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.
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.