There were thick clouds hanging over Hapoel Jerusalem after their 84-77 loss to JDA Dijon in the opening game of the Basketball Champions League Round of 16 group stage. The French squad controlled the pace of play from the get go and dominated the Reds, not only by winning every one of the four quarters, but by just dictating the flow of the game from the opening tip all the way to the final buzzer.
Aleksandar Dzickic’s players tried to cut the gap down and they did time and time again, but the 4, 5, 6 points that separated the two teams felt like an ocean and one that if the game had continued on for days would never be won by the hosts.
Dijon’s bench boss Nenad Markovic had checkmated Jerusalem, plain and simple.
“It’s never easy to play in this type of gym against Jerusalem as we experienced from the game last year in Holon,” Markovic said. “I was afraid as to how we would handle the ball flow and be able to attack the weak points while exploiting the talents of our players. But once we were good on defense we played good minutes for the majority of the game. This is just the first game and we have to stay humble.”
Were the players not 100% due to illness as Khadeen Carrington had been sick and missed last game? Perhaps. In fact, Oz Blayzer played a bit and then missed the rest of the game as he was not feeling well.
Did Jerusalem’s drive take a hit after their incredible State Cup performance over Hapoel Tel Aviv? Could be as well since they did not look very good against Bnei Herzliya and just narrowly escaped with the Israeli league victory.
Are Dijon just a better team and Jerusalem were just plain and simple the inferior team?
That may have been a reason as well.
However, Jerusalem wanted to focus on the lack of energy and that it was not Dijon who had been the reason that they lost but the Reds themselves.
“The energy was not on the level that we needed to beat this type of team with four ball handlers and athletic bigs,” Dzikic explained. “All those play a part of their game, X’s and O’s and we practiced that every day, I don’t know what happened. At a certain point, I understand that there are some problems, but I don’t care now. I think we have to play harder tougher, braver.”
A dejected Mareks Mejeris also spoke about his team’s ppor showing, “Pretty bad game from us. The most upsetting part is that it was at home and we can’t do that here, we have to play a lot more energized. We had a lot of games to watch Dijon play and it wasn’t about them. We knew what they would do and it was more about us than them.”
Sure, Dzikic and Mejeris both said that the Reds had no energy and yes, they seemed to be 1-2 steps behind each play, Dzikic alluded to other issues that were surrounding the team but said he would not share them. So, something was up without a question.
But at the end of the day, there are no excuses. Starting off the BCL group stages 0-1 is not the way the Reds would have liked to begin the second round of play, losing at home with 5 more contests to go. Is it the end of the world? No. Is the next game at Hapoel Holon a must win? You bet.
“Last round we won all three games on the road,” Dzikic said. “I’m more worried about not using fouls more. It’s too many points before bonus in this type of game. We did not use smart fouls and that is what we were lacking, that focus. That’s one of the reasons that we lost, at the end it was a two possession game.”
Markovic also knows how critical each and every game is, “In a group of four, every win and every point counts. I’m here (in the BCL) since the first year and where there were 2-3 points in the air that could make a difference. We are all equal quality in this group and have similar budgets.”
However, before Jerusalem gets to Gameday 2 they still need to take a road trip down to Hapoel Eilat and visit the Red Sea squad who are looking for a win after recently installing Italian bench boss Maurizio Buscaglia.
But back to the Dijon clash first.
Gavin Ware and David Holston were able to do as they pleased all game long. Whether it was Ware’s midrange jump shot by the top of the free throw line or inside with alley-oops galore, Zach Hankins, Itay Segev and Mareks Mejeris had no answer.
In fact, Ware was surprised at how easy a time he had picking apart the Jerusalem defense, “After I saw those first few shots go down I was like if they are going to play lackadaisical and let me stay out there and shoot every time, I’m going to shoot. Coach gave me the green light. Every time I get it, I will try to look for my teammates, but I’m on fire right now so I need to take the shots. I knew they played back on the defensive pick and roll but after a while I would have expected it, in a way I was a little shocked but I still have to do what I have to.”
Markovic also spoke about how Ware was in position to shoot all game long, “We play a lot of situations for us. It’s his strong point to shoot and if the opponent gives us those shots, we will use it. It’s not everyday that Ware can make 7-8 shots from the same position, but lately he has been shooting very well and this is what we wanted to do and we saw it as a strong point for us.”
“He was 11/13 in this one and 10/10 last game,” Dzikic said of Ware. “That sequence they were running we all have and we haven’t had issue with it, but this game we weren’t defending it the way it should be. There may be reasons that I won’t share with you but we were aware of Ware’s quality.”
As for point guard David Holston who is just 5”6 and turned 37 years old today, January 26th, he ran Markovic’s offense to absolute perfection possession after possession turning over the ball just once. Whether it was finding the open man time and time again with one of his 13 assists, or hitting shot after shot, Holston put on one incredible performance with an efficiency rating of 30.
He was quick, wily, deft all rolled up into one as he ran circles around Speedy Smith as the game time ran down and looked like the Energizer Bunny who would keep going and going and going.
“David takes care of himself,” Markovic told The Sports Rabbi. “He is so specific on his daily routine. He makes sure to keep his body in the best condition and he will come in after games even if it is just a voluntary session. He is the first at practice and the last one to leave. I am very lucky to have David with us.”
Could have Jerusalem found a way to stop the pair from doing as they pleased?
Sure, but it just seemed that Dzikic kept trying the same tactics over and over and over again without diverging from his game plan and Dijon was going to beat it time and time again.
Did Dzikic consider bringing in youngster Noam Yaacov who had just been loaned out to Jerusalem from ASVEL Villeurbanne to provide depth?
“Honestly, no,” Dzikic responded to The Sports Rabbi’s inquiry. “I believe in picking the fights for young players so to speak. For him to play against Holston, who is one of the most experiences guard in Europe, I am not sure that something like that would change the game. I’m more upset about the unnecessary turnovers. Some I understand if it’s aggressive defense, but some were not the right plays at that moment. We understand that we need to play better and to keep it super simple.”
Interestingly enough, Dzikic said that the team would have liked to have had the chance to play more games over the past month since they had only played once a month due to not having to take part in the Play In playoffs for the Round of 16 Group Stage.
“The format is what it is. For some teams it’s more appropriate, for some teams not. The time between games were too long and it is what it is, but we would have liked to play a little more.”
If that would be the case then either they needed to take part in the Play In which they most probably didn’t want to or change to another competition that plays week in and week out.
Hapoel Tel Aviv is participating in the EuroCup which would have provided that option. And yes, the same EuroCup that Hapoel Jerusalem used to be a part of but left for the Champions League.
Perhaps the Reds are having some serious second thoughts about that.
Next up in BCL play is a short jaunt to Holon in what is now a must win game, not only for Jerusalem but for Guy Goodes’s squad as well after falling to the other French club in the group Strasbourg.
Let’s see how this will play out next Wednesday, there is no question that it will be very, very interesting.