Even though it is sometimes wise to throw out statistical analysis for emotion-driven games like those of the Final Four, the expectation of a defensive struggle between Panathinaikos and Maccabi Tel Aviv in Friday's first semifinal is legitimate, even welcome. If these two rivals, in their third Final Four matchup in as many years, tried to outgun each other, fans might not recognize them. Theirs were two of the best three defenses in the Top 16, with Maccabi allowing opponents just 74 points per game and Panathinaikos 77.8. Together, they scored over 90 points in only 10 games all season, but less than 80 almost doubly often, 19 times. Points will not come easy for either team.
In a defensive showdown, each basket seems to count double, and any easy points can come back to haunt the team that allows them. Free throws also play a crucial role. Individual scorers can decide games even moreso than usual. Most scorers will be stopped, as part of the definition of a defensive-oriented game, so those who refuse to be stopped will become protagonists as surely as the collective defenses they are trying to solve. In this game, those parameters point to two players, Dejan Bodiroga of Panathinaikos and Arriel McDonald of Maccabi, as their team's key men.
Bodiroga is rarely, if ever, shut down. His teammates feed off his willingness to bear responsibility for the ball and the result. He shuttles between three positions - and is expected to play some power forward on Friday - making him a challenge to practically the whole defense. If someone does happen to slow him, he can move up or down a position to creat new mismatches. Bodirgoa's stats by themselves didn't make him the Top 16 MVP. His mastery of so many big games and their big moments did. The entire semifinal on Friday will be a big moment.
McDonald, who controls the ball for his team, will be just as visible. The idea will be to get that ball inside, where Maccabi has a size advantage with Nate Huffman and Huseyin Besok. The reality will likely be less simplified, especially with Zeljko Obradovic on the Panathinaikos bench. How the ball goes inside and outside, moving the Greens' defense over the course of long possessions, will dictate most of Maccabi's success. So will McDonald's open-court decisions, because Maccabi's supposed rebounding advantage will only matter if it manifests itself in fastbreaks. Maccabi may or may not pull more offensive boards (it ranked last in the Top 16, Panathinaikos next to last), but even then neither team lights up the world with their free throws.
If all baskets seem to count double, three-pointers will be like blessings to those who make them, crushing blows to the defense who gives them up. Note that right now, Derrick Sharp of Maccabi is the hottest shooter in Europe, having made 10 of 16 attempts in the Top 16, leading Maccabi to the top three-point accuracy, making almost half (46%) its long throws in that round. Panathinaikos was dead last in that category, making only 30.2%. The Greens' major acquisitions since last season, Ibrahim Kutluay and Damir Mulaomerovic, will be expected to contribute from beyond the 6.25 arc, but should be ready also to challenge the basket if their shots aren't falling. If only Bodiroga makes the Maccabi big men move to help, that could be too little diversification for the Greens.
Maccabi can expect Anthony Parker to threaten the Panathinaikos defense wherever he finds it vulnerable, inside, outside or somewhere in between. That gives his team a balance of attack that Panathinaikos may lack, depending on how Darryl Middleton can use his quickness inside. The Greens will likely be more than happy if young center Lazaros Papadopoulos can simply hold his own against the Maccabi big men, doing nothing spectacular, but not letting them do so either.
Players on both teams are fond of saying that they know everything there is to know about the other. Could someone step up unexpectedly? Sure. That's how careers are defined, with big-game performances. To begin, it can be assumed that one of the standouts on each team can be expected to lead his team on Friday. But expect the winner to need two such performances out of its regular cast of stars. With everyone else on the floor expected to play good defense, two players standing out for their ability to put the ball in the basket may could be enough to tilt the balance and send their team to the final.
Thursday, May 2, 2002