By: Rob Scott / @robscott33
Maccabi Tel Aviv could feel the proverbial wall roughing up their jerseys as their backs were firmly pressed against it. Needing to beat Bennet Cantu, at home, down by two after a lively first half in which they couldn’t box out Georgi Shermadini or stop Gianluca Basile’s three point barrage, it was time for David Blatt to earn his keep.
Ten minutes of basketball, no made field goals for Cantu, and 23-5 on the scoreboard later, Blatt could breathe a little easier. His Maccabi team had just unleashed a defensive performance that is unlikely to be matched this season, maybe not for the next few years.
Cantu did get some semi-open looks from the perimeter, but not wide open. Gianluca Basile doesn’t care if there’s a hand in his face, but unlike the first half, his shot wouldn’t drop.
Maccabi switched on most screens up top and the rotations behind were astonishingly quick and accurate, doubling the post and cutting off passing lanes. They played defense with a ferocious but controlled intensity, five men moving as one, a coach’s fantasy, at least a coach like David Blatt, who prizes defense above all.
When the the ball did beat the rotating big by a fraction of a second, the fouls came hard but honest, and all Cantu had to show for their efforts were free throws - 4/4 from Shermadini and 1/2 from Brunner.
By the last three minutes of the period, once Maccabi had started making shots at the other end, pushing the lead to double digits, Cantu’s guards were spooked. Forced into errors they don’t normally make, it was the first time during this Top 16 that they looked hesitant.
Five minutes into the second half, although Cantu had posted only two points, Maccabi had only five of their own, and it still very much game on. David Blu hit a turnaround in the post, Devin Smith drained a three, and the thumbscrews were turned a few more notches.
Cantu did try to mix things up, but nothing worked. Micov posted up the smaller Langford, but the American stood tall and wouldn’t be muscled out. Yogev Ohayon played manfully covering bigger opponents and Richard Hendrix showed his worth as more than a shot blocker by moving his feet quickly enough to switch out on the perimeter.
It seems strange that Maccabi have spent the past year trying to offload him to other teams – he started in place of Schortsanitis and is the perfect foil for the big Greek when the matchups don’t favour him, as was shown last week.
Leading by 16 going into the final period, there was still work to be done. The crucial head to head points difference was still up for grabs and when Markoishvili and Basile hit back to back threes and Basile sank three free throws to cut a 17 point lead to 8, the same as Cantu’s margin of victory last week, it was game on with five minutes remaining. As so often happens, the energ y exerted to chase down a huge lead petered out and left Cantu vulnerable, and Keith Langford’s stepback jumper followed by a layup plus the foul put the game to bed.
Looking Forward to Next Week
Maccabi survived, Cantu didn’t punch their ticket to the Top 8. Amazingly, as Frankie Sachs (@MrEuroleague - which isn’t bragging) pointed out on Twitter, none of the seven teams who could have clinched a playoff spot this week did so. Although Barcelona fears nobody – except Zeljko Obradovic – Cantu could still cause a minor upset at home next week. Playing Zalgiris these days is nobody’s gimme either, and then there’s the clash at Nokia Arena in week 6 between Maccabi and Barcelona. Like every Top 16 group there is still all to play for, and what a final two weeks it’s going to be. This is the last year we get this kind of drama, so make the most of it.