And then there were two: the EuroCup has reached its final stage, and every fan of European basketball is excited to see the battle between Valencia and Unicaja.
Once again, Spain proved to be the dominant force in Europe (coming from a Lithuanian), and one thing is for sure – the Spanish Basketball Federation already won, no matter how the finals end.
Both teams faced each other three times in 2017, so they will not holding back. The last clash took place just a few days ago, on March 25, and Valencia won 81-77. It was a thriller, decided in the last minutes of the game.
We can expect the same from the finals.
Road to the finals
Valencia will have the home advantage in this best of three series, and it might be crucial as both teams are much better while playing at home. After winning against Unicaja in a domestic league match on March 25, Valencia improved their home streak record to 21 games. They did not lose a game in La Fonteta since October 19. That is a first of many problems that Joan Plaza, the head coach of Unicaja, will have to solve if he wants to win the EuroCup for the second time in his career.
The road to the finals was not easy for Unicaja. It struggled in the group stage, finishing 4th with a poor 4-4 balance. No one could dream about Unicaja reaching the finals at that stage. However, Unicaja improved with time. They played a little better during the Top 16 phase, finishing second in a group of four teams with a 3-3 record. However, they lost both games to Valencia Basket. It did not matter that much, though, as Unicaja still made it to the quarterfinals, where they beat Bayern Munich twice in the best of three series, after losing the first match. Unicaja entered the semi-finals with momentum on their side and crushed Lokomotiv 2-0 without too many efforts.
So yeah, Unicaja played quite a few ‘live or die’ games in this season’s EuroCup already, and they know what it is like to play under pressure.
To the contrary, it looks like Valencia Basket is yet to find an equal opponent this year in the EuroCup. They passed through the group stage like a breeze, winning seven out of eight games. It was even easier during the Top 16 when Valencia Basket won all six of their games, including two against Unicaja.
The quarterfinals versus Khimik and semifinals versus Hapoel were quite similar as well. Valencia had the home advantage and used it in its favor, comfortably winning both series 2-1.
Valencia Basket is coming to the finals with a 17-3 record in the EuroCup, and it looks like it is their finals to win.
Valencia Basket vs. Malaga Unicaja
Who will be the favorites?
Valencia Basket, hands down. Since 2016, Valencia has won seven out of eight games played versus Unicaja, and it sure looks like coach Pedro Martinez knows the secret formula of how to win against Joan Plaza.
Fans of Spanish basketball will be happy to see this final as both teams like to play fast, shoot from downtown, and show aggressive defense when it’s needed. This final will go down to the history books as one of the most iconic finals of European basketball.
I have already written it before, and I will stay true to my words that Valencia Basket is one of those teams without a real leader. All the players have their distinctive roles which only work when we look at the big picture. Maybe only Bojan Dubljevic has more freedom at this given moment as he is on fire. Dubljevic was the main factor of Valencia’s victory against Unicaja a couple of days ago when he scored 20 points. That said, all the other players like Sam Van Rossom, Antoine Diot, Fernando San Emeterio, or Romain Sato can become an x-factor on any given day. They have plenty of experience playing top level European basketball, and EuroCup finals should not be something terrifying to them.
On the other side, Malaga Unicaja probably has as many experienced players as their opponents. However, there are two players whose game will probably decide whether Unicaja has a shot at this series or not. Kyle Fogg and Nemanja Nedovic were absolutely on fire at the most important moments of the season. Kyle Fogg averaged 15.5 points, 4 rebounds, and 2.5 assists in the semifinals against Lokomotiv. Those numbers might not look impressive, but it was a low scoring series based on defense, so Kyle’s points really made a difference. On top of that, he is very consistent, and Joan Plaza can count on him all the time.
That cannot be said about Nemanja Nedovic, though. He might score 30 points with 5/5 three pointers one night and end up with 0 points the other. He is one of those players who drags his team to either Heaven or Hell.
If we compare both teams as a whole, Valencia is leading in every single aspect of the game, except three-pointers. Valencia scores, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks better than their opponents. Also, they shoot field goals and three throws with a higher percentage. Looking at the numbers, Unicaja will have to rely on their three-point shooting as it is the only advantage that it has. Mark my words, we will witness an awful lot of three-pointers in the finals. Joan Plaza knows that his team is weaker inside the paint, and he will have to risk it all and rely on the wide range shots. People used to say that you cannot win a championship with three-pointers until GSW did it. I bet that Joan Plaza will use this example in the locker room before the finals start.
I would love to see Joan Plaza winning the EuroCup again, but all the factors add up to an easy Valencia victory. This team does it all better and has a home advantage, which is crucial. However, Unicaja already proved a couple of times this season that they know how to win against all odds, and I am sure that they will not throw in the towel before the game ends. Of course, Unicaja will need a couple of miracles to happen, including perfect defense, flawless shooting behind the arc, and Nemanja Nedovic’s top performance. If that happens, they have a chance. Realistically, Valencia should win 2-1.