With almost a third of the Euroleague season behind us, Maccabi Tel Aviv sits at a respectable 6-4 after the games this far. After beginning the season with two losses on the road to Khimki in Moscow and Real Madrid in Spain, the yellow-and-blue rattled off six straight wins. However, following the streak of victories over Red Star Belgrade, Valencia, Fenerbahce, Olympiacos, Alba Berlin and Baskonia, Head Coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos’s squad fell away from home to Milano and Barcelona. What can we make Maccabi’s campaign so far? Let’s take a look at the highlights and lowlights from one of the world’s greatest roundball competitions just behind the NBA in terms of excitement and quality.
Omri Casspi’s return to Israel – The first Sabra in the National Basketball Association came back to Israel after ten years stateside to once again ply his trade in the familiar yellow-and-blue uniform. One of the issues that plagued Casspi throughout his NBA career had been injuries and this season with Maccabi has been no exception. The power forward’s campaign began a bit sluggish as he was coming off rehab for an injury suffered with the Memphis Grizzlies in the winter of 2019. During the preseason Casspi looked a step slow and the coaching staff said it would take time for him to get back to full strength.
When the season did begin, it took him a couple of games route back into rhythm and bang, Casspi became the dominant player that the fans had hoped they would see with his return. He as a key factor in the first five games of the winning streak until he went out and although Maccabi easily won in Vitoria, Spain which is one of the most difficult stadiums to play in, his absence was glaring in Milano and Barcelona.
Against middle of the pack teams, Maccabi will have very little problems with their roster, but versus top European competition such as Milano and Barcelona it’s crystal clear as to what type of influence Casspi can have on the game. Milano features one of the best coaches in the game in Ettore Messina who has guided a number of top continental teams to the peak as well as the Italian National team. In addition, Messina just returned to the Euroleague after working alongside Gregg Popovich at the San Antonio Spurs, so as good as a coach he was before he went to the NBA, he’s even better now.
Add to the mix players such as all star guard Sergio Rodriguez, the never aging Luis Scola who starred for Argentina this summer as he approached his 40th birthday and Maccabi without Casspi and Milano was able to take a very close battle 92-88 in Italy that was enjoyed by the masses this past week. The game would have been a bit different had Casspi been with the club for the matchup, however, Sfairpoulos’s side played admirably well from Scottie Wilbekin, Tyler Dorsey, Tarik Black and Nate Wolters.
However, Barcelona was a totally different story. After a close first half that saw Maccabi take a slim 3-point, 46-43 lead after twenty minutes, the yellow-and-blue were blown out of the water by Coach Svetislav Pesic and his star forward Nikola Mirotic who ripped the yellow-and-blue to pieces with 25 points and 14 rebounds to earn the Euroleague’s MVP award for Gameday 10 over a second half that’s saw the hosts win 96-73 holding Maccabi to a measly seven, 4th quarter points.
Barcelona was truly a level above the yellow-and-blue especially Mirotic who returned to Europe with pomp and circumstance after playing in the NBA, most recently with the Milwaukee Bucks. Mirotic was regarded as the best player to return overseas with Casspi second and that was proven on the hardwood as the point was made loud and clear across Europe. Obviously a healthy Casspi would have been able to counter Mirotic in the low post but without his presence the Maccabi quartet of Black, Othello Hunter, Quincy Acy and Jake Cohen has no chance as they were taken to school.
What does this mean for Maccabi Tel Aviv in the short and long term? The yellow-and-blue certainly have enough quality without Casspi to defeat the likes of ASVEL, Bayern Munich and even CSKA Moscow at home in their next three contests as well as Zenit St. Petersburg in Russia and Panathinaikos back at Yad Eliyahu with Rick Pitino back behind the bench for the Greek squad but against the likes of Anadolu EFES, Barcelona, Milano and CSKA on the road, the yellow-and-blue will need all hands on deck including a healthy Casspi.
A 6-4 record puts Maccabi in 8th place tied with CSKA, Khimki and Panathinaikos, good enough for a playoff spot which is yellow-and-blue management’s goal. Once in the playoffs and a best of 5 quarterfinal series, anything can happen as we’ve seen on the past. However, after many years of not advancing to the playoffs, the last time being in the 2014-15 season, anything but this campaign will be viewed as a failure.
There’s a lot riding on Omri Casspi and his health especially when playing the top teams. Without him Maccabi can compete, there’s now question about that as they have been built well enough to do so. But in order to reach the highest of heights the yellow-and-blue must be at fill strength or else they will continue to be mired in mediocrity.