Tag Archives: Keith Langford

How Nizhny Novgorod Made The Top 16 and Why UNICS Didn’t

By Nick Flynt / @JailedFlynt

С Рождеством, С Новым Годом, и т.д.

If I’m here wishing you seasonal greetings in Russian, it must be close to Top 16 time in Euroleague. And although the match was settled a week ago, I’d like to discuss the two non-CSKA Russian teams that had a chance to make the Top 16. Let’s take a look at the narrow victory that sent a Taylor Rochestie-less Nizhny Novgorod team in over a UNICS Kazan team that, from my perspective, was an unfun watch that shamed themselves and all of those who believed in them. Alright, that might be taking it a bit far, but I was hoping for more from UNICS.

By the numbers, this was a showdown between one team that was mediocre on both sides of the ball who were missing their best offensive player: Nizhny Novgorod. On the other side, UNICS, with an offense built around one-on-one playmaking that had been around average among Euroleague teams, and more notably with a defense that managed to hold things down pretty nicely (five or so points above average in the Euroleague Regular Season after all was said and done).

D’Or Fischer over the course of 10 rounds managed to turn back a pretty decent amount of shots (and he’d do it again against Nizhny, with five blocks), as he’s done in the past. An aside on that - I always thought of Fischer’s blocks as more of a showy stat than representative of how effective he really was on off-ball D, but I’m being forced to re-think this. He still has trouble against legitimate bigs because he can be moved around - Parakhouski in this game would have pretty decent effort on 5-of-10 shooting against UNICS, as an example. But let’s move along.

Here’s the match-up as it looked entering the game: This thing is win-or-go-to-Eurocup for both teams (UNICS could have qualified even with a loss if Zalgiris went down, but they managed a win). Nizhny Novgorod is at home but without its ball-dominating point guard who also happens to be scoring 20 per game in Euroleague play on 50% two and three point shooting, and UNICS has been, by the numbers, the stronger team to this point in almost every way. I was not confident in a competitive game going in - this despite a narrow win over Anadolu Efes for Nizhny in round nine (also without Rochestie), but that was a low-scoring slugfest in which Efes missed 13 free throws. Meanwhile UNICS rode in on a 4 game winning streak, with narrow wins over Efes and Dinamo Sassari, and big wins on the road against Real Madrid and at home against Zalgiris Kaunas. Earlier losses in the season were close misses against Madrid and Efes, and only a six point loss to Nizhny when they still had Rochestie. So UNICS really has a lot going for them here, if one was going to make a prediction.

Nizhny stuck with the starting lineup from their last game against Anadolu Efes, with Dmitriy Khvostov taking over as starting point guard, and Trey Thompkins moving to a sixth man role off the bench, with heretofore little-used Georgian forward Levan Patsatsia (he replaced Will Daniels after round two) taking over as starter. However, Thompkins would maintain his 25 minutes per game average and Patsatsia would only play 10.5 minutes, so let’s not make too much of this. UNICS had no changes to their usual setup — heavy minutes for starters Langford-Zisis-White-Kaimakoglou-Fischer, with guard Curtis Jerrells as the only bench player to get more than 10 minutes (he’d finish 10 seconds short of 19 minutes played) — filling in mainly for Zisis, or in the three-guard lineup sans White.

Solid defense on the season from UNICS or no, this would end up being an efficient scoring affair for Nizhny — around 116 points per 100 possessions.  UNICS would end up at around 110 points per 100 (average for this Euroleague Regular Season was ~106). But this was while including about 12 combined points at the end of the game when both teams were handing out points via the foul/just-don’t-give-up-threes game. There was also a desperation 3 that fell for Jerrells that meant nothing (as the buzzer sounded it made it a 4 point game from 7). Things weren’t always sloppy, but they weren’t exactly clean either. Anyway, to the details.

UNICS, particularly early on, played a pretty aggressive defense, trapped a lot when possible against on-ball screens and forced some early turnovers (not usual for them this season, in terms of turnover production). After early jitters, though, Nizhny would settle in and end up with only nine turnovers on the night. After one quarter, things were going about as one might have predicted — 11 points scored for Nizhny on a lot of bad shots and an eight point lead for UNICS with Keith Langford hitting a few tough looks and generally easily penetrating and probing the lane, if not always with the result of a good look.

