by Rob Scott / @robscott33

The Top 16 didn’t exactly burst into life on Thursday night, but Euroleague is back and that is all that matters. ELA watched Real Madrid stumble to an 80-64 win over Partizan Belgrade and Panathinaikos smother EA7 Milano 73-57. So, with less pause than a Keith Langford mid-range jumper, here are five takeaways from those two games:

1: Madrid might have lost to a team that could score

Partizan Belgrade, roared on by 21,374 bouncing, chanting, flag-waving diehards, hung on until the fourth quarter but ultimately couldn’t get past a sloppy, often lacklustre Madrid team. This was a blueprint for how Madrid might lose a big game – Jaycee Carroll and Sergio Llull combined for 1-for-13 from three point range, and they scored only 11 points in the third quarter, their lowest mark of the Euroleague season. The problem for Partizan was, they only scored 10 themselves.

Madrid’s problem wasn’t always creating shots, it was finishing them. Carroll and Llull would normally have buried at least a few of the looks they got. Despite Partizan mixing up their defensive strategy with hard hedging and a few short tries at a matchup zone, eventually Madrid found the shots to get them over the line. Trapping in the corner worked for a couple of possessions when this was still a game early in the fourth but then Sergio Rodriguez hit from deep NBA range. There’s only so much a team of limited means can do to stop Madrid from scoring, but their offense was sloppy and if they had been put under more pressure at the other end, the game would have been very different.

The game was iced midway through the fourth. Darden buried a corner three after swift ball movement and then blocked Lauverge at the rim, an audacious play for one of Europe’s undercover athletic freaks. Then Rudy danced aimlessly with the ball around the top of the arc and drained one of his louche, provocative threes off the dribble that invite a wry smile from even his harshest haters.

Madrid have taken some punches in the ACB recently, against Tenerife and Valencia, and come out smiling. This team will eventually lose, possibly in the new few weeks, then we will find out if they have the mentality to come back. I have no doubt that they do – tonight, Chacho, Rudy and Bourousis were the dominant players, another week it could be Mirotic or Llull. They have the deepest roster in Europe, but they will need to respond to tougher challenges than tonight as the season rolls on.

2: Partizan are a point guard away from being interesting

This is linked to the first point, which was that if Partizan could have just put the ball in the hole enough to put Madrid under pressure, this could have been a hell of a finish, instead of meandering into an anticlimax. Leo Westermann is injured but he wasn’t exactly doing great things before then. Bogdan Bogdanović is trying gamely to run an offense with terrible spacing, but it’s a tough ask for a non-specialist. In that context, Tarence Kinsey did just enough with his crafty pull-up game to keep the scoreboard ticking over in the first half, but that was before Dontaye Draper entered the game.

As is customary, Draper began the third quarter and immediately disrupted everything, harrying Bogdanovicć and Tepić to the point where Partizan’s offense began with only 12 or 13 seconds left on the shot clock. Contested shots are all too prevalent for this team even without such on-ball pressure, but it’s clear Tepić isn’t the answer. His first Euroleague game back in Belgrade ended with a line of 23 minutes, zero points, 0-for-3 FGs, two assists and three turnovers. Not many teams have the luxury of bringing a player of Draper’s ball-hawking skills in for a specialist role, but it’s certainly something others can emulate to a certain degree.

Everyone on this Partizan team plays hard, and their length inside can bother a lot of teams, as they showed when beating Fenerbahçe in week 9, but they are going to struggle to score enough points for that defense to matter, at least until Davis Bertans returns. By then, it might be too late.

3: Panathinaikos will bore us to death… until the playoffs

On nights like this, the 14-game Top 16 is a tough sell. The Greens were the fifth-slowest team amongst Top 16-qualifiers in the Regular Season and at times it seems like the numbers exaggerate even their sluggish pace. Dimitris Diamantidis walks the ball up the floor, they are deliberate in their offensive sets, but it surprisingly results in a slightly above-average offensive efficiency. When they’re bad, they’re unwatchable, like in Week 10 versus Maccabi Tel Aviv, and they limped out of the Regular Season with a 5-5 record.

