Last night, Panathinaikos edged out Maccabi 78-69 in a grind-it-out duel, in which Panathinaikos held a mere three-point lead with two minutes remaining. Taking place in Tel-Aviv’s Nokia Arena, a relatively small gym that holds 11,000 rabid fans, the atmosphere had at least as much intensity as an NBA playoff game. Every possession was a battle, with both teams combining for 52 fouls, playing a very physical brand of basketball.
Panathinaikos was led by former University of Florida guard Nick Calathes (whose NBA rights are held by the Dallas Mavericks), who finished with 15 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists. Calathes has shown a tremendous amount of improvement since suiting up for the Greens under coach Zeljko Obradovic, vastly improving his jump shot, decision making and efficiency in the pick-and-roll. Playing under an excellent coach, alongside two of the top guards in recent Euroleague history in Dimitris Diamantidis and Sarunas “Sharas” Jasikevicius, Calathes has developed into one of the better guards in Europe, and has shown that down the road, he could be an impact player in the NBA.
With their excellent ball movement and dribble penetration, Panathinaikos was able to get the ball into the paint, where they converted 57% of their two point shots. They were the aggressors on offense, leading them to draw 30 fouls on Maccabi, giving the Tel Aviv frontline some serious foul trouble. With Maccabi over the foul limit for most of the game, Panathinaikos lived at the free throw line, making 25 of 35 free throws.
Maccabi was able to keep the game close, despite having a terrible shooting night from long range (4-for-23 from 3) and having trouble moving the ball, as they only totaled five assists as a team. Maccabi was able to will themselves into this game with spirit and effort, despite rarely having the balls bouncing in their favor, keeping the game close until the deciding minutes of the game.
Maccabi was led by Devin Smith (14 points, 7 rebounds), Keith Langford (14 points) and the Houston Rockets’ NBA rights-held forward, Lior Eliyahu (12 points). One of the deciding factors of the game was coach David Blatt’s decision to keep budding point guard Yogev Ohayon on the bench for the majority of the fourth quarter. Ohayon, who has drawn interest from the Lakers recently, according to Israeli media reports, had nine points and nine rebounds through 25 minutes, and was a major part of Maccabi’s third-quarter run. However, in the fourth quarter, the defense started sagging off of Ohayon, daring him to shoot from outside.
Coach Blatt chose to go with Demond Mallet, who made a momentum 3-pointer, and Langford at the point guard position the rest of the way.
Maccabi’s offense started struggling when Panathinaikos started helping off Ohayon, and it was a tough decision for Blatt to keep his point guard on the bench. The move was highly criticized by Israeli media, however, Maccabi needed to spread the floor to get their offense going, and if another one of Mallet’s shots had gone down, those same reporters would be talking about what a genius Blatt is.
A huge factor in Maccabi’s loss was the ineffectiveness of Sofoklis Schortsanitis, who went scoreless in 9 minutes of play, once again due to foul trouble. Coach Blatt spoke about how important it is for “Sofo” to stay away from silly fouls and keep himself on the court in the deciding game. Many of the foul calls against him have been questionable, as frequently occurs with someone of his massive size, but he will need to be cognizant of how the game is called and try to keep himself on the floor in Game 5.
Elsewhere in Euroleague Action
The winner of Maccabi-Pnathinaikos will take on the winner of CSKA Moscow vs. Gescrap Bilbao of Spain. CSKA seemed poised to sweep Bilbao with their powerful quartet of Andrei Kirelenko, Nenad Krstic, Milos Teodosic and Victor Khryapa, but the Spaniards were able to pull off a home upset to bring the series to 2-1.
Regal Barcelona was able to pull off a sweep against Unics Kazan behind strong play from Juan Carlos Navarro. Barcelona will take on the winner of the super competitive series between Montepeschi Siena and Olympiacos, which Olympiakos currently leads 2-1. Bo McCalebb of Siena will need to outduel Vassilis Spanoulis of Olympiacos if Siena is to have any prayer of overcoming this deficit and getting a chance to play in the Final Four in Istanbul.
With the European basketball world in full postseason mode, the best is yet to come.
AJ Mitnick is an American currently living in Israel and working for Maccabi Rishon Lezion of the Israeli Basketball Super League. A recent graduate of IDC Herzliya, Mitnick also maintains a basketball blog, http://mindlessdribble.net, and is pursuing a professional basketball coaching license from the Wingate Institute in Israel. Follow him on Twitter.