In the second period the offenses heated up some, and a couple of boneheaded plays to close the half by UNICS. A foul 30 feet from the basket led to Khvostov going 1-of-2 from the foul line, then a backcourt violation led to a drive and foul - two made free throws for Thompkins - meant instead of a 10 or 12 point lead for UNICS, Nizhny would trail going into halftime by only 7. In a game that would come down to the final minute, this was obviously big. Nizhny was still having occasional trouble on offense, but they showed a little more patience beating overextended UNICS D, and also simply hit a couple more open shots. Baburin and Khvostov helped make up for a 1-of-7 night from Antonov when all was said and done. On the other end, UNICS was getting the usual tough shots from Langford (and a few from Jerrells and James White) to fall. D’or Fischer had notably been quiet — middle pick-and-rolls with him setting screens allowed Parakhousi and co. to recover and force him to pass, or put up jumpers only over a strong contest. It might have been a better option to go to the side-pick-and-roll, or use him on the baseline and force his man to help on rolls. Either way, he was probably hit on the hand on one or two closeouts, and he earned a technical arguing as much.

In the second half, things would be similar, but another bad close to a quarter would put UNICS up against the wall, and from there so many Langford tough shots that had been going in would fail to fall, and Nizhny would end up advancing to the Top 16. I don’t want to breeze over the details of play too much, but really this was one of those games that goes to show you how much luck can play a part in these games — for every solid defensive play leading to a runout basket, or series of three or four passes leading to an open look, there were quite a few of these carrying UNICS’s offense:

And when those weren’t going down, it seemed like Nizhny got their share of lucky breaks, or if not that then UNICS was handing out a few points here or there at the end of quarters (as mentioned) through bad fouls or a careless turnover or two. This play is a great example of pretty good hustle on defense, but no one put a body underneath on Antonov. A combination of luck and lack of attention to detail that hurt UNICS in a tight game:

And sometimes there’s just a flat-out bailout shot that falls: here’s Khvostov, who had a pretty good game even if it’s obviously not possible to replace Rochestie’s offense.

As expected, Thompkins (17 points on 17 plays) and Tarence Kinsey (23 points on 18 plays) were asked to shoulder the offensive load. Kinsey did some solid work breaking down the defense, either looking to drive on Kaimakoglou or working against the smaller Langford at times and shooting over the top.

Anyway, you get the idea. Nizhny slipped into the Top 16 with a four point win over UNICS Kazan. Rochestie should be back by their first game against Milan, but who knows how close to one hundred per cent he’ll be. That means even more pressure on Trey Thompkins and Tarence Kinsey (and maybe a return to notability for a struggling Semyon Antonov), and while both played well against UNICS and have done well offensively on the season, obviously Nizhny is going to need Rochestie at a high level if they want to be close to competitive in the Top 16.

As for UNICS, I can only imagine the damage Fischer (13.1 points per game — he scored an astronomical 1.30 PPP in Euroleague. So far this year he has been the midrange shooter’s answer to Steph Curry) and Langford are going to do against even upper level Eurocup competition. Unless of course they continue to lean too heavily on Langford and start to suffer similar beatings as the one they were handed by Khimki in VTB league play on December 22nd (80-56 on the road).

And that does it for this update. Next time around we’ll take a look at how CSKA and Nizhny are managing in the Top-16.

Notes From Oostende: Euroleague Qualifying Round Semi-Finals

By: Sam Meyerkopf / @HoopLikeDrazen

For the next few days ELA is stationed in Oostende, Belgium for the Euroleague Qualifying Round. Check back everyday for notes on the action going on as teams from across Europe fight for that last precious Euroleague spot.

Day One Notes 

Day Two Notes 

Game One: ASVEL Lyon 74 - Strasbourg 65

Game Two: Unics Kazan 82 - Hapoel Jerusalem 71

Unics’ Second Half

After so much one on one play through a game and a half, Unics finally came out in the second half versus Jerusalem and played some real offensive basketball.  With a lineup of Nikos Zisis - Keith Langford - James White - Kostas Kaimakoglou - D’or Fischer the Russian team moved the ball around, got warm from deep, and played a much more engaged and team oriented brand of basketball.

Jerrells the Dribble King

Curtis Jerrells was an over-dribbling and one on one shooting machine in the first half, similar to the day before.  He just tried to break his man off the dribble seemingly every time down and then would pass out of necessity if that didn’t work.  When you’ve got a bunch of talented players making a lot of money like Unics’ does, you can’t expect them all to be fully engaged when Jerrells is trying to take over the game himself and they rarely touch the ball.  That lineup to start the second half shared the rock and everyone was involved on offense, which made the team energy level go up, and the focus on defense tightened.

Feed Fischer

D’or Fischer is a mid-range assain.  He has a high shot release and it’s really hard to get a hand up there to contest once he gets rolling.  Finally with Zisis running the point he got more involved and went 8/9 for the game for 18 points and hit short corner jumper after jumper.  His intensity level on defense and hustling to get back on defense were much more noticeable once Fischer started getting touches on offense.  You can’t expect all 6’10” and 240 lbs of Fischer to get up and down the court quickly if it’s to watch one of his guards dribble around forever and put up a tough contested shot.  Big man needs to eat and they finally fed him in the second half.

