Can Maccabi Tel Aviv make it to the promised land after rough and tumble Panathinaikos atmosphere takes hold of series

Apr 26, 2024 | Holyland Hoops

When it comes to the playoffs, it’s all hands on deck, everything goes and you’ve got to pull out all of the stops in order to do what you have to to win. That’s the name of the game. Win, win, win.

You’re three wins away from the Final 4 and you’ve got to do whatever it takes to give you the best chances to advance. It doesn’t matter if the methodology is dirty or clean, you’ve got to do whatever it takes.

And that is what Panathinaikos did the second game one came to an end.

Jake Cohen – Andreas Papakonstantinou / Tourette Photography

They pulled out all of the stops in order to give them the best position to win game two as well as the balance of the series which now moves to Belgrade to games 3 and 4.

After dropping Maccabi Tel Aviv 95-79 in game two to even up the series, Panathinaikos is now in the drivers seat with the momentum all theirs as the yellow-and-blue are also most probably going to be without Wade Baldwin. The star guard suffered a hamstring injury in the 4th quarter of game one will travel to Croatia for treatment and rejoin the squad in Belgrade early next week ahead of game three.

But with or without Baldwin Maccabi is in trouble. The circus that PAO has sent this series into will only benefit them. From Ergin Ataman’s theatrics in the post game presser of game one, to his pregame meeting to show one issue after the next with the referee’s decisions and from the club’s political statement about Israel and the war to how reacted near the lockerroom and in yet another presser, the Turkish bench boss knows exactly how to fire up his team, club and fans into pandemonium.

Ergin Ataman – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

“We didn’t start the game well,” Ataman began. “Maccabi is a very good offensive team and in the first quarter we didn’t put enough pressure on the ball and Lorenzo Brown which resulted in them scoring 28 points. But in the second quarter, especially Sloukas came into the game we started to play excellent defense. Sloukas offensively was perfect, one of the best games of his career but also on defense. We put pressure on Brown and increased our aggressiveness.”

“Ioannis Papapetrou played well on defense and played Bonzie Colson who was one of the most important players in the first game. We panicked in the first quarter but then we calmed down. We made some shameful turnovers when Sloukas was out and they came to within 3-points but when he was back we showed the quality and difference between the two teams when everything on the court was correct.”

Oded Katash on the other hand is the exact opposite as a person than Ataman and in fact it would be hard for Maccabi to go down that road due to the precarious position the yellow-and-blue are in due to the war with Hamas. Having to play their home games in Belgrade without fans all season has not been pleasant to say the least and while there will be a number of supporters in the stands for games 3 and 4, the atmosphere will be nothing like it would have been should the contests be in Tel Aviv at Yad Eliyahu.

Kostas Sloukas – Photo credit: Euroleague

Kostas Sloukas stepped up for his team when he knew he had to in order to turn the series into a best of 3 with the decisive game 5 being back in Athens should it even be necessary. The Greek guard who took his talents across town after starring for rivals Olympiacos made certain that the turnover he committed at the end of game one that could have given Panathinaikos a slight chance to win, wouldn’t occur again.

“I worked with many star players,” Ataman said. “Sloukas was a star player before he came to Panathiniakos. Everyone respected him in Europe and showed his quality, tonight he had a career game. There is no question of his quality but more than that he is a leader and in this game he showed his qualities. It’s not easy to play and win in the Final 4 and you need star players with great mentality.”

Sloukas took the bull by the horns in the second quarter and willed his team back from a 28-20 Maccabi lead after the opening quarter. With one 3-pointer after the next, Sloukas showed his will and determination to not let game two slip away as he dropped 29 points in one of the great playoff performances.

Jake Cohen – Andreas Papakonstantinou / Tourette Photography

Jake Cohen also commented on the Greek guard’s showing, “He was great tonight, we definitely need to figure out something different to switch up. We have a long time now and we can evaluate how to adjust.”

After going down by close to 20 points, Maccabi made a run late in the game and cut the lead to just 3 points 71-68 with 8:31 left in the game but Katash’s crew were unable to flip the score to their advantage. Mathias Lessort on the inside and Sloukas on the outside finished the game off in style to the yellow-and-blue’s dismay that boiled over with Josh Nebo’s ejection and Kostas Antetokounmpo’s block which set off a gathering of the clan as both sides emotions perhaps got the best of them.

“We will do what we do and the way I am, I am not going to get into it,” Katash said. “We try to focus on basketball and us as a team, club and organization and our culture it won’t do any good if we go there. We will keep doing what we do.”

