere. Emmet Ryan looks at what makes Llull’s game that bit more dangerous this season
Maccabi Tel Aviv face the test nobody really seems to have solved this Friday. Sergio Llull has always had a tendency to pull off some utterly ludicrous shots. A three-quarter court buzzer beater last season against Valencia in the ACB regular season essentially decided home court advantage for a ACB semi-finals series. The big shots have kept coming this year as his role has adjusted following the departure of Sergio Rodriguez to the NBA. A normalisation of what Llull has to do for Real Madrid has made the extraordinary a greater weapon for the guard.
Last week against CSKA Moscow it was another one of those what can you do to stop them games from Llull. He finished with 24 points and 6 assists with a couple of you-gotta-be-kidding-me threes mixed in. The wild moments however aren’t down to Llull being some kind of freak show. He’s adjusted to being a far more conventional point guard in large part this season and that aspect, the regular point guard duties, have enabled him to use his old more out of the box arsenal more strategically.
Lllull is essentially a gambler only he used to be far too prone to what poker players call tilt, a sub-optimal strategy that leads to over-aggression. Taking a closer look at his game against CSKA and it’s his decisions to curb that assault, to not go wild as often and play the odds better, that has enabled Llull to become more refined while appearing as crazy as ever.
One of his most effective strategies has been simply running in a straight line. From the inbounds, a couple of times in that CSKA game, Llull just sprinted down the court at full speed to get the opposing defence a touch more panicked. It’s this willingness to go right into players that is making those moments in space easier to create. He’s playing old-fashioned nose down point guard ball to make defences respect the breadth of his game. They can’t assume he’s going to simply rock out there and put up a J. That less is more approach enables shots like the fadeaway he made off an inbounds from Rudy Fernandez, and is built heavily around his partnership with Jeffrey Taylor. While far from the most effective on ball player for Real Madrid, the Swedish-American gets his spacing role around Llull and that enables Llull to mix conventional pass-first point guard play with his more aggressive traits.
That’s how you see the silly long three he made in the second quarter come off and even when Real switched in Luka Doncic, Llull remained a 1 above all else. There’s lots of downhill running mixed with hard-nosed basics to keep opponents unsure of what exactly he’s going to do.
The most important relationship on the floor for Llull is with Gustavo Ayon. The two just get each other, in terms of ball movement, spacing, and forcing opponents out of position. At times it seems telepathic but it’s actually some basic big-man to PG partnership. Ayon knows when he needs to run at Llull’s pace, when to dial it back, and how to keep the rhythm going through raw repetition.
It’s this extremely fundamental ball that enables some utterly fantastic opportunities for Llull to exploit. He’s a gambler but a smart one and knows when to not overdo and when overdoing is kind of the only option. That cheat code three he had 3.44 left in the third quarter was heavily a case of the latter. Fundamentally, this was some drab offence meeting reasonably organised defence. Llull brought the ball up the floor, passed it out to Rudy on the right, Rudy passed it back to him so Llull looked to drive inside. CSKA had D-ed up well and Llull lost his handle on the drive but his recovery gave the tiniest sliver of space to create a shot against Kyle Hines. With no other viable option, the shot clock was almost up and Hines was up in his face, he made the right move to go for the nuts three. It went in but, after the initial error, even a missed effort from there would have been the right shot.
No team can prepare for a shot like that, what they need to prepare for are the conditions that lead to such opportunities existing. To shut down cheat code Llull, you’ve got to gamble on breaking conventional Llull. That’s far from easy, especially with Ayon playing his part to enable Llull to function freely, but with neither Taylor nor Rudy truly offering enough offensively for Real it’s not impossible. Llull’s big shots are what people remember because they look fantastic, like the step back over Nando de Colo to close out that win over CSKA, but it’s the work he does on the more boring jobs that makes him most dangerous. Hurt him there and you’ve got a chance. Of course then he’ll probably just launch a three-quarter courter on you.