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Sofoklis Schortsanitis 390.(Photo by: Reuters)
Sofo’s health Mac TA’s ‘elephant in the room’
By ALLON SINAI
02/01/2012
With its big man ailing, yellow-and-blue face fellow 1-1 Cantu in critical Top 16 clash.
Maccabi Tel Aviv enters Thursday’s crucial Euroleague showdown at Bennet Cantu with a, quite literally, massive question mark hanging over its prospects.

Maccabi’s Greek giant Sofoklis Schortsanitis has been playing through a meniscus injury for over a month, resulting in a significant drop in form.

Sofo will require arthroscopic surgery to regain full fitness, but he doesn’t plan to go under the knife until the end of the season, choosing to power through the pain.

However, his unhealthy knee is clearly affecting his performance, with the 26-year-old center averaging just 6.0 points and 3.7 rebounds in a mere 13.3 minutes over Maccabi’s last three Euroleague games.

When Sofo’s at his best, Maccabi not only enjoys an unstoppable force under the basket, but its offensive weapons from the perimeter also benefit from the space created by the attention the center attracts.

However, if his recent play is anything to go by, Tel Aviv will have to find a way to win without all the advantages afforded to it by a healthy Sofo when it comes up against Cantu in Italy in a game that could go a long way to determining which of the two teams advances to the quarterfinals.

After opening its Top 16 campaign with an important road win at Zalgiris Kaunas, Maccabi was reminded last week of how far it still is from the top of European basketball when it was outplayed in the final quarter of a 71-57 home defeat to Barcelona.

Cantu has also split its first two games of the Top 16, losing in Barcelona and beating Kaunas, but with a deep and balanced roster, and a 5-1 record at home this season, it is understandable why Maccabi coach David Blatt is so wary of the Italians.

“We’re not in optimal shape right now due to injuries and illness, but that’s an unavoidable part of such a long and tiring season,” Blatt said.

“We’re travelling to Cantu to win and we’re up to the challenge. Keith Langford is sick, suffering from dehydration, and Shawn James has been hurt for a few days now and he’s doubtful, while Sofo Schortsanitis is doing all he can to get back into good physical condition.

“Cantu is an excellent team that has lost only one home Euroleague game this season. They run their plays at a very high level, and they have great shooting percentages from two and three-point range. This game is definitely not an easy hurdle to overcome.”

Forward Vladimir Micov (10.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg) is Cantu’s only player to average in double-figures, but the Italians have five more players who score more than 7.5 points per game, including risingstar Giorgi Shermadini (9.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg) and veteran sharp-shooter Gianluca Basile (9.1 ppg, 3.2 apg).

“The game against Maccabi will be the turning point of our Top 16, but this shouldn’t put us under pressure,” Cantu coach Andrea Trinchieri said. “Maccabi is a very physical team with a lot of experienced players who know how to prepare themselves for these kinds of games.

“At the beginning of the year, the chance to compete with the strongest teams in Europe was a dream, but now it is reality.”

Maccabi failed to score a single three-pointer against Barca last week, and is ranked last among Top 16 teams in threes made with only 4.9 per night. It is also allowing 8.0 triples per game, the most among the remaining teams in the competition.

Maccabi’s futility from beyond the arc, combined with the fact that is has registered significantly more turnovers than assists in the Euroleague since Jordan Farmar left the team, have resulted in the yellow-and-blue becoming more and more dependent on individual efforts in recent weeks.

Tel Aviv needs the likes of Demond Mallet, Keith Langford and Sofo to create their own openings, but with the last two not being fully fit, Blatt will require on Thursday significant contributions from bench players like Tal Burstein, Yogev Ohayon and Guy Pnini.

“We’ve put our loss to Maccabi Ashdod in the BSL behind us and now we’re focusing on Cantu,” captain Burstein said.

“This game is extremely important for us and we really want to win. We’ll need to play good defense and to get back on track on offense, as well, after a couple of games in which our shooting was not impressive.

“Cantu has plenty of players who know how to score points and they’re a very dangerous team, especially on their home court.”
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