Last year at this time Maccabi Tel Aviv and Anadolu EFES were battling it out neck and neck for European hoops supremacy as the Yellow & Blue nipped Ergin Ataman’s squad 77-75 at Yad Eliyahu. One year later and EFES is still climbing having won 8 straight while bumping their overall record to 19-10 on the campaign as they moved into second place. Maccabi on the other hand has been heading the wrong direction and now sit in 14th place with a disappointing 11-17 record on the season having gone 1-6 in their last seven contests.
What happened to Ioannis Sfairopoulos’s squad? Where has the fighting spirit gone? How is it possible that Maccabi suffered their worst home loss in European competition ever? And yet in front of 1,000 fans, the biggest crowd since the start of the pandemic for a Euroleague game.
Those who have followed the club throughout its history have always seen a team that battled on the court no matter what the situation and how dire a season may have been going, especially at home. This Maccabi team allowed an opponent to come into their house and take over in a big way making shot after shot after shot from deep while playing pathetic defense on sharpshooters Shane Larkin and Vasilije Micic.
As they say records are made to be broken, but this was one that Sfairopoulos’s squad didn’t want to break. A record that had stood since 1977 when ironically Varese dumped the Yellow & Blue 102-79. Isn’t there a saying: “Nobody F—- With Maccabi In The Yad”? Well, it looks like someone missed that memo.
“The world situation has changed since last year, there’s a lot going on and we have good days and bad days” said Elijah Bryant following the game. “We have to find the rhythm and players and teams have ups and downs and we have to find our rhythm together as a team.”
Maccabi will certainly need to find that rhythm as there are still six games to go in the Euroleague including a home clash with league leaders Barcelona as well as three months left in the Israeli League. The club will also play for the State Cup at some point in the near future which is a title that has yet to be won by Ioannis Sfairopoulos.
“We will try to do our best and we discussed that now with the players that we need to keep fighting,” said the coach. “We probably didn’t succeed to qualify but we have to continue. This was not like the game in OAKA against Panathinaikos where we gave up in the last period. It was a 30 point lead and we cut down 6 points. We have to be ready for the Israeli league and the Cup final.”
“We tried to fight, but our fight was not enough, obviously. We knew that they have great quality and great solutions in every position with a lot of players who are in their best form now, individually but also as a team.”
Interestingly enough, Ante Zizic had a different take on what the club needs to do, “It feels like we didn’t fight enough and we have to put more effort.” Hmmm.
The captain John Dibartolomeo knew how painful a defeat this was for Maccabi and one that they will not want to see a repeat of in the future as they need to focus on the balance of the season, “It hurts, disappointing and frustrating it wasn’t very good. We talk about how we have to be better and the coronavirus is difficult for everybody but we have to continue and we have to play better basketball. We need to get better every day and look at ourselves to be better. We need to stay positive and stay together.”
On the other side of the court Ergin Ataman couldn’t have been happier with his team’s play. He is a man on mission looking at this season as a vendetta against the Euroleague after last campaign didn’t produce a winner and the rug was pulled out from under him.
“I think we played perfect basketball and I told my players, what can I say, excellent. We played extremely good defense and controlled the rebounds, spacing and moved the basketball. Step by step we are heading towards our goal and we are in good shape.”
“We were completely different at the start of the season and I was very angry at the Euroleague for canceling the season. Other leagues, Champions League, NBA came back but the Euroleague didn’t respect us and closed the league. But we went step by step and when Larkin came back the players got into game shape we are now more motivated.”
Losing last year by a pair of points didn’t bother Ataman and the bench boss was more than happy to return to the Holy Land especially due to the much improving COVID-19 situation in Israel while even taking a dip in the Mediterranean Ocean, “Things here are doing very well in Israel. I take confidence in the situation in Tel Aviv and I even swam on the beach because everything seemed ok.”
Ataman’s two headed monster of Larkin and Micic were also upbeat about the the club’s current state, “Every single night, it’s not the same guy,” Larkin stated. “Sometimes it’s me, sometimes Micic, Kruno, Roddy, Adrien, whoever. You know, we have a lot of weapons. And when you play like that, you play unselfish, it’s very hard to defend. And then defensively, we all fight, we all know each other, we know our strengths and weaknesses, and at this point, we’re just rolling.”
Micic echoed his teammate’s thoughts, “The three years we’ve played together it’s been fun. But the better you play, the more responsibility you have. You have to prove it every day, which is logical. For us, these last two months have been really successful, today also.”
While EFES is a team on a mission and are proving close to unstoppable over the past few months, Sfairopoulos recognized the gap that has developed between the clubs, “There are momentum for every team in the Euroleague and our best period was when we won 7 from 11 the game and against EFES we had a close chance to win in the first round. EFES has very experienced players and aren’t looking to produce players.”
Producing players has been something Sfairopoulos has spoken about many times as to how he is proud of the work he has done with the younger players, Deni Avdija and Yovel Zoosman last season and the likes of Dori Sahar and Eidan Alber this campaign.
Back in October Sfairopoulos spoke about developing the younger players after win over Hapoel Haifa, “You saw the new generation of Maccabi Tel Aviv and how we want to invest with the young guys.” Just this past February they played minutes a plenty in league games, however, the minutes have been limited in League play of late as well of course in the Euroleague.
The sentiments shown then about developing the youth don’t seem to be the way the coach is thinking right now with no promises being made, “My priority is to win every game. I play with the players that can win the games and I play with the players who I believe will help succeed in our goals.”
However, the question that needs to be asked is if the players who are playing are the players that can win the games. With only one Euroleague win since January 21st, perhaps the players who have been on the floor aren’t battling enough as Zizic said.
At the end of the day Sfairopoulos knows that the team he is charged with could and should have done better when looking at the 11-17 record, “I feel very bad and I feel very bad because I said we have to compete and do our best.”