James White’s Strange Attitude

James White has quite the on-court attitude.  Every referee call against Unics seemed like someone told him his birthday would be canceled this year.  He was even jabbering with some of his teammates.  He always looked angry and almost disappointed in a way. He already doesn’t play with the activity level they need from the wing position and an attitude like that can catch up to a team as the season goes on.  Unics looks good when they are winning but still can’t be sure how they team will do when they face adversity.

No Russians

No Russians played much for Unics.  Sergey Bykov Petr Gubanov, and Dmitry Sokolov all played just three minutes each.  Smart shooting role player Valeriy Likhodey didn’t play at all.  I don’t know how this will affect team chemistry but a team where none of the locals play could cause problems in the locker room or even on the court and Coach Pedaloukis needs to figure out which Russians can fit into his rotation.

Asvel Out-Shoots Strasbourg

In the all-French battle Asvel took down Strasbourg with a great shooting fourth quarter.  Asvel has a ton of individual offensive talent and while they don’t really play well together or as a team yet, they get by on everyone’s ability to shoot.

Taurean Green had four triples while Travis Bader and David Lighty each had three.  David Anderson and Edwin Jackson are also both serious threats from deep.  Asvel relies heavily on their three point shooting and fast breaking ability.  They don’t run a lot of half court offense but rely on their players to get out in transition and work the ball around the perimeter enough in the half-court until someone finds an open shot.

Notes From Oostende: Euroleague Qualifying Round Day Two

By: Sam Meyerkopf / @HoopLikeDrazen

For the next few days ELA is stationed in Oostende, Belgium for the Euroleague Qualifying Round. Check back everyday for notes on the action going on as teams from across Europe fight for that last precious Euroleague spot.

Day One Notes

Game One: Hapoel Jarusalem 94 - CEZ Nymburk 84

Game Two: UNICS Kazan 90 - Stelmet Zielona Gora 86

The Great American Shoot-Off

Steven Burtt, Gora: 30 Points
Keith Langford, UNICS: 22 Points
Curtis Jerrells, UNICS: 22 Points

Between the three American guards they put up 74 points Wednesday night in Oostende.  The game turned into a one on one showcase with Burtt trying to break his man down off the bounce and then Langford or Jerrells taking turns trying to answer on the other end.  In no way would this be considered good, solid, offensive basketball but these three put on quite the show.  In the early season when players are still getting used to each other and offensive plays and principles have not yet been totally established, the American scoring guard going one on one reigns supreme.

UNICS Rosters Holes: Center and Small Forward

While UNICS Kazan surely put together the most expensive roster at the Qualifying Tournament, there are still some holes on the team.  The center rotation of D’Or Fischer and Dmitry Sokolov looked old and slow at times versus Gora.  Neither guy is very nimble at defending ball screens on the perimeter and both didn’t box out nearly enough on the defensive end when Gora would just out-energize them for tip-ins. Fischer can still protect the rim and finish on offense but asking him to play 30 minutes is just too much, his minutes need to be conserved.  With Sokolov dropping entry passes left and right, UNICS might need to find a more dependable back up post player.

On the wing James White started at small forward.  In 23 minutes he had three points, ZERO rebounds, and a couple of steals.  His activity level was incredibly low. With scorers like Jerrells and Langford around, a really active wing who will seriously buckle down on defense would have made sense to pair with them.  White is known for his athleticism and scoring to a degree but at almost 32 years old, I’m not sure what he brings them.

In the second half Coach Pedoulakis went with a lineup of Kostas Kaimakoglou and Viktor Sanikidze at the forward spots for long stretches.  It was the smart move, as we all know Sanikidze can supply a lot of energy and was up for guarding Gora’s wing players.

But with the Great American Shoot-Off going on the game could have gone either way and UNICS will need to clear up these roster problems with more creative lineups over the next couple days and possibly even another signing if they make the Euroleague.

Jerusalem: All Offense, No Defense

It’s early and defense is a continuity thing so Jerusalem could have a solid basket preventing unit come later on in the season but they were not up to the task so far in Oostende.  The biggest problem seemed to be interior defense.  At the power forward spot they have Lior Eliyahu and Tony Gaffney who are both much more offensively talented players.  Eliyahu is a known negative on defense and Gaffney is a jump-aholic who brings good energy but has also only been with the team a couple of weeks and wasn’t solid enough yet defensively.

