By Rob Scott / @robscott33
This was the first playoff pair to be confirmed, after Week 13, and it will guarantee at least one different participant in the Final Four, even if there’s a chance that it’ll be a return after a two-year hiatus for a perennial visitor over the past decade. The Euroleague marketing department must also have let out a sigh of relief, as either the hosts or one of the best supported clubs in the competition will guarantee no empty seats at the first tip.
On the court, this should be one of the closest matchups of this year’s playoffs. Maccabi’s offense is legitimately dangerous, with four shooters surrounding Alex Tyus or Sofoklis Schortsanitis. Big Sofo gets most of his touches in simple post up situations, where he can force a double team and kick out to waiting shooters. Tyus is the focus of a pick and roll attack that forces defenses to either help off shooters stationed round the perimeter, all able to hit threes over the closeout. Leaving an open lane through the paint is also out of the question, when Ricky Hickman and Tyrese Rice have rock in hand and rim in sight.
Conventional thinking would suggest this is a feast-or-famine approach, but the 14 games of the Top 16 is close to a reasonable basis to judge, and the ‘four factors’ don’t lie. Over this stage of the competition, only CSKA shoots a better effective field goal percentage, and Maccabi has the fourth lowest turnover rate. The other two factors betray their lack of height and perimeter attack: they recorded the Top 16’s worst offensive rebounding rate and get to the line at only a middling rate.
Minutes at the power forward position have been split between David Blu and Devin Smith, with guys like Joe Ingles and Guy Pnini even stealing time at the four, such is Blatt’s commitment to floor-spacing. This obviously hurts with rebounding, particularly at the offensive end, with one guy in the paint and four near the arc, but on the defensive end, Maccabi only gathered 66.6% of the other team’s missed shots, placing them near bottom feeders like Anadolu Efes and Partizan in the Top 16 ranks.
We’ve all heard the “modern game, smallball, pick and roll is everything, yadda yadda” truism that may be true up to a point. But when the other team has Keith Langford putting together an MVP campaign and the combination of bulk and nous in Gani Lawal, Samardo Samuels and Nicolo Melli crashing the offensive glass, it could take three games of damn-near miraculous shooting to give them a chance at victory.
Milano have Langford back and ready to go after a three-game absence, and he will be at the fulcrum of the offense, even more so now that Alessandro Gentile will miss the series with a leg injury. In Langford’s absence, Gentile stepped up with some dominant performances, and Milano will really miss his ability to break down a defense.
That responsibility now lies with a three-headed hydra of swaggy but serious guards – OK, Curtis Jerrells is only semi-serious, but that’s progress - who can all score from anywhere on the floor. Langford, Daniel Hackett and Jerrells hold the offense in their hands, particularly as Gentile’s replacements, likely to be more minutes for David Moss and Bruno Cerella, are finishers rather than creators. Langford should continue to get to the line at a seriously impressive rate, draw help and ensure that the void left by Gentile doesn’t swallow their chances.
On defense, Banchi has shown something of a preference for hard hedges in the pick and roll, which would be a mistake in this series, against a team with shooters on the weakside that you can’t help off. Maccabi are going to make threes, barring a shooting slump, but a more containing scheme, using the intelligence of Moss as a help defender, bridging between the paint and the arc, is less risky.
This could go down to a decisive fifth game, but Milano have the advantage in size, talent and depth, and that’s usually enough. If Langford can maintain his peak form, Lawal and Samuels take advantage of size and power advantage and Maccabi don’t set record for three-point shooting, we should be seeing the hosts in a Final Four for the first time since 2007.