17 October, 2023
05 May, 2024
9 Alberto Diaz (UNI)
Diccon Lloyd-Smeath's Champions League Insider
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Tactics Breakdown: The keys to Unicaja's triumph in the Final

BELGRADE (Serbia) - We thought Unicaja had maxed out the level of physicality and intensity in their Semi-Final against UCAM Murcia here in Belgrade. We were wrong. 

From the opening tip of the Final against Lenovo Tenerife, Ibon Navarro's team showed everyone in Belgrade Arena that they had another few gears they could shift up into.

Especially on defense.

Tenerife came into the Final Four as the team with the joint-lowest turnovers, 11 per game. Unicaja disturbed their flow so badly that they were able to force 19 turnovers on their way to the 80-75 win. 

The two clips below are indicative of the type of pressure the Unicaja backcourt put on the ball as soon as Marcelinho Huertas and Kyle Guy crossed halfcourt. Unicaja's bigs were also high and aggressive in defending the pick-and-roll but the guards were still fighting over hard enough to keep the coverage 2v2. 

Unicaja's defense though was not so disruptive only on the ball.

Watch below how Tyler Kalinoski joins the pressure party on the ball but then makes the read to steal the pass to the roller after fighting over the screen.

His teammates then found him in transition for an open three as a reward. This is the trademark Unicaja basketball that we have seen all season and is pretty much the perfect example of how comfortable they were within the rhythm of the game.

Another important tactical change for Unicaja was Navarro starting Will Thomas in the place of Melvin Ejim. In the post-game press conference, we asked Navarro why they were able to create so many points utilizing the post as a playmaker.

"We started Will Thomas." he simply replied.

The fact that Thomas wasn't even on the 12-man roster for Friday's Semi-Final tells its own story about the depth of options at Navarro's disposal and also the buy-in and sacrifice that each player made to be part of a winning team.

In this clip we see how the scoring threat of Thomas in the post gravitates Tenerife defenders into the paint and opens space for David Kravish to knock down a triple.

Also watch for Tyler Kalinoski screening Kravish's defender, Tenerife's Fran Guerra (#35).

 Of course, you will never keep a team like Tenerife at arm's length for an entire game, especially not when they have the league's newly crowned Season 8 MVP, Marcelinho Huertas, playing the best basketball of his life.

With Unicaja's lead pushing up to 8 points, Huertas found Diaz helping off him to compensate for the pressure on the ball by Carter.

Every defensive scheme has to pick its poison and Huertas clearly recognized the importance of making this shot to punish that decision to leave him open.  

If the Canary island team struggled defensively in the Semi-Final, the Final was probably their best defensive performance of 2024 in the BCL.

We saw them pressuring the ball fullcourt and fighting through screens on every possession. Those stops in the third quarter saw them make a run to cut the lead to just three going into the fourth.

The three possessions below were key to that run. First, Huertas recognizes the exact same help that he had punished earlier, but this time leaving Tim Abromaitis open, and then immediately after, Bruno Fitipaldo presses the ball and comes up with a steal.

Finally, we see Huertas creating an acre of separation in the ball screen and going for his own shot to drag his team back into the game

Unicaja, however, were never going to be denied and two plays in the fourth quarter not only locked in their championship win but possibly also the Final Four MVP award for a legitimately elite-level performance from Kendrick Perry. 

In the first clip, we see that the same game plan of creating from the post was an ever-present, reliable source of points all game and not one that Tenerife ever found an answer to.

If David Kravish didn't already have a reputation as an elite passer out of the post and short roll, this Final Four was his opportunity to show the whole of Europe what he can do. And he took it.

It's also important to note that it was Perry who knocked down the dagger three from his pass before igniting the emotions of his bench. It felt like we were watching the start of a new era, with Perry knowing that his time had come.

In the second clip, although it is again Kravish making the killer pass to Thomas on the short roll, keep your eyes fixed on Kendrick Perry.

Unicaja wanted to initiate a play for Kalinoski, with him triggering the offense by screening on the ball. Fitipaldo recognized the play and used his body to disrupt it.

Instead of trying to force an action that was already off-kilter, Perry waved Kalinoski away and called Kravish to come and screen for him.

Before Kravish had even arrived, Perry knew that Giorgi Shermadini would be out in an aggressive hedge on the pick-and-roll and just calmly took a step to his left and slid the bounce pass through the defense to Kravish.

This was clarity of thought and a high-level understanding of what his team needed with an entire BCL season on the line. That's what MVPs do.

We would be remiss not to mention the four huge three-pointers that Nihad Dedovic knocked down and his defensive contribution all game.

We could also the same for Tyson Carter being the main offensive spark for Unicaja in the first half, but that's the thing about this Unicaja team, it's never about one or even two big, individual performances.

They haven't lost a BCL game in 2024 and every single one of wins came on the back of a balanced effort from all 12 players.

We are witnessing the start of something really special in Malaga.

Diccon Lloyd-Smeath

Diccon Lloyd-Smeath

Diccon is a basketball coach and analyst living in Madrid. Constantly digging in the crates of box scores and clicking through hours of game footage. Diccon is on the hunt for the stories within the stories. If you like to get a closer look at what’s going in the Basketball Champions League, you have found it.