Debunking ALBA Berlin Luke Sikma’s elbow play

In the wake of the third game between ALBA Berlin and Unicaja Malaga in which the winner will obliterate the ticket for the 7DAYS EuroCup semifinals, one element on which the Germans will rely on will be Luke Sikma‘s ability to make things happen on the offensive side of the ball. Especially with his play from the elbow.
The former Valencia Basket power forward was a key factor in game two in which he played as a facilitator, as a finisher and as a decoy/screen setter on the weak side in the second half.

Unicaja’s coach Luis Casimiro will need to make some more adjustments on this particular situation to slow an offense that seems as good as it possibly gets.

Before breaking down Sikma’s game two in Malaga last Friday, let’s contextualize his skills with some graphics.

First of all his 7DAYS EuroCup season advanced stat line with particular attention to his offensive efficiency, shooting percentages, assist to turnover and assist to field goal made ratio; as well as his rebounding percentages.

Not to mention the “radar” to better visualize all this…

Sikma stat line


The “elbow playing” we were saying… here we go!

Q1: 9’50”

This is ALBA’s first offensive series, and coach Aito calls Sikma’s number right from the bat. Nnoko blocks down low for Sikma who comes out on the left elbow to receive, while Giedraitis clear the space moving on top of the key. Siva gives the ball to Sikma and goes toward the weak side corner. Nnoko screens for Hermannsson, always on the weak side. Now we have a two on two with Sikma at the elbow and Giedraitis, who fakes to cut toward the basket, while running on the three-point line with Waczynski caught off guard. Wiltjer gives a bit of space to Sikma to be ready to help on Giedraitis, and the ALBA’s power forward takes advantage of this momentary lapse of focus, to pivot on his right side and try to finish strong to the basket. Sikma’s shot doesn’t go in, because Wiltjer is excellent in recovering and contesting the shot, but Shermadini’s help leaves an open lane to Nnoko to attack the rim, grab the offensive rebound and convert it into two points. The first of the game.

Q1: 7’54”

Same situation that we’ve seen before. Nnoko sets a screen for Sikma under the basket. The only difference is that Giedraitis has the ball, while Siva clears the strong side. Giedraitis doesn’t wait for Sikma to post up and attacks with his weak hand. The American is excellent in adjusting and going at the elbow (again) to re-establish the spacing. Giedraitis backpedals, gives it to Sikma, fakes for the handoff, and cuts strong to the basket. Waczynski is once again caught off guard, and Wiltjer doesn’t put pressure on the ball (being afraid of Sikma’s driving skills). Textbook give and go on a quarter of court at high speed.

Q1: 6’09”

Different setup, and different side. This time we’re on the right elbow. Nnoko is high for a possible PNR and Sikma is into the “dunking spot.” Nnoko’s PNR is a decoy. Sikma sprints at the elbow and receives the ball. The situation is the exact same of the first play of the game. With the same finishing style and same conclusion: two points on the scoreboard. The only difference? Sikma using his left hand to finish, instead of the right. That’s it!

Q2: 9’42”

Sikma has the ball on the left elbow and is guarded by Carlos Suarez who is way more aggressive than Wiltjer forcing the ALBA’s player to work harder to find his spots. Sikma’s first option comes on the weak side where Hermannsson takes a screen by Thiemann, but Sasu Salin is excellent in denying an easy pass. The second option is a hand-off with Giffey, but Milosavljevic works even harder to prevent it from happening. Suarez is outstanding in putting pressure on the ball, and all the passing lanes seem covered. Looks like a broken play. But Lessort inexplicably goes to cover the middle of the paint for no apparent reason allowing Thiemann to receive the ball on top of the key and put in the floor. Lessort recovers, but it’s too late. All of a sudden, ALBA’s offense had an advantage. Sidenote: look at Boatright and how he’s too upright and not alert on anything that’s happening around him.  Thiemann dishes to Giffey while Saibou cuts while Boatright completely botches the coverage. Milosavljevic with the emergency help but Saibou is better with his dribbling and driving skills to beat him and score.

