Maccabi suffered a bitter 85-83 defeat at the hands of Zalgiris and for all intents and purposes ended their Euroleague Top 8 dreams barring a Purim miracle as their record dropped to 12-15 with three games remaining in the regular season. Maccabi led throughout the contest but coughed up the ball 22 times with the most crucial of turnovers coming near the end of the game as Ioannis Sfairopoulos’s squad couldn’t hold on to the lead and ultimately fell to Saras Jasikevičius‘s side.
Tarik Black and Scottie Wilbekin scored 18 points a piece while Yovel Zoosman added 10 points in the loss. Leo Westermann dropped 16 points, Thomas Walkup added 14 points as Brandon Davies and Marius Grigonis each chipped in with 12 points in the victory.
Zalgiris grabbed an early 11-6 lead as Grigonis and Aaron White did the offensive damage, but a pair of monstrous dunks by Black and buckets by Jeremy Pargo and Michael Roll gave Maccabi a 23-19 lead after ten minutes of action.
The Lithuanian squad opened up the second quarter by going up 25-23, but Wilbekin helped Maccabi to an 11-0 run to retake the lead 34-25. The Yellow & Blue continued their hot shooting for the balance of the half as they headed into the lockerroom with a 45-36 advantage after twenty minutes.
Maccabi extended their lead to 52-39 via Wilbekin and Black but Zalgiris quickly tied up the game at 52-52 with a 13-0 run punctuated by a 3-pointer and then 3 free throws by Westermann. A Zoosman triple helped resuscitate the Yellow & Blue as they headed into the final frame ahead 59-57.
Angelo Caloiaro and Zoosman gave the Yellow & Blue a 67-61 lead, but Brandon Davies who had been quiet all night pulled Zalgiris to within 2-points, 67-65 midway through the 4th quarter. A pair of quick DiBartolomeo buckets increased the Maccabi lead to 9-points, 74-65 with 5:28 left in the contest. However, Zalgiris once again mounted a comeback with Davies, Grigonis and Westermann playing center stage to take the lead and shock the Yellow & Blue who made one mistake after the next to fall 85-83.
1) Where to begin? The positives or the negatives? As tough a loss as this was for Maccabi, there was a glimmer of hope, so I’ll start with the good and get back to the not so good in just a bit. Yovel Zoosman was tremendous for the Yellow & Blue against Zalgiris as he scored 10 points going 2/3 from beyond the arc, grabbed 4 rebounds and added 2 assists as the NBA Draft hopeful clocked in with 20+ minutes and ended the night with a PIR of 15. Those stats should not be lost in the loss as the future of Israeli basketball is bright when it comes to players like “Zoos”.
I had a chance to catch up with him after the game as he sat stunned in the Maccabi lockerroom not believing what he had just witnessed, “My personal game isn’t something that I really care about at the moment. I’m very disappointed. We gave up a lot of baskets and we didn’t defend well enough. Those small things made a big impact.” When Zoosman had a monster game at CSKA and the team won, his personal numbers came to the forefront, but it’s tough to look at the positives after a devastating loss. And a devastating loss it was.
2) Coach Sfairopoulos didn’t manage one of his best games to say the least and in fact it’s two rough home Euroleague games in a row falling to EFES last week and now to Zalgiris this week with a date still to come at Khimki in Moscow. Once Wilbekin picked up two quick fouls in the first quarter, the coach needed to make changes to his game plan in order not to lose his star which he had done earlier in the week against Nahariya in the Israeli league. As the game came to a close, Wilbekin made a number of questionable decisions including the alleyoop to Black and a poor 3-point attempt that ended up costing Macabi the game.
Was Wilbekin the reason for the loss? Absolutely not. Could he have made better decisions? Yes, but it’s tough for a player to be constantly subbed in and subbed out, especially near the end of the game and be able to be totally focused on the task at hand. I spoke to a broken Wilbekin in the lockerroom following the game and he was a stand up guy as usual by not dodging the media and always answering the tough questions especially when the hurt must have been at its peak. “I was called on a lot of touch fouls and they were calling everything. I had two bad possessions. The 3 point shot and the pass to Tarik was too high. It’s very hard, we had them. I’m just really disappointed right now.”
Give him credit for being available to us, not every player would have been. One other note on the Maccabi guard. I had asked coach Sfairopoulos after the Nahariya game if he was concerned with Wilbekin picking up a number of quick fouls. He said that he wasn’t however, referee Luigi Lamonica made sure to call a tough game against Maccabi as he usually does and that effected Wilbekin and the Yellow & Blue. I asked the coach what needs to be done in order for Wilbekin to not get into foul trouble early, “We need to learn to play defense without using our hands. Less check fouls.”
3) ****Friday morning Maccabi announced that they have given permission to DeAndre Kane to fly to the United States to be with his ailing mother**** I’m not sure what’s going on with DeAndre Kane, but he isn’t the same player that we have gotten to love over the past couple of seasons. He played 16 minutes, scored no points and was a -18(!) during the time he was on the court. Kane refused the talk in the lockerroom following the game, and I’m sure we’d all like to know what’s going on with him. When he was subbed out in the first quarter he wasn’t happy, barely acknowledged the coach and then went downstairs. Once he returned, he sat on the bench with his hoodie up and just didn’t look ready to take on Europe’s best, and he wasn’t. When the coach brought him in with 2:39 left in the game, Maccabi was holding a 79-76 advantage. 21 seconds later the score was 80-79 and Kane was off the court.
Bringing on Kane was a huge mistake to say the least and Sfairopoulos also admitted that he may have made some errors in his subs. Just like last week I asked the coach about why he didn’t leave Black in and EFES made a huge run. He said that you can always go back and say that you could have done something differently and this week he gave the identical answer when I asked about bringing on an ice cold Kane, “Now it’s very easy to analyze this. DeAndre is one of our best defenders. As you saw we had a lot of subs in and out, offensive lineups and then switching to a defensive lineup, and there were players with 4 fouls also. It’s like handball substitutions for offense and for defense. The logic was good but the result…when you make 1000 decisions you can’t be right on all of them.” However, if Sfairopoulos could go back I’m sure he wouldn’t make the decisions he did down the stretch.
The turnovers killed Maccabi any which way you slice it. 22 are just way, way too many to make if you’re contending for a playoff spot. Black spoke about what those huge turnovers did, “the turnovers changed the tide and it changed the momentum.” John DiBartolomeo also pinpointed the turnovers as the killer, “We had countless leads throughout the game and we just had to close them out. We weren’t able to do it and it came back to bite us. We had too many turnovers and a lot of them were unforced which makes this a tougher loss.” Zalgiris Coach Saras also discussed what the turnovers did for his team, “The defense and the offense only started working in the last 20 minutes. Of course it helps the fact that you are keeping shots but we were much better in the second half. We were getting beat up in the first half and we were down in rebounds by 10. They were more physical and in the second half we just managed somehow to pull it out and this is a great sign for a young team”