BAXI Manresa v Unicaja - The Matchup
MIES (Switzerland) - Tuesday the 5th of April in the Nou Congost, BAXI Manresa meet Unicaja in the all-Spanish Quarter-Final. From the very start of the Regular Season, both of these clubs have looked like teams that most would have expected to reach this stage. BAXI Manresa went five games unbeaten to start the season and in the process picked up wins on the road against two of the pre-season favorites Hapoel Bank Yahav Jerusalem and Pinar Karsiyaka. Unicaja also went on a three-game unbeaten run to start their debut season in the Basketball Champions League. Some might argue that their path out of the Regular Season was less fraught but a group that still included two recent Final 8 teams in JDA Dijon and Nizhny Novgorod was far from easy. The Round of 16 was - as expected - much tougher going for both teams but at no point did it look doubtful that either club would make it to the Quarter-Finals.
The only other time that these clubs have met this season resulted in a Liga Endesa win for BAXI Manresa. Unicaja have changed their roster and coach since then and this matchup will present Pedro Martinez's team with an entirely different challenge.
Both Unicaja and Manresa have been top teams defensively all season. Manresa rank third in the Quarter-Finals with a Defensive Rating (DRtg) of 100.9 points conceded per 100 possessions. Unicaja have been the top-ranked defense in the entire league most of the season and still retain the title after the Round of 16 with a DRtg of 99.1. Manresa are the kings of sharing the ball, they have an Assist Percentage of 75.5 percent. They have also been very active on the offensive glass, pulling down 28.3 percent of their missed shots, making them the third-ranked team in the Quarter-Finals. Unicaja mirror that on the defensive glass, securing 66.2 percent of their opponent's misses and also ranking third. Pedro Martinez's squad also leads the league in Points Per Game with 85.3, so even if they haven't been elite in terms of efficiency on the offensive end, they have managed to make up for that with the pace they play at.
When you watch this Manresa team play the first words that come to mind are energy and emotion. Every game is a ride and often it's a case of where Chima Moneke goes, the team will follow. Dani Perez is like the conductor of the orchestra but it's the likes of Moneke, Francisco, and Thomasson that bring the emotion from the string section (with an intermittent Luke Maye solo mixed in to take it over the edge). There are some questions about Bako's injury status ahead of the series but when he's in the game as a lob threat, dunking everything, the balance of this team makes it very tough to cover every threat. Even without him, Yankuba Sima presents a very similar lob threat.
This team is a really high-tempo team on both ends of the floor. If we start on offense, they leverage that tempo the most with the way they flow from transition into a five-out, early offense. The action below is one of Pedro Martinez's most lethal. They use a "Step-Up" screen as the ball enters the half-court. The angle of the roller takes them straight to the rim and as you see in the first clip, #11, Moneke's foot speed and agility are more like a wing player so he's very tough to defend for a big man still establishing position in the help spot. In the second clip, you see #1, Francisco decline the screen and get in the paint. Watch the flow and timing of actions once they have that advantage. In the last clip, they punish the switch by getting the ball straight down to Moneke from a high-low pass.
This same tempo and flow aren't just resigned to Pedro Martinez's early offense actions. The further they get into the offense, the more they move off the ball and the more questions they ask of the defense. In the clip below they are in one of their most common half-court sets that starts with a "Zipper" cut up the lane line for Francisco to catch the ball. From there they get through four screening actions in seventeen seconds, with #19, Valtonen cutting along the baseline, and #33, Maye rolling then clearing out to the weakside. It's a total blur. Pay specific attention to the speed that Moneke is able to release from ball screens and the difference between the way Tofas were able to defend his first screen and the second one after the ball reversal and Valtonen emptying the corner.
On the defensive end, this Manresa team also wants to force their tempo on the game. If you think about pressure defense in the BCL, you could be forgiven for focusing only on MHP Riesen Ludwigsburg but Pedro Martinez's squad are very much an underrated pressing team. This next clip is a great example. They don't usually apply pressure on the inbouder from a dead ball and instead opt to take away the first pass out of the opposition's press break. This forces the offensive team to make another pass to get the ball to a guard and cross half-court. Their forwards Moneke, and #21, Bako, are both quick and long enough to be active in the press and disruptive in the passing lanes.
In the half-court it's more of the same when it comes to pressure and disruption. #77 Sima is a top ten center in the BCL when it comes to Steal Percentage at 2.2 percent and - like Moneke and Bako - his combination of length and speed allows him to make plays like the clip below. Watch how he "Flash" hedges at the ball-handler then sprints back to deflect the pass to the man rolling to the rim. Martinez's defensive system is flexible enough to change coverages but you will more than likely see them using schemes like this designed to rush the tempo and dictate the decisions for the offense. This is a team that is attacking you when they are on defense.