Q2: 8’25”

This is a more classic setup with the two bigs at the elbow. Sikma has the ball on the left one. Payton Siva screens for Giffey who receives the hand-off from Sikma, who cuts to the basket. Suarez and Milosavljevic are great in switching denying the pass to the rolling big, also taking into account that Lessort is patrolling the paint not caring about Thiemann on the other elbow. Salin seems to already pre-rotating anticipating a screen for Saibou on the weak side. Which it doesn’t properly happen, although Saibou cuts toward the ball, Salin jumps on the lane and stays with him. Thiemann comes back for another pick and then rolls. Lessort’s show is deep but the connection with Salin is not good, and Saibou right driving gives him an advantage and a clear passing lane to Thiemann. Who has the opportunity for an easy basket, but Lessort, once again, shows his incredible physical ability and verticality by blocking the ALBA’s player putback.

Q2: 6’54”

Another quarter of court play where Sikma acts as a facilitator. The key element here is on the weak side as usual and the play design is top in using what’s happening on the strong side as a decoy to give Saibou enough space when cutting from the weak side. Once again, Boatright defense is exposed because he is too distant from Saibou allowing him to comfortably run and use Thiemann screen on the left elbow and cut strong to the basket. Sikma’s timing with the pass is spot on. Saibou’s finishing is not particularly accurate mainly thanks to Lessort presence in covering the driving lane and forcing ALBA’s guard to change his shot trajectory and miss the layup.

Q2: 6’04”

It all starts from a PNR between Saibou and Sikma. Suarez’s show is top and forces Saibou to stop the dribble and collect the ball (Advantage Unicaja…). What is puzzling is what Roberts does. Instead of doubling down with the pressure on Saibou he positions himself halfway between Saibou and Sikma, allowing the first to turn and find a clean passing lane to the latter who, once again, is a master in spacing himself and see the play unfolds a pass in advance. Lessort as usual works as a free stopper not caring about Thiemann on the dunking spot (his eyes are pointing towards the ball but have no sense of where Thiemann is positioned). Saibou finds Sikma. Lessort slides on him leaving Thiemann free, Waczynski stays on Giffey, and Sikma with perfect timing dishes to Thiemann for a nice put back in spite of Suarez desperate recovery.

Q3: 9’08”

In the second half, Malaga adjusts a bit to Sikma’s elbow game. Putting more pressure on him and denying many of those “easy passes” where ALBA’s American player has been deadly during the first half. Berlin ran more classic setups and that didn’t prevent them to run away with the score and win big on the road. Nevertheless, there are a couple of notable “elbow situations”. The first one unfolds in transition and it’s Sikma’s himself to lead it. Pass in the corner to Saibou, who passes again to Siva and Sikma runs on the elbow to form a triangle. ALBA fully takes advantage of the 5 vs. 4 of this situation, with Wiltjer who runs out to guard a possible Siva three-pointer. The point guard finds Sikma for a fairly easy catch and shoot. Two points more on ALBA’s scoreboard.

Q3: 8’40”

Entry pass from Siva to Sikma on the right elbow. This time Wiltjer is ready and aggressive on the ball from the very beginning of the play. All the other Unicaja teammates are “alive and kicking” on the passing lanes. Sikma then plays the one on one with his right hand. Wiltjer stays with him and Lessort denies the middle of the paint and then recovers on Nnoko. Sikma collects the dribble and his only option is to pass out to Siva with Milosavljevic already in position to guard him, ready to contest a possible shot or guard a drive to the basket. ALBA’s point guard opts for the latter, puts the ball on the floor with his left hand but Unicaja’s small forward is ready and absorbs the drive forcing Siva to turn the ball over. Thanks also to Roberts’ timely help. An excellent, aggressive, collective, defensive effort by Unicaja this time.

Q3: 4’38”

This is a Rokas Giedraitis’ clinic on how to move without the ball. At the same time, Sikma’s passing abilities (and vision) are on display. The starting point is always the same. Giedraitis brings the ball up, Sikma jumps out to get the leadoff pass. From there everything unfolds. Thiemann brings a vertical screen on the Lithuanian. Salin goes right into it trying to anticipate a possible cut to the basket but Giedraitis is a master in reading the situation. Hence, at first, he spaces himself on the three-point line and, the moment Salin recovers on him, sprints toward the basket with the Finnish completely caught off guard. Sikma seems to know what will happen already, awaits for Rokas double move and finds him for an easy basket. Clean basketball fundamentals by both of them, building a beautiful, easy, basketball play.

Enjoy game 3 tomorrow!

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