By Rob Scott / @robscott33
During two bursts of scoring in the first and third quarters, it looked like Maccabi Tel Aviv had figured out how to inflict a second successive Euroleague defeat on Real Madrid. Threes rained down, as they dropped 12-3 and 16-4 runs, but both were stopped abruptly once Marcus Slaughter and Dontaye Draper smothered the supply lines to those deadeye shooters. Such depth is one of the luxuries of being a big-budget team, but to see Draper and Slaughter as ‘reserves’ is to miss the point. They have a designed role to play, and they played it again last night, a safety net that makes winning a 40-minute battle against this team so difficult.
Coming off their first loss since Game Four of last season’s ACB Finals, via a blowout of Unicaja at the weekend, they passed a difficult test, not just by winning the game, but winning in an ugly, attritional conclusion. But there were still periods of the game that Maccabi dominated, giving Laso plenty to mull over.
When Maccabi were hitting threes, they looked unstoppable, but that fluid, undersized, transition and side pick and roll game gave way in a bogged-down fourth quarter. Pablo Laso’s concern could be measured in the fact that he brought Draper in early, in the second quarter rather than the third, and along with Slaughter he destroyed Maccabi’s ability to open up shots from the perimeter.
It’s a truism that basketball is a game of runs, and Madrid’s two momentum-changing periods were defensive, led by their pair of defensive playmakers, at least until Sergio Llull buried a pair of threes at crunchtime, scoring the final eight points that separated the teams.
Its hard to underestimate the difference in Real’s performance when Slaughter replaced Ioannis Bourousis, in both halves. The Greek centre has generally been a positive this season, but his display last night was a lethargic mess. Never the quickest, his feet moved as if the paint was made of molasses. Together with Draper, Slaughter stifled Maccabi’s use of ball screens, and even guarded Sofoklis Schortsanitis more effectively than Borousis.
Big Sofo has given Madrid problems in the past, notably with Panathinaikos last season in the opening game, his bulk causing a big bag of issues to a team whose best centre is 2.04m. Sofo finished with 15 points in 17:33 on the floor, including getting down the floor a few times to finish ahead of, yes, Bourousis.
Slaughter showed that matching force with force isn’t the only way to do it. Clever positioning and footwork can get Sofo out of sync, and Slaughter forced a couple of late turnovers using these tactics. Draper was his usual harrying, omni-positional nuisance to opposition ball handlers, and Madrid even forced turnovers with a three-quarter-court press that shouldn’t really work against elite teams.
When Draper and Slaughter combined to disrupt ball movement and handling, Rudy was often there to tip away errant passes, as well as his expanding repetoire of tip-outs, deflections and tight man-t0-man defense. Rarely has a player’s reputation for artistic entitlement concealed a game that gets more blue-collar by the week. Maybe it’s because he adds a flourish to his fundamentals. For one crucial defensive rebound in the final minutes he took off a fraction of a second earlier than anyone else, as if crashing in for a tip-dunk. It’s this sneaky basketball IQ - overshadowed by his tendency to operate outside the flow of an offense - combined with hangtime to match NBA stars, that allows him to be such a useful defender - when he wants to be.
At least last night, at the inevitable pause as he clutched his side, prostrate on the floor, few neturals would have minded if aggressor and victim swapped roles. The player who punched him as both lay on the floor? Guy Pnini.
Mirotic midseason blues
Nikola Mirotic started last season en fuego, then cooled off after Christmas. His Top 16 scoring average is down an even 10ppg, compared to 15.2ppg in the Regular Season. Five games is a small sample size, but his Top 16 shooting numbers are 36.4% inside the arc, 38.9% on threes, compared to 62% and an unseemly 64.3% in the Regular Season. Clearly the competition is fiercer in the Top 16, and his overall 8-for-22 on two-point field goals could be rectified by a couple of great shooting nights. It isn’t that he isn’t contributing - not least a block/foul at the rim on Schortsanitis in the final minute that set up Llull’s second three-pointer in transition to seal the game. But Madrid looked more effective with Reyes alongside Slaughter, and the Montengrin’s shooting needs to recover to a decent level as soon as possible.
Blatt’s patch up job
There were plenty of things that went right for Maccabi when Slaughter and Draper weren’t unleashing defensive havoc. Lacking a legitimate power forward all year, David Blatt has had to make-do-and-mend with Devin Smith and Joe Ingles along with a guy who used to be David Blu. Maccabi’s defense is based on switching everything, and Ingles was a really effective force switching out on screens and disrupting dribble penetration. It was a puzzle as to why he only saw five minutes in the second half.
Blatt is doing a phenomenal job to wring a 4-1 start to the Top 16 out of this group of players, spreading the floor with shooters, running clever side and corner pick and pops to get good three-point looks, using mobile, undersized fours to disturb opposition pick and roll, playing the Big Sofo card when needed and relying on Shawn James to erase points at the rim. He will be missed even more as the opposition gets better.