Oded Katash – Andreas Papakonstantinou / Tourette Photography

“I have to give credit to the players who played many minutes and were exhausted,” Katash continued. “Like game one, even though we didn’t come up with the W we showed character. We stayed there and came back to teh game in almost the same situation as game one. Then they has some cheap points and held us in the offensive rebounds, hit some big shots and won game two. I am really proud the character of the players as we stayed positive and we had good body language and farm back into the game but it wasn’t enough.”

In the lockerroom and outside of it you could feel the tension from the Maccabi players. They knew that they had blown a chance to go up 2-0 and take a stranglehold on the series but they also could feel that the circus that Ataman had created and the way the PAO faithful reacted will be tough overcome, especially without Wade Baldwin.

“I don’t really feel like there was a difference (between games 1 and 2),”Lorenzo Brown explained. “I mean obviously we were missing Wade. But our team fought hard, we were in the game, came down to the last few possessions in the 4th quarter, 50/50 balls that should have been ours and that affected the game for sure. Wade’s a big part of this team. Scoring and the ability to create for this team, but you know, we’ve played without him before at the beginning of the year and we did a pretty good job so we just have to re-adjust to what we were doing before at the beginning of the year and make it happen like that.”

Lorenzo Brown – Andreas Papakonstantinou / Tourette Photography

Of course, the games are played on the court and coming out of OAKA with a split and now home court advantage is definitely not the end of the world and in fact places Maccabi in a pretty good place. But without Baldwin and with the continuous extracurricular activity from Panathinaikos, the yellow-and-blue have a huge mountain to climb.

If games 3 and 4 would be in Yad Eliayhu, would Ataman and the PAO brass have reacted the way they did and gone as far into the political realm, one that the bench boss said that politics don’t belong in sports and he has no issue with Israel, although a club statement seemed to say otherwise? Most probably not, but they also know that once again in the rock ‘em, sock ‘em world that they have descended into with the fact that they don’t need to come to Israel, they can go to places that they normally would not go to.

Maccabi needs to now regroup over the next few days, get back into the swing of things and focus on the matter at hand which is to find a way to take a 2-1 lead and them polish off the series. However, that is much easier said than done.

Oded Katash – Andreas Papakonstantinou / Tourette Photography

Katash will need to find a way to fill in the gap that Baldwin had occupied because he can’t count on him returning or even returning to close to 100%. In game two he started John Dibartolomeo who was nowhere near the usual John D due to an injury, but the best minutes for Maccabi came once again with Antonius Cleveland, Tamir Blatt and Jasiel Rivero on the court. That should be some food for thought for the coach but nevertheless, trying to replace a player like Wade Baldwin is an almost impossible feat.

If it was up to Baldwin of course he would be on the floor fighting alongside his teammates, “We’ll see how I feel next Tuesday. It was a good game, a typical Greek environment, so it was a good game and it’s 1-1.”

“With all challenges we went through this year we showed a lot of character on and off the court,” Katash exclaimed. “I am happy the way we reacted when we were down 17 points and that is the special thing we have. Hopefully we all get Wade back in this series but we will see, we will keep fighting and this is what we do. I wish we could do this in Tel Aviv in front of our crowd but unfortunately that is not the situation.”

Ergin Ataman – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

Ataman also looked at the games that will now be played in Serbia, “The home court advantage doesn’t count too much but it will be important that we play good defense like we did after the second quarter and be smart on offense. I hope that players who played longer than usual will rest mentally and physically for these games. We have won many, many games this season and have the Panathinaikos record of wins on the road in the Euroleague this season.

Brown is hoping that the Maccabi fans that will be present will be a help in game two, “Hopefully we can get you guys there on Tuesday at the correct amount that we asked for but if not hopefully you guys can watch at home and root us on from there.”

“Even when we played against Baskonia in front of 300 people it was special. We as a country are going through tough times and this is very special for us,” Katash stated.

Antonius Cleveland – Photo Credit: Euroleague

Anotnius Cleveland chimed in positively about Maccabi’s situation before traveling to Belgrade, “We came here and did what we were supposed to do and we got a chance to end it at our home. Do I believe we can win game 3 and game 4? Of course I believe. We feel like we’re confident in what we can do and we feel like we can get it done.”

This is money time and Maccabi will need to find a way to overcome their losses in order to get it done as Cleveland said. They are so close to traveling to Berlin for the Final 4 but yet so, so far from getting to the promised land.

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