At the center spot Joseph Jones and Yaniv Green were really not up to the task of defending the rim.  While Jones can hit a turnaround jumper or finish on offense he had really trouble providing any rim protection on defense.  Jones was also a little but of late signing like Gaffney so he needs time to get comfortable with his teammates and learn the system but he was really hurting the team in the middle on defense.  A guy that big should be able to contest more shots and provide an interior presence and Jones was far from doing that on Wednesday night.

Derwin Kitchen did use his active hands to provide good defense at the top of the key and Donta Smith and Bracey Wright both cared a heavy load offensively but they’ll all need to come together on defense to corral UNICS’ shot-happy guards.

No Derek Raivio or Garrett Stutz

Two of Nymburk’s import signings didn’t play at all in the game.  Raivio is a super experienced shooting point guard and Stutz is an up and coming big man.  Both could have been really useful, especially Raivio as Nymburk had a real need for another playmaker.  Both could have been injured but they warmed up with the team, looked fine in warmups, but then didn’t get any floor time.  Not sure what was up but in a do or die game and it was strange not see them get in at all.

Euroleague Playoff Preview: EA7 Milano vs Maccabi Tel Aviv

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.

Back in Fashion: Milano on the Up and Looking Forward to May

By Rob Scott / @robscott33

Going into the Top 16 it was tempting to suggest that the 2014 Final Four would be played by the same teams as 2013’s. Three of those also contested the 2012 edition. I would say this exclusive party could be gatecrashed this year, but how can it be gatecrashed by the host? EA7 Emporio Armani Milano are free and clear in second spot in their group after beating the defending champions 88-86 Thursday night, in Piraeus. It the players resisted the temptation on the flight home to imagine an after-party at Giorgio’s place, it’s difficult for the observer not to wonder what a Final Four would feel like with the hosts involved on the court.

In the post-Suproleague era, i.e. 2002 onwards, there hasn’t been a Final Four without at least two of CSKA Moscow, Maccabi Tel Aviv, FC Barcelona or Panathinaikos. Partizan Belgrade in 2010 was the last ‘first-timer’ in this era, and you have to go back to the early 00s and the ghosts of Italian hoop history to find names that don’t repeat throughout the decade as Finalists: Skipper and Kinder Bologna, Benetton Treviso – we can only hope Montepaschi Siena does not become another one of these spectres of past glory. Unicaja Malaga was the other one-time interloper, and the best days of TAU Ceramica seem long gone.

Langford and Italy, perfectly suited

If Milano does manage to become a new name carved into the Euroleague honours board, it will largely be off the back of a player with a link to those heady days of Italian prominence. Keith Langford was MVP as Virtus (formerly Kinder) Bologna won the Eurochallenge in 2009 - the brash, confident scoring machine out of the University of Kansas, like so many smaller, hawkish guards toiling in the D-League, caught in the trap of NBA orthodoxy – “too small for the two, not really a playmaker” – finally settling into his destiny as a volume scoring vessel in Europe. He now leads Euroleague in the accumulating categories of Index Rating at 19.37 ,and points per game at 17.63.

After a trial year in Italy with Soresina in 2006/7 led to the briefest of two-night stands in San Antonio, a final banishment to the D-League sent him back to Italy with a point to prove. That 2007/8 season in Bologna promised European stardom, the reward a lucrative deal with one of the continent’s neophyte money-trees, Khimki Moscow.

Things turned sour after two years in Moscow Region. A season as designated ball-hog in Tel Aviv shaped Langford’s reputation as a one-dimensional dominator of possessions, able to accumulate only for himself, with little benefit to the team cause. Winning the Adriatic League in 2012 was the least Maccabi expected for that campaign, although they took Panathiniakos to five games in the Eurolegue playoffs.  Heading to Milano as they attempted to buy their way into the Euroleague oligarchy did little to sway the nay-sayers.

That Milano team with Richard Hendrix, Ioannis Bourousis, Malik Hairston, Gianluca Basile and Omar Cook alongside Langford slumped to a miserable 3-7 record in the Regular Season with Sergio Scariolo at the helm. It was year two of a caricatured attempt to build a winner by accumulating glitzy names, with no attention paid to the structural engineering of successful teams.

That two-year running-joke coincided with unglamorous neighbours Cantu winning the admiration of the hoops intelligentsia, as their lower-budget operation came within a balletic Juan-Carlos Navarro head-jerk from making the playoffs in 2012. The banner at PalaDesio read ‘MILANO IS FASHION, CANTU IS DEVOTION’ and it was easy to nod along with the message.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, then, to see Milano finally threatening to join the elite not by throwing more money at more players who have succeeded elsewhere, but by copying the blueprint, and taking a couple of key players, from the small-town team that dominated Italian basketball over the last decade.

