By: Rob Scott / @robscott33
21.5. That was the average margin of victory across this week’s 12 Euroleague games. Take out Montepaschi Siena’s epic comeback win over Barcelona and it creeps up to 23.2. It was a week of blowouts, and the biggest thumping, in Tel Aviv, was handed out to a team that’s already qualified for the Top 16. By week nine, there are teams that cannot qualify, that have lost heart or whose owners have simply given up and cut costs (cough, Union Olimpija, cough). There were some extenuating circumstances for Spirou, who lost their leader Demond Mallet as he prepares for a possible move to Maccabi, and Efes in Tarence Kinsey’s continued absence through injury.
Exempt from this sympathy though, are teams that relied completely on NBA lockout deals. I’m looking at you, SLUC Nancy. The one thing everybody knew over the summer was that nobody knew how long that would last. After striking gold by winning the one-off French playoff final and being given the French share of TV money all to themselves thanks to Cholet and Asvel’s qualification round exit, they should have made more of this opportunity. Partizan Belgradeare another that put most of their eggs in a basket that had a return addressed stamped on the side.
Anadolu Efes have to take some blame here too, with Ersan Ilyasova central to their plans, although Kinsey’s presence would almost definitely have lessened the 39 point beasting they took from Maccabi. In any case, lockout or not, Ilyasova was leaving Istanbul after the Regular Season, and the team assembled around him has added up to less than the sum of its parts, despite a three game winning streak going into this week. Esteban Batista in particular has been a shadow of the player he was last year inVitoria. Also on the ex-Baskonista front, the nightmares Sofoklis Schortsanitis gave Stanko Barac last March have returned. It may be a long time before he can sleep soundly.
Real Madrid have gone in the other direction since losing their lockout rentals, as Nikola Mirotic has skipped a couple of stages of evolution in becoming the paramount stretch four in Europe, at least over the past two weeks. Serge Ibaka had a defensive presence that Madrid will miss in the later stages of the tournament, but the room to breathe given to Mirotic and Jaycee Carroll now that Ibaka and Rudy Fernandez are back Stateside has been impossible to ignore. I still think Madrid would have benefitted from Rudy’s creative brilliance in the long run, but at the moment Carroll is the more reliable scorer and is the perfect shooting guard for Pablo Laso’s rapid offense.
Three factors have combined to makeMadridthe pre-eminent offensive force of this year’s tournament. First, Sergio Rodriguez has turned into a reliable, creative playmaker who can push the ball in transition and be assertive without turning the ball over.
Secondly, this is not just in fastbreak opportunities. This week Madrid moved the ball with a quickness that didn’t allow Partizan to set up their halfcourt defense, always putting the defense into reactive mode, unable to exert any kind of influence or close down opportunities. Jaycee Carroll was born to play in this offense, as it creates jump shots and allows him to attack a rotating defense off the dribble rather than have to break down his man from a standing start. He showed last night that he isn’t just a catch and shoot player, looking like a young Steve Nash on one particular drive and dish. He has taken 5 threes per game, making them at an absurd 62.2%. While they both have outstanding qualities elsewhere, neither Ibaka nor Fernandez moved the ball quickly enough for the offense to flourish.
Thirdly, Nikola Mirotic. He did not mesh at all with Serge Ibaka, and his post game appeared to have gone into hiding – not so since Air Congo’s departure. Showing the full range of offensive skills, from the low post to the three point line, he has been unstoppable lately. Forget the Rising Star award, MVP might be in his sights. Related to this, Laso appears to have relented on Ante Tomic, although foul trouble kept him off the floor this week, 8 points in 9 minutes were scored with ease, as was the way in which he swatted a Dusan Kecman layup attempt. Milan Macvan troubled both the Madrid bigs in terms of fouls, but Tomic is so much more mobile than the Slovenian. Here, Nikola Pekovic was missed the most.
Maccabi Tel Aviv also lost the focal point of their offense to the NBA in Jordan Farmar, and they appear to be recruiting Demond Mallet from Spirou to replace some of what they lost, namely the ability to penetrate and move the ball. They put a 39 point beatdown on Efes largely of the back of hot shooting from David Blu and the dominance of Big Sofo and Richard Hendrix inside. Mallet will improve the team, without a doubt, and the lack of a playmaker last night was papered over by the weakness of the opposition.
Sofo shot 7/9 for 17 points in 19 minutes and Efes were only in the game when they hit threes in the first quarter. There was a lot of messy, one-on-one, and while Keith Langford might yet play the Doron Perkins role, Mallet has a lot to live up to in being the latest replacement for Jeremy Pargo. What hasn’t changed from last year’s team is the ability to mix styles according to the man in the middle, whether they pound inside to Sofo, or go smaller with Hendrix. It’s hard to project Maccabi as a Final Four team as it stands right now, and a lot rides on Mallet, if and when he arrives.