“Of course that’s what all of us strive for. That’s the ultimate goal for us as players of Maccabi and that would be amazing” – Jake Cohen to The Sports Rabbi in the lockerroom after the win over Real Madrid on what it would mean to be a European Champion.
The regular season is in the books and now the dreamers can dream as Maccabi Tel Aviv downed Real Madrid 90-84 in overtime and will head into the Euroleague postseason and a hot date with Monaco. Could there be no better way to describe Monte Carlo’s fast lanes which the yellow-and-blue will soon encounter on their way to European glory as they look to capture their first Euroleague title since 2014.
There’s certainly plenty of basketball to play before Oded Katash’s crew cab even sniff the championship trophy which will be hoisted at the Zalgirio Arena in Kaunas in mid-May.
But there is cautious optimism that this version of Maccabi can be the one to end the near decade drought and bring home the 7th continental cup.
A team that was cobbled together from next to nothing over the summer with the choice of a coach that perhaps did not have the faith of the entire fan base has proven on many levels that with the right group of individuals a collective of combined powers can be formed.
And that is exactly what happened since the team was under construction last summer.
Sometimes the question marks and rookies become important contributors while the stars perhaps take a step back and allow the team to grow and mature while the pieces of the puzzle begin to fit into place.
Katash had called on everyone to have patience and must have reminded the general public that this was a new team and it would take time to mesh and to jell. The one time prince of Israeli basketball knew what he was talking about as Maccabi had some ups and downs and went along a rocky road until everything seemed to click over the final quarter of the campaign and the wins started to flow like honey.
Although Nikola Vujcic the general manager, Avi Even the chief scout, David Blatt who is a special consultant with the club along with Katash built the team, ultimately the responsibility was going to be on the head coach’s shoulders and he knew full well that the magnifying glass was going to be right in top of him.
“I’m proud of the staff and everyone that we finished in fifth place which is something quite incredible for a team that was just out together this past summer,” Katash said. “I had an opportunity this season just as my players did and we all want to take advantage of that. The staff and players have been there during some of those not some great times and they were there to help me.”
There were very tough times when an injury occurred to Darrun Hilliard at the beginning of the season and when the swingman came back it seemed that he had fallen out of favor with the bench boss and his future with the team was in doubt. He was relegated to the end of the bench and barely stepped on the floor but as with most everything, time heals all wounds as Hilliard and his stealth shooting, came up big against Real Madrid when he cane off of a screen and drained a clutch triple with the score all knotted up at 90-90 in overtime.
Jake Cohen who also had moments over the course of the campaign where he was trying to find his footing couldn’t praise Hilliard enough about his contribution to the team and the win, “Hilliard was amazing and he deserves credit for that shot down the stretch. You know he has been a pro and a great teammate. That shot he took takes a lot of ‘Chutzpah’ in the American sense of the word. We had tough stretches but we won versus a very good team.”
Maccabi needs Hilliard to be the Hilliard they expected when they signed him over the summer and right now is his chance to make that step up and permanently wipe away those rough and tumble first few months.
“We had a lot of things things that occurred this year and Hilliard didn’t have an easy season just like some others here,”Katash explained. “But the fact is that we stayed together and we wanted to succeed and I need him and everyone. The journey that we made is part of who we are and I’m very happy about the big basket that he hit and the points he scored down the stretch.”
Lorenzo Brown went down at the start of overtime with a twisted ankle but was his usual level headed self as he had his feet in a bucket of ice water in the lockerroom after the game, “Definitely feels great a lot of hard work in this season. It feels good to get that last win and look towards the future. Real are one of those teams that comes to play hard and they have every aspect and they have the players that they need. I think that they are a Final Four team.”
Brown’s partner in crime Wade Baldwin picked up the slack when the Eurobasket champion went out and not only scored clutch baskets but orchestrated the offense by handing the ball off to Hilliard who made the big triple along with a wide open Roman Sorkin right under the basket. However, just how each and every player credits one another, Baldwin did the same as he wanted to make sure everyone would get their due.
“They just told us that this was the first 20 win season for Maccabi, a new coach new guys on this team, it’s unbelievable for this club what we have done and these guys were committed. The key was just being patient. We have a lot of great guys and me and Zo may get credit for things we do but everyone was amazing. Bonzie played great, Josh [Nebo] has done a great job all year and he has grown mentally doing the right plays and making the right reads. I’m very confident in Josh and Roman [Sorkin]. Everyone in this locker room. We got to refocus and play well for the last part of the season.”
The last part of the season is upon us and Monaco is harkening with Mike James, Jordan Loyd, Donatas Motiejunas Alpha Diallo, John Brown and on and on, Sasa Obradovic’s squad are no softies and there is a reason why they finished in 4th place with a better record than Maccabi. They are good, very good and shouldn’t be underestimated Katash said.
“Over the last few months we played very well against some of the best teams in Europe. We have enjoyed and improved our play as the games have gone by. We have to prove that we deserve to play against Monaco. You can’t go into a series against the 4th place team and feel that you are a favorite but you can bring that something special to the table.”
“To finish in fifth place and beat Madrid and have the run that we have had is a big accomplishment. Monaco has a very athletic team and they have their advantages. My joy is not because we are going to play Monaco make no mistake we are coming in as an underdog. But to win 20 games and play as we did this season, we can be very happy.”
Cohen knows that Monaco isn’t going to roll over for Maccabi and that an exciting series is going to be on tap, “It’s going to be a great series and they have a lot of talent. They have been playing so well this year. The fact that this is their second year and have gone to the playoffs twice and this year having home court advantage, they deserve a lot credit for what they have achieved. With that being said, we want to spoil that a little bit. We think we have great talent and a great team too so I think it’s going to be a really fun series.”
“It was a great year and now we have a new season ahead of us- Monaco,” Baldwin said. “We have to play our basketball for the next two months. If you go back in July and August you can draw a lot of comparisons between us and them. We will regroup, we have a trip to Monaco and the playoffs will bring a new challenge to us. We have to come with a proper game plan, enjoy the moment and let’s see how it goes.”
“We believe in ourselves and we are hungry to succeed,” Katash said. “We want it badly for us, for the fans, but let’s first get ready the opening game.”