Banchi the man for this era

That Luca Banchi should have found himself in charge at Montepaschi Siena in 2012 was a symptom of the crisis that has engulfed the financial institutions at the heart of municipal capitalism in Europe since the end of this century’s first decade. Siena is a factory town, except the factory is the oldest surviving bank in the world, which recently made the kind of disastrous bets on derivatives that Milano made on big-name players. The assistant coach to Simone Piannigianni throughout Siena’s domestic domination had low expectations. The club that was literally bankrolled in the noughties had to make do with substantially less.

A stripped-down, austerity-era Siena bravely made the Top 16 last season and threatened to slip through all the way to a playoff series before Bobby Brown’s luck - and mid-range percentage – evaporated and they finished below the line. Despite the haircut to the team’s budget, they still managed their seventh successive Lega A championship.

The Banchi plan remains clear – space the floor even from positions one to five at times, to allow space for quick, fearless guards to attack the rim, and if you miss from deep just take the same shot next time. It’s a team ethos in which players with the talent to run ISO offense have the licence, as long as they operate within the overarching structure. Transplanted to a bigger budget, with better players, this collection of principles has translated into a burgeoning culture of winning.

From being a one-way player who pounds the ball only looking to score, Langford has been transformed. Finally, he has learned that facilitating others is not only better for the team, but creates a positive feedback loop in which he has more space to score.

The need to guard the three-point line so closely with shooters like Curtis Jerrells, David Moss and Kristian Kangur means Langford can go one-on-one with his man and either get to the rim, where he scores and/or picks up foul after foul, or shake him off and step back for the three.

He makes unassisted field goals from everywhere on the court at a rate way above average – none more striking than the audacious stepback three over Evangelos Mantzaris that sealed the win in Piraeus. Mantzaris is one of the finest on-ball defenders in the European game, and did everything possible to stand his ground against Langford, but still the ball swished through the net from 8 metres out.

Dramatic improvement, déja vu?

The improvement in Milano’s form since the end of the Regular Season has been dramatic – they qualified with a 5-5 record but sit at 6-3 in the second phase. Two players have been added since the season began. Gani Lawal arrived in Week Five, and immediately began cleaning the glass on the offensive end with ferocity. The real big addition was Daniel Hackett, who joins Banchi, Kangur and Moss in the Siena-alumni section of the locker room. There was a collective disappointed shrug when the most highly-prized recruit of the Christmas interlude chose to remain in Italy, but his and Lawal’s contribution to the Top 16 has drawn comparisons to the impact of Acie Law and Joey Dorsey at Olympiacos in 2012.

Even though their ability to make dramatic shots grabs attention, it’s on the defensive side of the ball that Milano’s quality is more statistically demonstrable. They have the Top 16’s best defensive rating and have limited opponents to the third lowest field goal percentage, behind only FC Barcelona and Olympiacos.

A red flag even bigger than the ones waved by the Olympiacos ultras is their third-from-bottom defensive rebound percentage. Neither Samuels nor Lawal counts this as a skill – perhaps their success on the offensive glass comes from knowing the tendencies of bad defensive rebounders? The ‘eye test’ says that this balance between offense and defense could easily be reversed though – this is a team that can make shots against anyone, but can they come up with a crucial defensive rebound when they really need it?

The other knock on this team was the extreme discrepancy between their home and road records. Going into the Olympiacos game they had beaten only Brose Baskets Bamberg on their travels, posting a 1-7 record, whilst only losing once at home, a narrow reverse to Real Madrid for a 9-1 slate. By showing that they go into a place like the SEF and not only win, but battle from 13 points down in the first quarter, they took a huge step forward into the ranks of the contenders.

The difference between Banchi’s Siena squad and this one is that it has players other than David Moss who are committed to playing defense. Moss is a one-man defensive anchor, sliding into passing lanes, disrupting ball movement with his long arms, recovering on the back line in Banchi’s preferred alignment of having the power forward hedge hard on ball-screens. Moss’ defensive role is key at the end of games. In addition, his ability to knock down spot-up threes means that keeping Alessandro Gentile on the bench doesn’t hurt the offense, with Langford, Hackett and Jerrells all able to create their own shot.

High fashion with a blue collar

Milano is a giant of the sport’s history, winning the Euroleague three times, and a further six continental titles of one kind of another. The team is owned by a company that brings in over a billion dollars of revenue each year. The era in which teams from Bologna, Vitoria-Gastiez and Siena could sit at the top table, without the backstop of a huge football club or a nationwide fanbase might be over, but at least Milano is succeeding not by throwing millions of euros at name-brand players.

