By: Rob Scott / @robscott33

Halfway through the Euroleague Top 16 and we have had some big surprises, which perhaps should not have been so surprising after all. Bennet Cantu, sitting at 2-1 in Group H after convincingly beating Maccabi Tel Aviv at home, qualify on both counts.

That game was probably the best game of the competition so far in terms of drama and context – Maccabi are in serious trouble, and in all likelihood have to beat Cantu at home this week to stay in the competition. While Nokia Arena provides a formidable homecourt advantage, there are problems with the team that cannot be overcome by atmosphere alone. Cantu exploited the weaknesses in Maccabi’s roster and gameplan to take a deserved victory.

Problems at the Point

Since Jordan Farmar returned Stateside, David Blatt has shuttled through ball handlers without settling on any one of them. In the first half last week, Theo Papaloukas started, and provided three characteristically accurate passes in the first five minutes – two were converted, Eliyahu muffed a layup on the other. But that promising 4 minutes, 41 seconds was as much of a look as Theo was allowed.

There has been some discussion of his defensive lapses around the blogosphere as justification for his lack of playing time. But over the rest of the first half, after watching Keith Langford turn the ball over three times attempting to run a pick and roll, Yogev Ohayon’s unwillingness to shoot unless forced at gun point, and Tal Burstein’s cameo appearance, it seems difficult to justify limiting one of Europe’s finest playmakers to such a short spell, no matter how bad his defense is.

One name not mentioned above is the guy Blatt signed, in theory, to replace Farmar. Demond Mallet did hit a couple of big threes, and zipped a nice pass to Richard Hendrix, who had his layup attempt stuffed.

That was more or less it.

He had struggled in the Barcelona game to run the offense efficiently, but surely the answer to a shaky game against the competition’s best defensive team is not to banish him to spot duties at the two spot. Keith Langford did bail himself out of some broken plays as ballhandler, but he is clearly not a point guard and shouldn’t be cast in the role.

Trinchieri Doubles Down

Maccabi looked out of ideas once Trinchieri ordered his men to double Sofoklis Schortsanitis on the catch. Big Sofo caused havoc in the first half, scoring six of Maccabi’s first eight points and forcing Denis Marconato to the bench with two fouls. He only scored two more points after that.

The cleverness of the double team was that it didn’t always come from the same place – mostly from the baseline but also from the middle, and Sofo isn’t instinctive enough a passer to find the open man, particularly if he’s not sure where the open spot will be. Some centres like Mike Batiste and Lazaros Papadopalous can almost run an offense from the low block – Sofo isn’t one of them. It took too long to attempt to feed anyone else in the post, and when they did, Hendrix and Eliyahu had some success.

Flawless Execution

As for Cantu, they are proving people wrong almost weekly. Eventually, they have to be taken seriously as a playoff team, and that time has definitely arrived. Earlier in the competition, for all their organisation and flawless execution on offense, I doubted whether they had anyone who could ‘make bad shots’ or get to the rim when the jumpshots weren’t falling.

That was unfair on two fronts: first, their execution is so good that they mostly don’t need that player to succeed – one particular play in the second half saw the ball cycle round the three point line and make it to a cutting Shermadini open under the rim. The ball didn’t touch the floor until the Georgian slammed it home.

Secondly, they do have ‘that player’ – his name is Vladimir Micov. The young Serbian was everywhere in this game, driving, finishing, dishing, hitting threes, and can turn on the jets when he needs to.

It isn’t just him though –  Gianluca Basile is hitting shots from all over the floor with hands in his face while Giorgi Shermadini and even Denis Marconato can isolate  in the post – this team doesn’t always have to find the open shot and make a jumper, they just don’t need to force it very often.

Perkins Arrives, Cantu on the Cusp

If Doron Perkins, who won’t play this week, can get acclimated and hasn’t lost his explosiveness, this team could go all the way to the Final Four. They have a superb coach who can make in game adjustments, genuine chemistry, and the talent to take advantage of all of this.

[Read why Nick Gibson thinks Perkins is worth the risk for Cantu on Sheridan Hoops.]

It’s tempting to be excited about the emergence of Cantu and forget that it is still difficult to go to the Nokia Arena and win, unless you’re FC Barcelona.

Cantu only beat Zalgiris by one, and still need to go to Kaunas and win – the group is by no means settled. But Maccabi have problems, and not just with their point guards.

Motionless

David Blatt’s teams are known for their constant motion, but that had disappeared at the PalaDesio. Keith Langford’s penetration was to no effect if his path to the rim was blocked – several times he drove, dished to the corner but the off-the-ball movement was so lacking that it didn’t create a good look, and the ball was recycled back to the middle. For all his quickness and deft touch round the rim, Langford is not the playmaker that Jeremy Pargo was.

Last year, Maccabi got big contributions from David Blu and Guy Pnini hitting threes, but Pnini is mostly out of the rotation and Blu isn’t benefitting from the space that Pargo created.

It all comes back to the point guard position, which is why it makes sense to try to work around Papaloukas’ defensive shortcomings, at least for longer than five minutes per game. Perhaps Maccabi’s hectic schedule, which includes Euroleague and the Adriatic League, in addition to the Israeli League, is taking its toll and shortening practice time, particularly with the limited ability of the opposition in the latter two competitions, but they have not adjusted well since Farmar’s departure.

Looking Ahead

This week is a massive one for the Top 16, with several teams hanging onto qualification hopes that desperately need to win – Maccabi is one of those teams. Cantu could take a huge step towards the playoffs even with a narrow loss (anything under eight), but on last week’s evidence, it’s obvious they should go to Tel Aviv with no fear.

Rob Scott writes ‘Switching Screens’ every week. Follow him on Twitter @robscott33.