U-BT Cluj Napoca v MHP Riesen Ludwigsburg - The Matchup
MIES (Switzerland) - The first tip-off in the Basketball Champions League Quarter-Finals will see U-BT Cluj Napoca host MHP Riesen Ludwigsburg in the BT arena on April 5. By the time we reach the Quarter-Finals of the BCL, there really are no good draws and there are no bad draws either. Every team is tough.
That being said, if you were to pick one second-placed team from the Round of 16 that most teams would prefer to avoid, MHP Riesen Ludwigsburg would have been a top answer on the survey.
Likewise, U-BT Cluj Napoca have already beaten the likes of Darussafaka and Unicaja on their way to this stage, and yet, somehow they always manage to go into each game as the underdog, heaping extra pressure onto their opponents.
As you would probably expect, MHP Riesen have been statistically excellent on defense all season. They have the second-best Defensive Rating in the Quarter-Finals, conceding just 99.1 points per 100 possessions. Cluj Napoca have been equally impressive on the offensive end, breaching the 100 point mark on several occasions. They have the fourth-ranked Offensive Rating in the Quarter Finals at 112.6 points per 100 possessions.
Cluj Napoca also play at the fastest Pace in the Quarter-Finals, averaging 74.3 possessions per game, whilst Ludwigsburg are - unsurprisingly - the best offensive rebounding team in the Quarter-Finals, pulling down 35.6 percent of their own misses. Cluj Napoca also shoot 48.8 percent from the field, making them the second-best shooting team in the Quarter-Finals and get to the FT line on average 25 times per game - the best in the league.
U-BT Cluj Napoca
According to Mihai Silvasan, everything Cluj Napoca do is built around aggression on the defensive end and dribble-drive spacing on the offensive end. This is a team that has played the entire BCL season with a tight, eight-man rotation and as a result, the chemistry between the group has resembled a Play-Offs team all season.
It seems to make sense that we start by looking at the way this team plays offense. Considering that this team plays at such a high pace in terms of possessions per game, it's maybe surprising that they don't do so much of their damage in transition. Silvasan's offense is very much about trading good shots for great ones and they are more than happy to attack teams with several drives or screening actions until they get the shot they want.
To achieve this they need great spacing and look to flow from action to action at all times. The clip below is a great example of this. They are playing with two post players but at all times, one of them must be on the perimeter, leaving space for the other to play pick-and-roll with an empty lane. Also notice that the weakside corner and wing must be filled. As soon as they create an advantage - this time from #3, Brandon Brown rejecting the screen and driving to the baseline - the corner or the wing must cut. Cluj Napoca create so many of their best looks from cuts to the basket.
Again, in this next clip, we see the same principle. We have the same spacing principle with an empty corner on the ball side and the second inside player - #22, Dustin Hogue - clearing the paint to leave space for #13, Andrija Stipanovic to play pick-and-roll.
On this occasion, the advantage is created by Stipanovic releasing early from the screen and catching it on the short roll. All of Cluj Napoca's interior players are not only good passers but willing passers and #35, Patrick Richard knows that if he cuts Stipanovic will find him.
On the defensive end, Cluj Napoca have some genuinely excellent individual defenders. Dustin Hogue and Karel Guzman in particular will guard pretty much anyone and Elijah Stewart is very much underrated as a shot blocker. From a system perspective, Silvasan never wants to see the ball cross half-court unmolested. He's also happy to sacrifice the occasional back door cut as long as everyone stays in the passing lane and every catch is labored for the offense. This policy has proven effective as they have the joint-best Steal Percentage in the Quarter-Finals, pilfering the ball on 11.1 percent of their opponents' possessions.
The play below is a great illustration of the way they play. Watch how they pick the ball up at half-court and force Filou Oostende to conduct their offense so far away from the basket. Unless they are switching, Cluj Napoca will always fight over the ball screen and in this case, Richard fights over and Stipanovic was able to drop and defend the screen 2v2. This allowed #0, Karel Guzman, to read the passing lane and make the steal.
In this clip we see them using an even more aggressive scheme. Notice how #14, Stefan Bircevic, hedges the first pick-and-roll, then switches with Dustin Hogue to prevent the roller getting the ball. He's uber aggressive on the second screen as Brandon Brown fights over and they blitz Oostende. Also notice how Brandon Brown jumps to prevent the pass to the roller and gives Bircevic time to recover. Even when they did give up the advantage, we see #30, Elijah Stewart's underrated shot-blocking in action.
