With both teams possessing several NBA-caliber talents, and Maccabi rolling with two of the top Greek players in Theo Papaloukas and Sofoklis “Sofo” Schortsanitis, this promises to be among the more exciting playoff battles.
While two of the premier coaches in Europe, Zeljko Obradovic and David Blatt, will face off, this matchup contains some of the best talent Europe has to offer.
The reigning Euroleague champions, Panathinaikos is a veteran laden team, led by reigning Euroleague MVP, Dimitris Diamantidis, who is the very same point guard who demolished Team USA in the semis at the 2006 World Championships. Diamantidis is easily the best pick-and-roll player in Europe, and while he may not possess the same quickness as the top NBA point guards, he does demonstrate world-class decision-making.
Diamantidis has served as an excellent mentor to Dallas Mavericks-owned Nick Calathes of Florida, who has made excellent strides this season. Calathes plays with excellent efficiency, shooting 60% from the field and boasting a 2:1 assist to turnover ratio. He has tremendously improved his execution in half court sets, to the point where the Mavericks are likely to give him a long look in the near future, and his production will be vital to Panathinaikos’ success.
Spurs 2004 draft pick, Romain Sato, plays the wing for Panathinaikos, providing toughness, shooting and excellent rebounding from the perimeter. Standing at just under 6’5”, Sato is the team’s leading rebounder in Euroleague play, averaging 6.1 per game. Sato likely will stay forever in Europe, as he is unlikely to play a major role on a powerhouse team in the NBA as he does it Europe.
Former Pacer and Golden State Warrior, Sarunas Jasikevicius, will be going up against his former team, Maccabi, with whom he won two Euroleague titles, and a European MVP award. While “Sharas” is not quite the same player as he was during his time with Maccabi, his shooting, playmaking and veteran leadership are a major boost off the bench for Panathinaikos.
Rounding out Panathinaikos’ rotation are American forwards Mike Batiste and Steve Smith, the former PAC-10 Player of the Year out of La Salle. Smith is excellent as a stretch four who can rebound, a perfect example of a player whose athleticism would make him look like a weak player in the NBA, but in the European style game, he is more valuable than many guys buried on NBA benches. Unlike the NBA, players who possess a combination of skill and basketball IQ are often more valuable in Europe than players with elite athleticism.
Batiste, formerly of Arizona State, didn’t really get many chances in his short stints with the Grizzlies or the Lakers, but he has become a rock for Panathinaikos, suiting up since 2004, and claiming a Greek League MVP award in 2010. Batiste is a presence around the rim, averaging 9.9 points and 5.1 rebounds in just a shade under 20 minutes a night.
With 10 guys getting double-digit minutes in only a 40 minute contest, having players who can consistently produce efficiently and are able to bring a positive attitude despite not receiving the type of minutes they feel they deserve is a luxury that can be the difference for a championship squad.
While Panathinakos may be the reigning champs, Maccabi Tel-Aviv probably has the stronger team this season.
Many feel that Papaloukas has had a disappointing season to date, failing to realize that it hasn’t come time for Papaloukas to serve his true purpose. A team doesn’t pick up an aging former Euroleague MVP for a domestic league game in December, but primarily for the second half of a dog fight with Panathinaikos in the Euroleague playoffs (though he has been a valuable mentor to promising young guard, Yogev Ohayon). Papaloukas’ familiarity with Obradovic’s system, and overall understanding of the Greek style of basketball, will be a very crucial tool for Maccabi that could be the difference maker.
Former Kansas Jayhawk, Keith Langford, will be leading Maccabi Tel-Aviv, with his ability to score. Langford is among the Euroleague’s best when it comes to creating his own shot, and he has a knack for dribble penetration. Since he can pull up for the jump shot, beat you to the rim, or dish for the assist, he is a very tough cover, and exploits this to get himself to the free throw line.
Panathinaikos will need to be focused on doing a good job containing him, especially in the games at Tel-Aviv, or else they are going to be in big trouble.
“Sofo,” is sure to draw a majority of the defense’s attention, with his monstrous size and dominant presence in the post. Like Batiste, “Sofo” produces in short spurts, averaging 9.6 points on 57% shooting in under 17 minutes per game. In Europe, his efficiency and overall presence make him an all-league performer. After showing that he is perfect for a 12 to 15 minute per game role with Maccabi, he could be a great fit for the second unit of the Clippers (who own his draft rights), as a player they can run their offense through in short spurts.
Maccabi features two Israelis who are on NBA teams’ radars in Lior Eliyahu and Yogev Ohayon, both of whom could be big difference makers in the series.
Eliyahu is the European version of Antwan Jamison, relying on unorthodox runners. His unique style of play, coupled with his ability to run the floor, have made him a consistent double-digit scorer, and one of the most difficult covers in the Euroleague. Ohayon plays with a tremendous spirit, and his scrappiness and intensity go a long way toward willing his team to victory. As a player who excels more in the open court and in one-on-one situations, the already successful guard probably would shine more in the NBA game than he ever could with Maccabi.
The main key for Maccabi, however, is their trio of shooters, David Blu, Devin Smith and Guy Pnini. With Blu suiting up mainly as a power forward, Maccabi is frequently able to throw two or three of these guys out there together, spacing the floor to give Langford and “Sofo” plenty of room to operate.
Having the luxury of three quality shooters who are willing defenders is a luxury most teams don’t have, and likely will be the x-factor in the series. When these three guys make shots, Maccabi is a very tough team to beat, especially in their home gym.
Experience and talent are crucial in basketball, but timing and situation trump everything. Maccabi is a team that is finally getting back to playing excellent basketball for the first time since Jordan Farmar left, and they will be itching for revenge from last season’s final.
While Panathinaikos was able to oust Maccabi for the title last season, it looks like this year Maccabi may be poised to earn a spot in the Final Four. Maccabi is a team that has been coming together as of late and is playing with the sort of swagger that could carry them to at least one win in Greece, and to certainly win both home games. Each game likely will be close, but Maccabi should be able to take this series in four games.
However, if we have learned anything from Norfolk State and Lehigh in the NCAAs over the weekend, anything is possible in basketball.