It should perhaps be instructive for other teams with Final Four aspirations that they are finding success with an intelligently assembled roster under a low-profile coach, with role players like Bruno Cerella and Nicolo Melli who carry out the simple blue-collar elements of the game. The ostentatious, conspicuous consumption of the Scariolo era seems to be over.

This could all be premature - their struggles on the road could return, they could slip to third in the group and face a playoff series against CSKA Moscow or Real Madrid. They could lose to Maccabi over five games, though it seems like they would be the big favourites. But even the prospect of a newcomer in recent terms to the Final Four is exciting enough to create a sense of eager anticipation, and in the year that they host, the timing could not be better.

Who Will Win Game 5 in Athens: Maccabi Electra or Panathinaikos?

By: Sam Meyerkopf and Rob Scott

Win or go home.  Live or die.  Final Four or think about next season.  The Euroleague gods have granted us a deciding Game 5 between Panathinaikos and Maccabi Electra.  Athens will be going bonkers with excitement as the reigning champs attempt to win one more home game to advance to Istanbul.  Two teams, two writers, and two different opinions.

Why Maccabi Electra Will Win

By: Sam Meyerkopf

Not too many people thought that we would be here, Game 5 in Athens with Maccabi still having hope of making the Final Four. Not after Panathinaikos crushed the soles of Maccabi in the opening game, making the Israeli squad looking like they didn’t belong in the Playoffs.  Maccabi has fought harder and played tougher these last few games, and Panathinaikos barely squeezed out a Game 4 win in Tel Aviv, to bring us here.

Greater ball movement will be key for a Maccabi victory.  With only five assists total as a team last game and most of the offense in the second half becoming Keith Langford isolations, David Blatt will have to draw up something better.  With a full week to game plan for Panathinaikos, Blatt should come up with much better sets, especially since lead guard Yogev Ohayon is playing so well.  The Maccabi perimeter players, most notably Langford, Devin Smith, and Ohayon have been playing so many minutes recently, it really took a toll in Game 4.  An entire week to rest will give Maccabi an advantage over Panathinaikos whose deeper depth would of had a larger advantage the sooner Game 5 began.

Ohayon and Langford will be dribble penetrating frequently, creating more open look for guys like David Blu and Smith, who combined to go 0/9 from three land last game, after going 10/19 the previous three matchs.  The offense was stiff and stagnant, leading to fade-away jumpers and too much one on one offense for Maccabi players to be effective.  Expect everyone to be rested and ready to run at Panathinaikos on Thursday.

The largest x-factor, and this is pretty much the biggest one you can get, is Sofoklis Schortsanitis.  He has been putrid this series averaging five points and one rebound, going scoreless last game.  A huge game isn’t even necessary for Sofo, just a few spurts of productive minutes.  He needs to get some fouls on Mike Batiste, make Panathinaikos players think about him so shooting lanes open up, and for the sake of everyone watching, not turn the ball over at an unprecedented clip (12 turnovers in 4 games).  You’re back home in Greece Sofo, you don’t want to disappoint.

Defensively Maccabi needs to slow down the power forward combo of Kostas Kaimakoglou and Steven Smith.  Both have caused problems for Maccabi, with Richard Hendrix usually playing with a really small lineup and having to defend the entire paint on his own.  If Sofo steps up it will allow Hendrix to slide over to the four spot and create more havoc against the Panathinakos duo.  It would even be wise for Blatt to unleash Shawn James at center a little more to allow Hendrix to concentrate on the other power forwards.

If Dimitris Diamantidis has a game like he did in Game 1, Maccabi is toast, but getting hands in shooters faces like Diamantidis and overall guard play has been a strong suit since then for the team from Tel Aviv.  Panathinaikos seems to have just enough cracks for Maccabi to attack them, but with Zeljko Obradovic, Diamantidis, and Sarunas Jasikevicius on the other side, Maccabi will have to play some level best basketball to make it to Istanbul.

Why Panathinaikos Will Win

By: Rob Scott

Who will win on Thursday? Panathinaikos or Maccabi Tel Aviv? Hell, I don’t know. Nobody does. But I think it’s more likely Panathinaikos will win, for a number of reasons. One is just an instinctive aversion to betting against a team coached by Zeljko Obradovic, particularly with homecourt advantage. But giving that as the sole reason would be a cop out.

There are much better reasons to suppose Panathinaikos have the upper hand. The main one is that in terms of the depth, talent and balance of the rosters, this series should not be 2-2. The fact that it is, is mostly down to David Blatt’s defensive scheming. His policy of constant switching has more or less taken Panathianikos out of their offensive comfort zone.

