The 2018 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four has no shortage of intrigue featuring each of the league's last three champions, three-quarters of last year's Final Four participants and only one team – Real Madrid, that swept a season-series against any other team in the field after topping Zalgiris Kaunas twice in regular season play. Many of the EuroLeague's biggest stars will descend upon Belgrade with three past EuroLeague MVPs, two Rising Star Award recipients and more than a dozen current or former All-EuroLeague Team members suiting up for one of this year's semifinalists.
From a statistical perspective, this year's Final Four will be highlighted by four of the EuroLeague’s five most-efficient offensive teams, a fact especially meaningful in the league's most-efficient offensive season on record according to Synergy Sports Technology's play tracking.
Real Madrid vs. CSKA Moscow
CSKA Moscow is on pace for one of the five most-efficient offensive seasons in modern EuroLeague history and Real Madrid has not been too far off that pace despite playing all but its last two games without 2017 EuroLeague MVP Sergio Llull. Despite their comparable offensive success, these two historic clubs have followed far different paths to achieve that end.
CSKA Moscow has one of the most interesting offensive profiles of any team in European basketball. The team scores at just an average rate in spot-up situations, the most common play type across virtually every team in every league in the world, but is on a record-breaking pace in terms of scoring in pick-and-roll, transition and isolation situations as its ball handlers can push tempo and make plays in the half court at an unparalleled level. Sergio Rodriguez, Nando De Colo and Cory Higgins all score at a high rate using ball screens and attacking one-on-one. This presents a major test for Real Madrid’s defense, which has defended pick-and-roll actions well this season, but struggled by comparison to defend isolations. Those tendencies held up during the regular season matchups between these two teams as CSKA Moscow scored 1.25 points per isolation possession, but was held to just 0.913 points per pick-and-roll possession.
X-Factor: One-on-one play
CSKA Moscow scored a remarkable 20.5 points over 16 post-up and isolation possessions per game against Real Madrid during the regular season. The ability to dominate individual matchups and exploit mismatches has set CSKA apart this season and figures to play a prominent role in its ability to reach the EuroLeague championship game.
Real Madrid is a well-rounded offensive team that has struggled to score in one-on-one situations—which make up only a small portion of their possessions, but has otherwise scored at a well-above-average rate across the board. Madrid does not run a lot of ball-screen action relative to EuroLeague averages, but screens away from the ball factor heavily into its half-court offense. Scoring both at an elite rate, Luka Doncic and Sergio Llull are the club's top options in the pick-and-roll, doubling as capable floor spacers playing off one another while Jaycee Carroll accounts for almost half of the team's off-screen possessions as one of the best shooters in European basketball history. CSKA Moscow has done an excellent job limiting opposing ball handlers in the pick and roll this season, often at the expense of the ability to close out shooters. That proved the case in their two matchups against Real Madrid during the regular season as CSKA allowed only 9 points to opposing ball handlers in ball-screen situations, but surrendered 1.375 points per off-screen possession and 1.344 points per spot-up possession.
X-Factor: Catch-and-shoot jump shots
Real Madrid scored a massive 32.5 points over 24 spot-up and off-screen possessions per game against CSKA Moscow during the regular season without Sergio Llull. Madrid can run exceptionally hot from the perimeter since it has no shortage of three-point marksman, and the ability to find the hot hand early could be the key to success.
Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul vs. Zalgiris Kaunas
Fenerbahce has been perhaps the most-balanced offensive team in the EuroLeague this season scoring at an average rate or better in every play type except put backs. Zalgiris, in contrast, is an opportunistic jump shooting team that overcomes its lack of great scoring efficiency off the dribble in pick-and-roll and isolation situations by making a concerted effort to play to its strengths, working the ball inside and avoiding certain types of shots. Both of these teams like to slow the game down and target certain personnel matchups inside, which should make an eventful chess match.
Fenerbahce does a little bit of everything well offensively with athletic big men, skilled forwards, and a lot of both variety and quality in terms of passing and scoring at the guard spots. The champs present a pick-your-poison proposition to opposing defenses and in the season split with Zalgiris, it was the big men who got the job done. Jan Vesely, Luigi Datome, and Nikola Kalinic all turned in strong performances against Zalgiris during the regular season as Fenerbahce found success in several key areas, notably scoring 1.8 points per possession used by the screener in the pick and roll and 1.47 points per spot-up possession. Zalgiris is one of the most polarizing defensive teams in the EuroLeague, ranking among the top teams in terms of stopping opposing ball handlers, but one of the least-effective teams defending the shots those players create with their passes.
X-Factor: Inside-outside scorers
Fenerbahce got 56 points over 41 possessions from Nikola Kalinic, Nicolo Melli and Luigi Datome in their two games against Zalgiris. The team has multiple forwards who can space the floor and convert spot ups at a strong rate, serve as pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop options and facilitate out of the post with good vision, which gave Zalgiris some trouble during the regular season.
Zalgiris Kaunas may be the least-efficient offensive team of this year's Final Four field, but might be the most battle-tested having held up impressively in the first round of the playoffs against Olympiacos Piraeus—the EuroLeague’s top-ranked defense this season. The Lithuanian champion has a few key offensive quirks in actively avoiding isolation plays and dribble jump shots while throwing the ball to the block as frequently and effectively as nearly any team in any league in Europe. As modern basketball has trended away from back-to-the-basket play, Zalgiris has been a notable exception in the EuroLeague this season, not only because it leads the competition in post-up usage and efficiency, but because it has a multitude of players, including Paulius Jankunas, Brandon Davies, Edgaras Ulanovas and Antanas Kavaliauskas, who contribute heavily to the interior attack and score so efficiently that those post-up opportunities result in more points per possession than an average EuroLeague possession. Also scoring at a strong rate passing out of the post and off interior passes to cutters, perhaps no team in the EuroLeague pounds the ball inside as effectively as Zalgiris. In two games against Fenerbahce this season, Zalgiris averaged 1.39 points per finishing opportunity in the half court, making up for its solid, but below standard, 0.955 points per post-up possession it mustered against the capable Fenerbahce defensive front line.
X-Factor: Points in the paint
Zalgiris generated 55.5 points per game in the paint over two games against Fenerbahce during the regular season while shooting 61% on those attempts and converting subsequent free throws at a strong rate. Finding success forcing the ball to the rim aggressively, Zalgiris can put a lot of pressure on opposing big men on its best nights.