"For us, it is easier to play without responsibility," ALBA Berlin head coach Aito Garcia Reneses said during his halftime interview during Thursday's road game against Panathinaikos OPAP Athens at OAKA. "If they beat us, it's okay. It's normal."
When you hear a coach of a Turkish Airlines EuroLeague team say such words, one must wonder: Is he crazy? Or is he crazy like a fox!
Aito coached a brilliant game, especially considering the circumstances. On the one hand, his team was short-handed. ALBA is without point guard Peyton Siva, shooting guard Marcus Eriksson and power forward Tyler Cavanaugh due to injuries. To get by without them, he had to rely on a pair of teenagers (Jonas Mattisseck and Malte Delow) plus a rookie (Makai Mason) in his rotation. What better way to get the most of his young players then by removing all pressure from them?
The opponent on this night was also short-handed; Panathinaikos's biggest summer signing, Jimmer Fredette, missed the game due to injury as well. Aito designed a strategy specifically for this situation. Let's have ALBA point guard Martin Hermannsson explain it: "I think we did a really good job of surprising them with our defense today, playing a box-and-one on Calathes, who is their head and shoulders on offense. We got them hesitating a little bit and that was the key."
Playing pressure-free, ALBA missed only 4 shots in scoring 31 first-quarter points. The second quarter wasn't as strong on offense, but it saw the visitors take control. ALBA missed 8 shots and committed 4 turnovers in amassing 27 second-quarter points while holding the Greens to 18. ALBA's 58 first-half points tied the club record for most points by halftime of a EuroLeague game.
Speaking like a prophet, Aito also said at halftime: "We had excellent shooting percentages from two and three, but now perhaps we think we can win and it will be different. It is possible we miss [shots] this half."
Naturally, that's what happened and ALBA scored a total of 30 points in the second half. However, ALBA never looked afraid. Panathinaikos closed the gap, but the ALBA defense made it tough for the hosts every step of the way. In the end, the game could have gone either way. ALBA missed with a chance to win at the end of regulation time. Panathinaikos missed the final shots in both the first and second overtime periods. What stood out was that in such a close game in front of a hostile crowd, Aito's players remained confident.
Looking back, this has long been a strategy Aito believes in. Coach young players up. Give them confidence. Remove the pressure. In such a scenario, they can develop into their best versions and that version should be enough to win games. It worked for him in the 1980s and ’90s at FC Barcelona. It worked for him when he won the ULEB Cup (now the EuroCup) with Joventut Badalona and when he led Herbalife Gran Canaria to the EuroCup Finals. And it's working now at ALBA Berlin.
If it keeps working, it could be scary what the ALBA Berlin team looks like as this season progresses.