Last week’s double-round had something for everyone and offered some intriguing, though far from clear-cut, hints at what role interior defense is playing this season.
There were plenty of teams that earned key victories in the last double-round week. Notably, CSKA Moscow extended its winning streak to 10, Real Madrid scored two overtime wins in Greece, Maccabi Playtika Tel Aviv knocked off FC Barcelona on the road, and Zalgiris turned in two of its best offensive performances of the season to push back into the top half of the standings.
In Maccabi’s win, they held Barcelona to just 11-for-27 shooting inside of 2 meters in an effort that highlights the numerous layers that go into how well EuroLeague teams protect the rim.
The graphic above lists the EuroLeague’s top four teams in points allowed per game around the rim. There’s no shortage of statistics to pick from to define how well a team defends inside, but few of them paint a complete picture. This can be traced to the fact that EuroLeague defenses tend to be heavy on nuance; when a team takes away one thing, they tend to give up something else.
In the example above, points allowed per game is used in lieu of points per shot or percentage of attempts, among other options, because it has been the one metric by which multiple teams have separated themselves from their peers – on both the positive and negative ends of the spectrum. It also includes the teams near the top of the rankings in other key metrics or teams with the clearest objectives strategically, and therefore does perhaps the best job of capturing this season’s top performers.
Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade has allowed the fewest points per game around the rim due mainly by allowing the fewest attempts there by far. Though Zvezda ranks better than average in field goal percentage allowed inside, it is the way that its defenders swarm the lane to prevent shots that has differentiated this team’s interior defense. Limiting shot attempts has been the main means by which a team can stand out in protecting the rim in recent years.
Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul has followed a similar blue-print to impressive effect but has done much of its best work by preventing easy baskets in transition. That tends to be an unpredictable variable in the rim protection equation since there’s only so much a team can do about a run-away dunk, but Fenerbahce’s very good job challenging transition layups has bolstered its efforts to limit interior attempts in half-court situations.
On the other end of the spectrum, FC Barcelona concedes more inside shots than average but allows opponents just 56% accuracy on those attempts. That figure leads the EuroLeague, although 11 other teams allow less than 59% inside of 2 meters. Indeed, even though field goal percentage allowed inside has not been a differentiator in recent seasons, Barcelona does an excellent job stopping dribble penetration to the rim. Though that effort has sometimes hurt them on the defensive glass, it has not hurt them on the perimeter. Challenging inside shots without sacrificing effectiveness further away comes down to great defensive rotation and has made Barcelona the most efficient defense in the EuroLeague through Round 15.
All of that circles back to Maccabi, who ranks eighth in inside shots attempts and fourth in field goal percentage allowed inside. In its win over Barcelona, Maccabi permitted 27 shots inside – well above its average – but allowed just 41% of them to go in – far better than the 57% they have let up on the year. Rim protection tends to be an imperfect science. A few bounces in a team’s favor can be the difference between a win and a loss, but the ability to keep opponents from generating high-quality looks inside is a key piece in the large puzzle that is interior defense.
Looking Ahead to Round 16
Round 16 has lots of intriguing games, but perhaps no clear headliner. The matchup between Zalgiris Kaunas and FC Bayern Munich should be an interesting one given how different their offensive approaches are. Bayern is the lone EuroLeague team attempting nearly as many two-point jump shots as three-point jump shots and is also aggressive when looking to exploit individual matchups. That has not stopped Bayern from ranking in the top half of the EuroLeague in offensive efficiency. Zalgiris, in contrast, seldom looks to play one-on-one and leads all teams in offensive efficiency due to its exceptional jump shooting to this point. That contrast in styles should make for a quality matchup with implications in the top half of the standings.