MHP Riesen Ludwigsburg
By now, the way that John Patrick sets this team up to play is no secret. That doesn't make it any easier to play against. Every time a team faces Ludwigsburg they know they have no choice but to try and match them physically and they will need to pay a heavy toll both physically and mentally if they want to win. This team presses more than any other team in the BCL. In fact, they press full court on 28 percent of their defensive possessions. They also crash the glass on every possession and they do it relentlessly throughout the game.
Patrick will rotate his players rapidly and ruthlessly and as a result, they have eleven players averaging over ten minutes per game. This rapid-fire rotation is also a necessity to maintain the energy levels required to play this style of defense. The other thing that has to be noted is that although they have the likes of Happ, Wolfarth-Bottermann, and Baehre, this is really a small ball team and they will be equally comfortable throwing out lineups with Polas-Bartolo, Darden, and Simon sharing the duties at the de facto center position.
The play in the video below shows you exactly what this team is about. Just watch how much effort was required for JDA Dijon to even cross half-court. Also, notice the turnover was forced by them trapping the pick-and-roll. They do this better than any team in the BCL, forcing a turnover on 56.5 percent of the possessions when they trap the ball screen.
And again, just for good measure...
On the offensive end, Ludwigsburg use a lot of five-out offensive schemes. Much like Cluj Napoca, everything is about the spacing. If we use this first clip as an extreme example, we see Ludwigsburg in one of their small-ball lineups. Watch how #13, Polas Bartolo, "Ghosts" the first screen but has zero intention of rolling to the rim (or even stepping foot in the paint). Instead, watch how the spacing leaves him space to cut to the Free-Throw line and play 1v1.
Again, in this next clip, we see another five-out lineup from Ludwigsburg and the same action. Notice again that #21 Darden isn't interested in rolling to the rim. They want space in the paint above all. The timing of the flare screen by #6 Johannes Patrick is excellent and by the time #12, Jonah Radebaugh catches it, we already know what the outcome will be.
This section could just as easily be called key actions because it's often as much about the way a team defends a certain situation as it is about a 1v1 matchup. There isn't a team in the BCL that uses ISO plays on more than 10 percent of their possessions and Ludwigsburg - who use ISO's more than any team in the Quarter Finals - only use them on 6 percent. Who guards who is often more about emotional momentum than it is about actually deciding a game or series.
John Patrick's team have generated the highest volume of their points from spot-up shooters and scoring in transition. The matchup challenge for Cluj Napoca will more than likely be about not turning the ball over so that the German club can't get out on the break.
On a simplistic level, their defensive scheme is also designed to have players in passing lanes and make it difficult to make those kick-out passes for spot-up shooters but without question, their biggest challenge will be how to stop Jonah Radebaugh from creating in the pick-and-roll.
If they choose to be extra aggressive and trap the ball out of his hands, they leave themselves open to the likes of Justin Simon and Jordan Hulls attacking closeouts and hitting jumpers. It would also likely mean that Ludwigsburg start Radebaugh off the ball as we saw in the previous clip when he knocked down the jumper. He's also especially lethal using spike dribbles to attack closeouts in these types of situations.
Much like Ludwigsburg - and just about every other team in the BCL - Cluj Napoca generate most of their points in transition and from spot-up shooters but not in the same volume as the German club. As we saw from the two offensive clips at the start of the preview, Mihai Silvasan's team are expert at cutting to the basket in their dribble-drive game. They also lethal scoring through their ball-handlers Brown, Richard, and Stewart in the pick-and-roll.
We will probably still see Ludwigsburg stick to Plan A and use pressure and traps in the pick-and-roll. They will, however, need to pick their moments or execute to a very high level. This Cluj Napoca team is not easily hustled by traps and aggression.
Possibly the last question to ponder is how Cluj Napoca handle Ludwigsburg when they go to their small-ball lineups and how John Patrick plans to handle the likes of Stipanovic if the Romanian club decide not to try and match them with another small lineup.
We will only know the answer to this question on Tuesday, April 5, because Cluj Napoca haven't played a team anything like MHP Riesen Ludwigsburg... but then again, there really isn't another team like MHP Riesen Ludwigsburg or for that matter a team like U-BT Cluj Napoca.
This one promises to be utterly fascinating.