Unicaja might be the most unpredictable and certainly hardest team to analyze in the Quarter-Finals, purely due to the fact that they have only played one BCL game since the coaching change to bring in Ibon Navarro. Every week that passes Navarro will have had more time to adjust the way the team plays to his ideas and at the same time the sample size of games where new ideas have been used will stay small. It's not just the coaching staff that has changed either. Bringing in players like Mooney, Kravic, and Oliver completely changes the dynamic of a team, and whilst none of them have played more than three games, that dynamic is very much a work in progress.
In situations like this, it makes more sense to look at player tendencies than the application of those tendencies within a system. A great example of that is a player like Alberto Diaz. He's not going to stop being an elite defensive playmaker and as a result, we can be sure that Unicaja will be a team that is a threat in the passing lanes (especially in transition) and uber-aggressive fighting over screens when he is on the floor.
In the same breath, there is also no doubt Navarro will also be looking to keep as much continuity as possible from a team that has been the #1 Defense all season in the BCL. One of Unicaja's best defensive schemes all season has been built around their ability to defend the pick-and-roll 2v2 with a "Drop" and the guard fighting hard over the screen to recover to the ball. This allows the drop defender to keep the roller in front of them and return to their own man at the right time. Adding players like Kravic and Oliver only makes this type of coverage even more logical for this roster and we saw Unicaja use it plenty in their only BCL game under Ibon Navarro. In the clip below, watch how #13, Alonso is able to fight over the screen whilst #0, Oliver stayed between the ball, the rim, and his own man until Alonso was back in front of the ball. They executed the coverage perfectly and forced the Oostende turnover. They will need to defend at this level to stop the likes of Moneke from making the impact he's capable of.
On the offensive end, it still makes sense to pay attention to player tendencies and we have already seen the start of very promising chemistry developing between Dejan Kravic and Cameron Oliver. The fact that Kravic has gravity rolling to the rim but is also an underrated passer, partnered with Oliver's combination of physicality in the post and floor-stretching ability as a shooter, makes for a lethal mix.
The skill and craft of Unicaja's playmakers haven't changed either. The likes of Bouteille, Mooney, Brizuela, Alonso, and Fernandez are only going to thrive under Ibon Navarro. How can we forget the way he maxed out the ability of Hannah, Kloof, and Oleson in the UCAM Murcia team that made the Final in 2018. In the video below you see Brizuela operating in a "Zipper" cut into middle pick-and-roll and Alonso reading screens off the ball. Since the loss to Oostende in the BCL, Unicaja have won three straight games in the Liga Endesa. Dario Brizuela has been the top scorer in two of those games, and Matt Mooney was the top scorer in the other.
On the BCL Trash Talk Podcast, Journalist and BAXI Manresa fan Gerard Sole picked out Unicaja's physicality with Kravic and Oliver as the biggest matchup headache for Manresa. And he's not wrong. We can absolutely expect Oliver to be aggressive 1v1 in the post against Moneke and Steinbergs. Moneke is one of the best defenders in the BCL and will also like his chances. That matchup has a flipside though as the tempo that Manresa can play at will certainly present Unicaja with just as many problems to solve in terms of lineups that can match it in the front court.
As we looked at in the videos above, we can probably expect to see Unicaja attempt to nullify the roll threat of Moneke and the lob threat of Bako and Sima by guarding the pick-and-roll 2v2. This coverage may also help to slow down Dani Perez and Dani Garcia from picking out shooters like Maye as this type of coverage often requires fewer defensive rotations to help defend the roll-man. What it might do, however, is leave them exposed to the scoring and playmaking abilities of Thomasson and Francisco. Both players are capable of getting hot in a hurry. This could be a key battleground in the series.
For Manresa, we looked at videos on how their ability to apply pressure on the defensive end can be very disruptive. The question will be if they can exert that pressure on a squad like Unicaja. We do have a recent precedent to judge Unicaja with this. U-BT Cluj is also a team that like to get up the floor on defense, apply pressure and be disruptive in the passing lanes. It was certainly not a smooth ride but Unicaja handled the pressure particularly well on the road in Romania when they won and only turned the ball over nine times in the entire game. Ibon Navarro's squad has a specific advantage here in the height of their guards and wings when it comes to seeing over the top of pressuring defenders. If they can manage the hustle of Manresa and slow the tempo down, this will bring the likes of Kravic and Olver into the game more.
Now, obviously, when we are discussing teams from the Liga Endesa it's very difficult to peg the game down to a few key matchups because their squads are so deep. we have hardly discussed the likes of Luke Maye for Manresa and Abromaitis and Barreiro for Unicaja but that is just another thing that makes this series so intriguing. We will just have to wait until 20:30 on Tuesday to find out.