All this will change once the playoffs begin. When they fill OAKA, there’s nowhere like it in the world, and that arena in the playoffs can give them a shot at a series they have no business being in: just ask Barcelona, who should have been swept last year but somehow escaped in 5 games.

20,000+ Green maniacs can turn even the most drawn-out, low-scoring war of attrition into a Hollywood epic. When each game turns on long, tortured possessions that end up with Diamantidis somehow throwing the ball to Bramos in the corner, who somehow buries another contested three on the shot clock buzzer, we’ll be off our seats rather than shaking our heads. In the first of 14 games in the new de-facto Regular Season, it’s hard to watch, but when each possession can bring them a step closer to the Final Four, it will be a lot easier to stomach.

4: Diamantidis is warming up

Dimitris Diamantidis led the Regular Season in assists per game, dishing out 8.7 a night. Tonight he upped that to 11, including eight in his first 12 minutes. PAO’s offense is based entirely around Diamantidis – Roko Ukic and Nikos Pappas are the only other shot creators, and the former still makes everyone nervous. Surrounding him with players like Bramos, Fotsis, Gist, Lasme and Maciulis makes sense as all can be good finishers in their own way, but they need to be set up. PAO’s shot creation is quite below league-average at the SF and PF positions. With Diamantidis off the court, PAO’s offensive rating in the Regular Season was only 96.4, which is approaching Rytas-levels of appalling.

Although 3D put up excellent assist numbers before Christmas, he did it mostly above the free-throw line extended, rarely venturing into the paint either to pass or shoot, and attempted an unprecedentedly high number of threes – six per game. In the first quarter tonight, he penetrated deep into the paint to dish off to Gist for a dunk and a three, and continued attacking throughout the game. He doesn’t have the legs to go full-pelt for the whole season, but the signs were there tonight that he is shaping up for the real business later on. While Diamantidis is finding his teammates such easy shots, PAO has a chance to make it through the playoffs, even if it doesn’t look like it yet.

5: Milano is stil irrelevant, despite Hackett’s arrival

Daniel Hackett was the big name of the pre-Christmas transfer rumours, as teams who are strapped for cash look to recoup some money for their standout players. Would he solve Barcelona’s creativity problems in the backcourt? Would he bolster Fenerbahçe’s star-laden squad? His trip up Italy’s A1 highway to Milano was something of anti-climax, even though staying settled in his adopted country was probably an easy sell. It won’t change anything, sadly, as this Milano team is still a mess. They have talent – Alessandro Gentile is a multi-skilled scorer crying out for the kind of coaching and role definition that Bojan Bogdanović has found with Željko, and David Moss is still banging away, playing hard, using his size to post up and play tough defense, but that’s about it.

Luca Banchi’s Montepaschi Siena team last year at least had an identity – they shot a ton of threes, played a stretch four and five around two ball-dominant guards, and didn’t really care too much about defense. Despite bringing some of his favourite players, his Milano is a mess.  Bobby Brown, despite his shoot-first mentality, could involve others, and play off the ball to allow Hackett some space. Keith Langford, for all of his ability to shake off a defender and pull-up from mid-range, has none of that ability. He is not a playmaker, and it’s hard to imagine him being part of a successful team at Euroleague level, no matter who he plays with. Curtis Jerrells is just an inferior version of the above. Upfront, their big men make poor decisions in pick and roll and consistently miss rotations. There is talent on this team, but none of it works effectively together, and Hackett can’t change that by himself.

5b (bonus point): I chose the wrong games to watch

Amongst the 19:00 CET tip-offs, Partizan versus Real Madrid looked the clear choice, but some wise folks stuck with the all-Spanish affair of Unicaja Malaga versus Laboral Kutxa Vitoria. The Team-That-Should-Always-Be-Known-as-TAU put up 60 points in the second half, hanging a 93-79 beating on their domestic foes, shooting 15-for-24 on threes. Later on, although Barcelona’s 84-65 takedown of Anadolu Efes wasn’t dramatic, by all accounts it was at least aesthetically pleasing, and some guy called Juan Carlos Navarro dropped 20+ for the first time in a Euroleague minute.

Oh well, at least tomorrow is unequivocally all about Željko’s Return to Piraeus. We’ll all be watching – right?