Sinai Says: The big Sofo experiment paying huge dividends

Sofo’s presence under the basket is crucial to coach David Blatt’s game-plan, allowing Maccabi’s guards to pressure their opponents.

MACCABI TEL AVIV center Sofoklis Schortsanitis 311 (photo credit: AP)
MACCABI TEL AVIV center Sofoklis Schortsanitis 311
(photo credit: AP)
Interviewing Sofoklis Schortsanitis is a little like defending him.
As hard as you may try, you undoubtedly end up finding yourself completely at the mercy of the 2.05-meter, 150-kilogram center.
If the 25-year-old Greek international doesn’t want to answer your question, he won’t; just as if he has his mind set on putting the ball in the basket, he likely will.
There were many doubts regarding Maccabi’s decision to sign Sofo to a two-year contract this past summer.
Some pundits claimed it was no more than a PR stunt to try and sell more season-tickets, while even ardent fans questioned Schortsanitis’ ability to lead Tel Aviv under the basket considering the supporting role he played in his previous five seasons at Olympiacos.
However, Sofo has exceeded all expectations so far this season, and seems to only be improving as the campaign progresses.
“I just came here to do my work,” Sofo told me in his typical soft-spoken nonchalant style after Monday’s State Cup semifinal victory over Maccabi Ashdod at Nokia Arena.
“I do what I do. I play basketball, that’s it.”
For Maccabi, that’s plenty.
Without Schortsanitis, Tel Aviv would not have been able to play so extraordinarily well, regularly blowing out opponents with ease.
Sofo’s presence under the basket is crucial to coach David Blatt’s game-plan, allowing Maccabi’s guards to pressure their opponents on defense and freeing up wing weapons on offense thanks to all the attention the gargantuan Greek center attracts.
In 19 Euroleague game for Olympiacos last season, Sofo averaged 7.2 points and 2.5 rebounds.
In 71 games in the competition before joining Maccabi, he had never played more than 26 minutes.
However, he has been on court for more than 20 minutes in all but two of the yellow-and-blue’s Euroleague games so far and is ranked seventh overall in the Euroleague’s index rating, averaging 13.6 points and 4.8 rebounds, while hitting 57.4 percent of his field goal attempts.
“I think that Sofo has not only had a great season, but he has also made a big adjustment,” Blatt told me on Monday. “It’s not an easy adjustment and he’s done it in a classy and admirable way. I spent last year in Greece. It’s very different basketball, especially the lifestyle and what’s going on around basketball.
“I think that Sofo came in here with the right approach and the crowd has embraced him and he has responded well to that.
Sofo has simply been one of the best big men in Europe this season.”
Blatt undoubtedly deserves much of the credit for getting more out of Sofo than any other coach has been capable of in the past, but the big man remained totally diplomatic when asked of the impact his current coach has had on his play.
“Every coach can teach you something and give you some kind of advice or skill,” he said. “Every coach in my life has helped me a lot and so has Blatt.”
Sofo may not be willing to say it, but Blatt has got him playing the best defense of his career and has taught him the importance of passing out to his teammates on the perimeter when he is being doubleand triple-teamed in the paint.
Sofo’s play has only gotten better with every week that passes and he has scored in double-figures in his last seven continental games, recording his first ever Euroleague double-double against Lottomatica Roma two weeks ago.
He has also scored 10 points or more in 10 of the last 12 BSL games, averaging 13.9 points and 3.8 rebounds in the league, connecting on a mind-boggling 72 percent of his shots.
Maccabi has been extremely impressive from the start of the season, amassing a record of 28-3 in all competitions to date.
In recent weeks, however, Tel Aviv has completely obliterated its opponents.
After thrashing Roma by 41 points in the Euroleague, Maccabi beat Bnei Hasharon by 46 points in the BSL before crushing Olimpija Ljubljana by 37 points last Thursday.
Maccabi began Monday’s cup semifinal by outscoring Maccabi Ashdod 27-3 in the first period on the way to a second straight 37- point win.
It will be expected to cruise to yet another ridiculously easy victory when it faces Barak Netanya in Thursday’s final after beating Eric Alfasi’s men by a combined 62 points in two BSL meetings this season.
“I got no thoughts,” was what Sofo had to say about the upcoming final. “We are going to do what we do every time. We are going to listen to our coaching staff, study the opponent, practice for them and do our thing and go and play our game.”
Sofo also refused to get into Tel Aviv’s prospects in the Euroleague.
“If we knew how far we could go we wouldn’t play,” he noted. “The results have been good and they show we have a good team, so I’m optimistic.”
Many hours have been spent breaking down the reasons behind Maccabi’s success so far this season.
Sofo needed only one sentence.
“Hard work and great defense, that is it.”
As simplistic as this may sound, I wouldn’t argue with the Greek giant on that point.
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