The resurgence of Real Madrid, which has consecutive wins against top-ranked teams, with Walter Tavares serving as a sentinel in the paint, shows that preventing certain types of shots is part of a team’s overall defensive effectiveness.
Round 7 had no shortage of competitive action, including three one-possession finishes. Real Madrid’s 93-90 win over Zalgiris Kaunas at Zalgirio Arena was the highest-scoring of those affairs. After stumbling a bit out of the gate this season, Real has won the last two games against the second- and third-ranked teams in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague standings.
In the matchup with Zalgiris – the EuroLeague’s most efficient offensive team this season – Walter Tavares proved to be the difference for the visitors. The 2.20-meter center is one of the league’s most unique players, for obvious reasons, and came through with one of the best efforts of his career in a key road win. When he can stay out of foul trouble, his ability to lock down the paint changes the calculus for opposing offenses. And when he’s adding value on the offensive end the way he did against Zalgiris as a roller and rebounder, his impact on games is unmistakable.
Scoring 22 points and pulling down 12 rebounds in just 21 minutes of action, Tavares did not record a block, but that does not tell the whole story. Real allowed just 0.87 points per possession when he was on the court compared to 1.41 points per possession when he went to the bench. With opposing teams regularly challenging Real’s other defenders by putting Tavares – who seldom leaves the paint – in the pick-and-roll, his presence is nothing short of polarizing and gave the EuroLeague’s top offense fits last week.
It is not hard to see how players like Tavares change the game defensively, but it is not simple to evaluate how much they change it. There are a number of layers to how well a team protects the rim. Whether it’s how many shots they block, how many they challenge, the percentage they allow opposing teams to convert, or the numbers of shots they discourage from being attempted entirely, there’s a lot of things at play when measuring defense in the immediate area of the basket.
Real is a good example. While ranking eighth in points-per-shot allowed in finishing situations in half-court defense this season, Real doesn’t really see many of those shots. In fact, only two teams see fewer such attempts around the basket. And when Tavares is on the floor, those rankings rise to fourth and first respectively. Overall, Madrid joins Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul, Maccabi Playtika Tel Aviv, TD Systems Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz and Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade as the teams successfully limiting both the quantity and quality of the shots that they allow around the rim in half-court situations.
The graph above compares the percentage of the total shots that teams have allowed in finishing situations around the rim in half-court situations to the number of points per shot scored on those attempts. The orange markers represent teams from the 2020-21 season. The five teams mentioned above all find themselves in the good, bottom-left corner of this graph. Each has limited shots around the rim at an impressive level relative to historical norms while still contesting those that they do allow. While some have distinctly more size and shot-blocking prowess than others, the proximity of Zvezda, Madrid, Maccabi, and Baskonia in the cluster of four dots on the bottom-left shows that teams can take a variety of routes to success in defending the rim.
Looking Ahead to Round 8
On the topic of defense, the EuroLeague’s top two teams in terms of efficiency match up in Round 8. Fenerbahce and FC Barcelona have been this season’s gold standard on the defensive end so far, each allowing 0.05 points per possession less than the third-ranked defensive team. While that may not seem like a significant gap, 0.05 points per possession is the difference between the fourth- and 15th-ranked defenses this season and the equivalent of roughly 4 points per game. Through Round 7, Barcelona has allowed 0.87 points per possession while Fenerbahce has allowed only 0.86 per possession. No team has allowed fewer than 0.87 points per possession for a full EuroLeague season since the 2012-13 campaign and it will be fascinating to see how long these two teams can stay on that pace.