By: Rob Scott / @robscott33

MADRID — Nikola Mirotic knew something was wrong. After a rough shooting night in Toronto on Monday, he couldn’t buy a jumpshot in the first half versus Panathinaikos.  Something was wrong with his release, his timing, he was missing badly.

Dimitris Diamantidis drilled a step back three in his face to close out the first half up nine, and nothing looked good for Real Madrid.

Struggling for touches and still without a field goal midway through the third quarter, Mirotic exploded through the air for a block, refusing to let his offensive struggle define this game. The fist pump that followed was defiant, an exhilarating relief of tension that spread through the rest of the team. Outscoring the Greens 50-34 in the second half, they took a huge step forward as a team with real championship ambition as they bested Panathinaikos 85-78.

Those who thought this Madrid team had only undergone minor alterations from last year should watch the second half of this game. Sure, Rudy was there last year, never really fitting in, awkwardly hanging around, like someone at a party checking their phone to see if there was somewhere else they should be. He’s in Madrid properly now, and this was a dominant performance of controlled aggression at both ends.

The other newcomers, Dontaye Draper and Marcus Slaughter, played near perfect games. Alright, Slaughter could do nothing to stop Sofoklis Schortsanitis, but in this mood, neither can anyone in Europe, and the Madrid frontline did eventually hassle him into six turnovers, even if they were just punctuation for his 23 points on 9/9 from the floor.

Draper has impressed so far this season with his shooting, but it was his five steals that broke the game away from the Greens. He only entered the game near the end of the second quarter, but by midway through the third he had already created several of the transition opportunities Madrid couldn’t find in the first half.

Madrid is known as an offensive team, but it was their second half defense that won this game. True, Sofo either scored or found the open man when doubled, but Slaughter and Mirotic were so good at switching out on screens that PAO couldn’t get anything going when the Big Man sat down, as he did after his fourth foul early in the final period.

Rudy opened the game by stealing the tip and racing in for a dunk, and by the time Marcus Slaughter had slammed down Real’s second emphatic alley-oop, they led 16-6 and Pedoulakis had already used a timeout. Sofo, Diamantidis and Tsartsaris brought PAO back into the game, and then back into the lead, and Real looked hungover not just from the opening burst but maybe from their North American trip. Once the threes stopped falling and transition opportunities dried up, Real’s half court offence was sluggish and poorly executed. Inertia in a slowed-down game is supposed to be this team’s fatal weakness, and so it seemed to be.

This is where the depth of this season’s team comes into play.

Draper created fast breaks, even used some incredible hang time to block a jumpshot. Slaughter drew fouls, stole the ball, generally covered every part of the floor.  The possession that ended with Mirotic’s momentum-shifting block began with Rudy hounding Roko Ukic with clinging ball pressure, and even small things like a soft half court trap repeatedly took seconds off the shot clock and left PAO scrambling to create something for anyone not wearing #21. Draper and Slaughter will be very difficult to run a side pick and roll against this season. At the other end they crowned the third quarter comeback with the ‘PNR’ of the week as Slaughter yammed again, finally rousing the crowd into some noise not directed at the referees.

The final quarter saw barely a minute in which Sofo had to sit down, and when Mirotic finally made a jumpshot, whilst being fouled, no less, the momentum shift was complete. The game came full circle as Rudy iced it at 81-74 with an off-balance runner inside ninety seconds, but what happened in between should please both teams. Madrid, in that they can come back from a deficit in a tough game on the back of energetic and committed defense. Panathinaikos, because Sofo looked as good as he has for at least a year, but more than that, they used his dominance to create and score from outside. They should be more competitive than some feared, or perhaps hoped.

Other Notes:

Mirotic showed great maturity in realising his shot was off, throwing himself around the rim and getting to the line 12 times on eight fouls. Madrid’s championship potential depends so much on developments like this. But also probably on not shooting 5/23 from three point range too often.

The referees were overly keen to whistle any kind of off-ball banging in the paint. An offensive foul was even called when Mirotic basically just made a slipped-screen, and both teams seemed frustrated. Hopefully just an early-season directive that will be forgotten as the weeks go on.

Hilton Armstrong had a night to forget, finishing on -6 ranking with three turnovers and three fouls in six minutes. Stephane Lasme should come in soon but PAO desperately need another athletic big. Sofo was great, but only played 19 minutes, despite the fact that nobody could guard him. That’s probably his ceiling, so Pedoulakis needs to re-up his front court.

Ukic took most of the ball handling duties when he was on the floor, with Diamantidis and Mike Bramos playing off the ball, and using a lot of post ups. This could have been a ploy to take advantage of Madrid’s small backcourt, but DD always seems more effective with the ball in his hands and it doesn’t make much sense to go away from this.

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