Luka Doncic more than held his own against CSKA Moscow in Round 2 of Euroleague but Real are clearly still far from fixed, writes Emmet Ryan
There were upsides for Real Madrid in Moscow. KC Rivers looked like he had slotted right back into the role he left in the summer, picking his shots well and showing that he can make Madrid a multi-faceted beast in the back court on offence. It’s not that Rivers didn’t fit in at Bayern, by and large he impressed, but he seems to be at his absolute best in Pablo Laso’s system. Rivers did what everyone hoped he would be doing in about three or four games time, that’s a big plus. The bigger plus was that Luka Doncic looks ready for real minutes right now.
The 16 year old Slovenian who was MVP of last season’s Adidas NGT did for 13 minutes what he’s been doing for shorter burtsts all season: looking like a grown ass man. The highlight clips are turning into reels and when he eventually becomes draft eligible it appears that everyone is going to be salivating over a kid who will be NBA ready from the get go. In this game he scored 12 points and grabbed 5 boards. In the midst of Madrid’s slump and injury woes, they have at least seen that they can count on this kid to contribute like a man for real minutes. That’s probably the best news Real have got in months.
Annnnnd now for the bad news.
The loss of Sergio Llull has moved Real’s defence from dodgy to rice paper levels. Nando De Colo is one of the best guards in Europe but he didn’t exactly have to over do it to utterly rip through Real. Time and again he torched them. Of course it’s not just the absence of Llull, Real have endured defensive problems all season with the value of Marcus Slaughter (long touted by Laso) being shown by what the reigning champions are missing without him. Throw in Rudy’s long-term injury and you’ve got a battered line up low of top tier defenders who can keep it together for long periods. It took over 20 minutes for Real to ramp up the D against Bamberg a week earlier, having been bludgeoned on their own floor by the German champions for the whole of the first half. Against CSKA, the offence kept them alive for the first half but they always had to work that bit harder to score. CSKA? They made some boneheaded mistakes but De Colo ensured they stayed on top and the defining moment came close to half time when a filthy crossover left Rivers flailing before the Frenchman nailed the jumper.
Losing big in Moscow isn’t a cause for panic, lots of teams have done that and ended up lifting the big cup while Devotion fills the arena. No, the concern here is that there are no discernible signs that things are getting better for Real. Even with Llull back, they are going to have trouble keeping the D together.
Gustavo Ayon’s tendency to be as big a liability at the back as he is a benefit up front isn’t helping but the 5 isn’t where Real are going to solve this. Ayon is the horse they have to ride now so they need to put tweaks to the system around him that minimise his frailties. Laso has clearly looked to do that throughout the season and effort is not the issue, it’s the physical state of his roster. Real looked really tired in preseason because they were, most of their most valuable pieces had just endured a gruelling EuroBasket with Spain and (for Jonas Maciulis) Lithuania.
They barely had time to breathe before flying to South America, then Spanish Super Cup, then boom ACB and Euroleague. This is a side that has been playing tired and minus one of the most important defensive pieces of last year’s treble winning side. It’s not just the physical aspect, mentally the likes of Sergio Rodriguez and Felipe Reyes have every right to be exhausted.
What to do? Hope that Llull being injured at least gives him a rest and that he isn’t coming back to a desperate situation when he returns. Laso has caught a big break with the schedule. Zalgiris at home is about as much of a gimme as it gets at this stage. The LKL champions already appear to have given up on the Top 16, a tradition that usually occurs within the first game or three in recent seasons, and with Gintaras Krapikas having been sacked after getting stomped by Bamberg along with the continued absence of Robertas Javtokas it’s unlikely they will pose much of a challenge.
That will likely get Real to 2-1, but then comes a tough three game stretch against Barcelona, Olympiacos, and Baskonia. Hitting 2-4 before Llull is at full health wouldn’t be pleasant and is wholly plausible. Even grabbing one W in that trio would be a help. Even with four straight home games, it promises to be a rough ride.