But towards the end of Game 4 it felt like this smoke and mirrors solution to Obradovic’s relentless pick and roll attack, might have evaporated. PAO looked frustrated that Mike Batiste was being guarded by the likes of Devin Smith and even Keith Langford and they couldn’t capitalize, but it would be naive to think, with a full week to prepare, that Zeljko won’t have figured out a way to get the ball inside, or if not then to forcefully attack with dribble penetration, wearing down Maccabi’s resistance as the game goes on.

Maccabi has concentrated on preventing outside shots and stopping the ball finding the areas of the floor the defense has ignored – I don’t think that can continue to happen in one of the most challenging environments in basketball. If that turns out to be true, and scoring goes up to the 80s or beyond, I can see PAO running away from Maccabi like they did in Game 1. Only Devin Smith and Ohayon have really shone for Maccabi offensively – Keith Langford has put up points but only in Game 2 was it really useful for the team, Big Sofo has been a non-factor against PAO going back to last year’s final and Obradovic’s collection of giants – Batiste, Vougioukas and Maric know they have the upper hand. All of this adds up to a victory for the home team and a potential final against Olympiakos. Who could possibly root against that?

Is Theo The One?

By: Rob Scott / @robscott33

Halfway through the Euroleague Top 16 and we have had some big surprises, which perhaps should not have been so surprising after all. Bennet Cantu, sitting at 2-1 in Group H after convincingly beating Maccabi Tel Aviv at home, qualify on both counts.

That game was probably the best game of the competition so far in terms of drama and context – Maccabi are in serious trouble, and in all likelihood have to beat Cantu at home this week to stay in the competition. While Nokia Arena provides a formidable homecourt advantage, there are problems with the team that cannot be overcome by atmosphere alone. Cantu exploited the weaknesses in Maccabi’s roster and gameplan to take a deserved victory.

Problems at the Point

Since Jordan Farmar returned Stateside, David Blatt has shuttled through ball handlers without settling on any one of them. In the first half last week, Theo Papaloukas started, and provided three characteristically accurate passes in the first five minutes – two were converted, Eliyahu muffed a layup on the other. But that promising 4 minutes, 41 seconds was as much of a look as Theo was allowed.

There has been some discussion of his defensive lapses around the blogosphere as justification for his lack of playing time. But over the rest of the first half, after watching Keith Langford turn the ball over three times attempting to run a pick and roll, Yogev Ohayon’s unwillingness to shoot unless forced at gun point, and Tal Burstein’s cameo appearance, it seems difficult to justify limiting one of Europe’s finest playmakers to such a short spell, no matter how bad his defense is.

One name not mentioned above is the guy Blatt signed, in theory, to replace Farmar. Demond Mallet did hit a couple of big threes, and zipped a nice pass to Richard Hendrix, who had his layup attempt stuffed.

That was more or less it.

He had struggled in the Barcelona game to run the offense efficiently, but surely the answer to a shaky game against the competition’s best defensive team is not to banish him to spot duties at the two spot. Keith Langford did bail himself out of some broken plays as ballhandler, but he is clearly not a point guard and shouldn’t be cast in the role.

Trinchieri Doubles Down

Maccabi looked out of ideas once Trinchieri ordered his men to double Sofoklis Schortsanitis on the catch. Big Sofo caused havoc in the first half, scoring six of Maccabi’s first eight points and forcing Denis Marconato to the bench with two fouls. He only scored two more points after that.

The cleverness of the double team was that it didn’t always come from the same place – mostly from the baseline but also from the middle, and Sofo isn’t instinctive enough a passer to find the open man, particularly if he’s not sure where the open spot will be. Some centres like Mike Batiste and Lazaros Papadopalous can almost run an offense from the low block - Sofo isn’t one of them. It took too long to attempt to feed anyone else in the post, and when they did, Hendrix and Eliyahu had some success.

Flawless Execution

As for Cantu, they are proving people wrong almost weekly. Eventually, they have to be taken seriously as a playoff team, and that time has definitely arrived. Earlier in the competition, for all their organisation and flawless execution on offense, I doubted whether they had anyone who could ‘make bad shots’ or get to the rim when the jumpshots weren’t falling.

That was unfair on two fronts: first, their execution is so good that they mostly don’t need that player to succeed – one particular play in the second half saw the ball cycle round the three point line and make it to a cutting Shermadini open under the rim. The ball didn’t touch the floor until the Georgian slammed it home.

Secondly, they do have ‘that player’ – his name is Vladimir Micov. The young Serbian was everywhere in this game, driving, finishing, dishing, hitting threes, and can turn on the jets when he needs to.

