By: Rob Scott / @robscott33

Zeljko’s heroes

Panathinaikos survived a monumental defensive effort from Maccabi Tel Aviv to emerge from the Yad Eliyahu 78-69 winners and force a Game 5 in Athens. In a battle between Europe’s two heavy weight coaches, David Blatt appeared to be getting the upper hand over Zeljko Obradovic in terms of Xs and Os, but Obradovic’s team showed an almighty resolve to force their way over the finish line while Blatt’s men simply didn’t execute offensively when it mattered.

Maccabi started with Hendrix over Schortsanitis but PAO knocked the big Greek back to the bench shortly after he entered. Maccabi’s offence was based around isolations for Langford and Devin Smith posting up Calathes. Eliyahu added some trademark flips from the post, but generally Maccabi’s offense wasn’t varied. The difficulty for PAO was that they couldn’t stop Langford’s step back jumper or Smith’s power game. It bodes well for Maccabi that they could keep pace getting points the way they chose, whereas they did take PAO out of the way they wanted to score.

Flood of yellow

Defensively, Blatt stuck to a strong side flood match-up zone throughout most of the game and their rare lapses were in execution rather than instruction – although if Blatt told his men to stay under screens on Calathes, that was a huge mistake. It may have been a reaction to Calathes getting good penetration early on but he can certainly shoot when given time and proved it tonight.

Maccabi were playing 5 on 4 defensively, completely ignoring the shooter placed in the weakside corner, but their rotations were so crisp that they could get away with it.  They switched aggressively on screens but cut off the pass inside. Even when the likes of Langford and Mallet were switched onto Batiste or Vougioukas, PAO couldn’t force the ball inside to take advantage. In the way they used angles to do this they almost completely took PAO out of their offense for large parts of the game. It was as captivating to watch as PAO’s failure to breach the perimeter was visibly frustrating to Obradovic. Even Diamantidis earned his coach’s wrath for an out of control drive late in the game, but it was born of desperation. At that point, it seemed like PAO really would fumble away their double digit lead and with it their Final Four chances.

Vougioukas PAO-erful

In the first half, Vougioukas caused problems in the low post, drawing 5 fouls and sinking 6/6 from the line, but even this option was taken away in the second half as Maccabi doubled or even tripled the post but recovered so quickly.  PAO raced into an 11 point lead after halftime, the peak of their dominance coming on a rare occasion where they moved the ball quickly enough to beat the frantic Maccabi rotations, Smith burying a three ball from the corner.

Ohayon yanked too soon?

Yogev Ohayon has had a breakout series, after showing pockets of promise all season, and his aggression dragged Maccabi back into the game on a 9-0 run. He finished with 9 rebounds, crashing the offensive boards and muscling out Batiste and Smith to tip in the last of his 9 points. The other mystery of an otherwise masterful coaching night from Blatt was why his young prodigy sat for the final 9 minutes. As it has been since Jordan Farmar left, playmaking was Maccabi’s weakness. They recorded 1 assist on 14 made field goals in the first half, that solo dime coming during another Papaloukas cameo. This time it wasn’t difficult to see why Theo was left seated – PAO were completely ignoring him to double down in the post, and he didn’t, or wasn’t willing, to make them pay.

Make no mistake, from the point that Maccabi came out of their timeout and started their comeback, right until Kostas Kaimakoglu tumbled through the air for the tip in that put the Greens up 5 with 90 clicks left, PAO was foundering on offense and crucially was going one and done almost every time down the floor.

Game plan isn’t everything

Hendrix missed two free throws that would have cut the deficit to 3 with just over a minute to go, and bar some desperation fouls, that was the game. This is the essence of a five game series between two teams with expert coaches and veteran players – a game plan can only take you so far. Zeljko made some mistakes tonight, and so did his players, most notably Diamantidis and Batiste, who were both below their usual high standards. Despite crucial scoring and a nice shooting line, Saras stopped the ball and probably stayed on the floor too long, and PAO appeared tentative when faced with scaling the yellow defensive fortress surrounding the paint.

 

One thing that is never in doubt is the mental fortitude of a Zeljko team, and they needed it tonight. Game Five could be one for the ages. Expect another unmissable chess match from these two Grand Masters.

Rob Scott writes ‘Switching Screens’ every week for ELA. He also writes for Euro-step.net and The Basketball Post. Follow him on Twitter @robscott33.