Since 1983, the Liga Endesa (ACB) has been dominated by three clubs: Real Madrid, FC Barcelona and Saski Baskonia. Every final since the league began has involved one of those three clubs, and though this year continues that trend (Real Madrid), the top-heavy stranglehold has been challenged a bit. For the first time since 2010-2011, we will not see an “El Clasico” (Barcelona-Real Madrid) ACB Final, as Valencia Basket punched their ticket to the Final after beating Baskonia 3-1 in the semifinals.
For Valencia, this ACB Final is another crowning achievement on what has been for the most part a stellar and historic season in a variety of ways, as they have reached the Eurocup and Copa del Rey championships this season. Unfortunately, they haven’t been able to capitalize on the championship opportunities, as they fell to Unicaja Malaga in the Eurocup final, and Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey championship. Despite being heavy underdogs to one of Spain’s premier clubs, Valencia is hoping that their third shot at a trophy will be the charm.
Valencia finished 23-9 during the ACB regular season, tying for second-overall, but ceding to the third spot due to a tie-breaking loss to Baskonia. Valencia has thrived at home at Fuente de San Luis, as they went 18-2 at home in the regular season, and 4-0 during the playoffs. Though they were nearly a .500 team on the road in the regular season (10-9), they did win a huge game 1 against Baskonia in Fernando Buesa arena that ended up being the difference in the tight, competitive series.
The No. 1 seed Madrid had the easier path to the Finals, as they beat a young, but inexperienced 8th seed Andorra in the first round (2-1) and then swept Eurocup champion Unicaja 3-0 in the semifinals. On the other hand, Valencia had a “more difficult than you think” route, as they beat a Barcelona team that was desperate to salvage a disappointing season (2-1) and beat a Baskonia team that not only had an edge in terms of talent, but also got a late-season reinforcement who happened to be one of the best 1-on-1 scorers in the Turkish BSL this year (Ricky Ledo).
That story has been a familiar one for Valencia this off-season, both in ACB as well as European play. On paper, Valencia doesn’t really jump out at the casual basketball fan. They had to face VTB MVP Alexey Shved and Khimki in the Eurocup playoffs, and Valencia came out on top. They had to face former NBA All-star Amare Stoudemire, Euroleague Final Four coach Simone Pianigiani and Hapoel Jerusalem and they came out of that series victorious. Valencia was also considered heavy underdogs in the semis, as many figured Ledo was just the cherry on top that Valencia couldn’t handle, and yet it’s the Southeastern Spanish coast team that’s in the Finals, not the Basque club.
The same situation will be true in the ACB finals against Real Madrid. Valencia didn’t have much success against the top-seeded club this year, as they lost 94-75 in Round 2 at home and 85-71 in Madrid in Round 18. They fell short again in the Copa del Rey, but were a bit more competitive, as they lost 97-95. To imagine that Valencia can win three games against the King of Spanish basketball when they weren 0-3 against them in 2016-2017 seems like a tall, if not impossible task.
That being said, don’t expect this Valencia club to go down without a fight.
Valencia is a team that is as strong as the sum of the parts. In other words, they really depend on the “team” rather than one individual player. They don’t have that star guy who can take over a game. They don’t have a Sergio Llull or Anthony Randolph or even Luka Doncic like Madrid. But, they play incredibly polished team basketball on both ends of the court, as I have chronicled about after their loss to Unicaja in the Eurocup final. That is a credit to head coach Pedro Martinez, who has had tremendous success not only at Valencia, but in the past with Gran Canaria.
If Valencia is going to depend on a player, that honor would go to either center Bojan Dubljevic or forward Fernando San Emeterio. Dubljevic really is the heart and soul of the team in many ways. The Montenegrin post led the team in points (12.4 ppg), rebounds (5.6) and PIR average (14.7). Furthermore, Dubljevic’s impact goes beyond the court, as he connects with teammates and fans alike. He garnered a lot of fans beyond Valencia for his “Will Griggs”-inspired performance in front of the Valencia faithful after their clinching game 4 victory.
— Misko4Raznatovic (@MiskoRaznatovic) June 5, 2017
San Emeterio doesn’t have the “big” personality of Dubljevic, but nobody came up bigger in game 4 than the 33-year-old Spaniard. In game 4, he scored 19 points, and had 3 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals in the deciding victory. What made his performance even more impressive was his perfection from the field. Yes. He was completely perfect, as he went 4-4 on 2-pt shots, 3-3 from beyond the arc, 2-2 from the charity stripe. That is some Christian Laettner-esque shit right there.
San Emeterio’s hard-nosed defense will also be needed to neutralize Madrid’s wings, especially sharpshooter Jaycee Carroll, who can get hot from three quickly, and Doncic, who can be a do-everything playmaker. But for Valencia to have a shot at all this series, they will need their posts to have big series’ in order to neutralize Madrid’s depth in the frontcourt. Madrid has not only the best frontcourt in Spain, but in all of Europe, with Randolph, Gustavo Ayon, Felipe Reyes, Othello Hunter, and Trey Thompkins playing in the paint. Obviously, Valencia can’t match up with that kind of star power on paper. However, if they can get physical with the Madrid frontcourt, force them out of the paint, and get them out of rhythm, they’ll have a shot. Teams who have beaten Madrid have been able to employ that strategy, whether it’s forcing Ayon or Hunter off the block, or forcing Reyes, Randolph or Thompkins to be jump shooters. If Valencia wants to win, they will need to to outwork and outhustle the more talented Madrid posts with Luke Sikma, Will Thomas and Pierre Oriola, while also getting some offensive production on the other end.
Valencia has accomplished a lot. Appearances in the Eurocup, Copa del Rey and now ACB finals are nothing to shrug off, and they have apparently qualified for the Euroleague next season as well (though the EL does have a provision preventing more than 4 teams from one country being represented in the competition). And even if they don’t pull off an upset against Madrid, they should not be disappointed. Nobody outside of the city of Valencia is expecting this club to pull this upset off. Madrid has too much depth, too much talent, and too much pedigree to lose this series.
But you never know. No club has won the ACB outside of the Madrid, Barcelona, Baskonia triumvirate outside of Unicaja in 2005-2006, and before that, Manresa in 1997-1998. Will Valencia join that small, but illustrious group?
We’ll know Valencia’s chances of pulling the miracle off after Game 1 on June 9th.