It isn’t just him though -  Gianluca Basile is hitting shots from all over the floor with hands in his face while Giorgi Shermadini and even Denis Marconato can isolate  in the post – this team doesn’t always have to find the open shot and make a jumper, they just don’t need to force it very often.

Perkins Arrives, Cantu on the Cusp

If Doron Perkins, who won’t play this week, can get acclimated and hasn’t lost his explosiveness, this team could go all the way to the Final Four. They have a superb coach who can make in game adjustments, genuine chemistry, and the talent to take advantage of all of this.

[Read why Nick Gibson thinks Perkins is worth the risk for Cantu on Sheridan Hoops.]

It’s tempting to be excited about the emergence of Cantu and forget that it is still difficult to go to the Nokia Arena and win, unless you’re FC Barcelona.

Cantu only beat Zalgiris by one, and still need to go to Kaunas and win – the group is by no means settled. But Maccabi have problems, and not just with their point guards.


David Blatt’s teams are known for their constant motion, but that had disappeared at the PalaDesio. Keith Langford’s penetration was to no effect if his path to the rim was blocked – several times he drove, dished to the corner but the off-the-ball movement was so lacking that it didn’t create a good look, and the ball was recycled back to the middle. For all his quickness and deft touch round the rim, Langford is not the playmaker that Jeremy Pargo was.

Last year, Maccabi got big contributions from David Blu and Guy Pnini hitting threes, but Pnini is mostly out of the rotation and Blu isn’t benefitting from the space that Pargo created.

It all comes back to the point guard position, which is why it makes sense to try to work around Papaloukas’ defensive shortcomings, at least for longer than five minutes per game. Perhaps Maccabi’s hectic schedule, which includes Euroleague and the Adriatic League, in addition to the Israeli League, is taking its toll and shortening practice time, particularly with the limited ability of the opposition in the latter two competitions, but they have not adjusted well since Farmar’s departure.

Looking Ahead

This week is a massive one for the Top 16, with several teams hanging onto qualification hopes that desperately need to win – Maccabi is one of those teams. Cantu could take a huge step towards the playoffs even with a narrow loss (anything under eight), but on last week’s evidence, it’s obvious they should go to Tel Aviv with no fear.

Rob Scott writes ‘Switching Screens’ every week. Follow him on Twitter @robscott33.

Thursday Picks: Keith Langford And Maccabi Do Battle With Barcelona

By: Sam Meyerkopf & Nick Gibson

What a wild and crazy Wednesday we had.

Neither of us saw Wednesday’s Panathinaikos debacle coming and that tricky Group F did a number on us as well, but we both found ways to finish 4-2 in yesterday’s picks.

Just two games today, and they should be good ‘uns.

Galatasaray (0-1) vs. Olympiacos (0-1)

Sam: In 2-3 weeks Olympiacos will be rolling once they figure out how to totally integrate all of their new parts. For now, Galatasaray is going to make them play ugly, slow-it-down basketball, and that is going to tear the Reds apart. Galatasaray.

Nick: I need to see Galatasaray beat a legitimate Euroleague team (See: Not Union Olimpija or Asseco Prokom) before I buy in. Against an Olympiacos squad whose toughness can be underrated, I think the Turks will have a difficult time imposing their will. The crowd noise is Galatasaray’s greatest advantage, clearly, but Vassilis Spanoulis has played—and excelled—in more raucous conditions. Olympiacos.

Maccabi Electra (1-0) vs. Barcelona Regal (1-0)

Sam: This one is sure to be a dousy and might have serious implications on who will finish first in the group.  Teams have started to figure out Barcelona a bit, and the team is secretly craving some Juan Carlos Navarro shooting wizardry as soon as possible.  With Navarro supposedly playing, the Maccabi guards will have to take an even bigger step up; but Demond Mallet already looks real comfy and Maccabi has the bigs to throw at Barcelona. Maccabi Electra.

Nick: Last week against Cantu, Barcelona delivered its ugliest performance of the year outside their fourth quarter collapse in Siena in week nine. They’re too good to duplicate such mediocrity, even in a hostile environment like Nokia Arena. Mallet and Langford have as much as offensive firepower as any backcourt left in the Top 16, but they need more time to cuddle up. Barcelona Regal.

Langford & Hendrix Are The New Simon & Garfunkel

By: Sam Meyerkopf / @euro_adventures

While guard Keith Langford and forward Richard Hendrix have had some great success on court for Maccabi Tel Aviv this season, it seems their real talent is behind the mic.  Just two ballers rockin’ shades indoors, singing from the heart.

No tour dates have been released yet, but Langford and Hendrix are sure to sell out arenas worldwide.

Without further ado, here’s Tel Aviv’s musical sensation singing “Rolling In The Deep”.