Even turns Maccabi season around as Euroleague playoffs beacon

Mar 30, 2022 | Holyland Hoops

Avi Even deserves a ton of credit. The Maccabi Tel Aviv interim coach has worked his magic on a team that was absolutely dead in the water just a month ago. The Yellow & Blue had been floundering, struggling and had no cohesion as a team, a word that had become foreign over the last few months under former bench boss Ioannis Sfairopoulos and following Maccabi’s 95-83 win over Panathinaikos it’s clear that the players have bought into how the Israeli is managing the squad.

The players had stopped playing for Sfairopoulos and did not believe in his ability to continue to steer the ship. His time had run out.

After parts of four seasons it was time to move on from a coach who had brought back the word pride to the club and out its house back in order and for that Sfairopoulos should be feted for the long term. His professionalism and mannerism on the Maccabi bench was second to none and he exemplified the word “Maccabist”. But his message had gone stale and the cast of characters did not listen as the ship began to sink to the lower depths of the Mediterranean Sea.

Avi Even – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

When Even was appointed, there were plenty of skeptics, including this writer as to how the head of scouting would be able to make a difference on the sidelines after having never been a head coach. He certainly has experience as an assistant having worked with a number of to level maestros including David Blatt and Pini Gershon and he had also filled in a number of times, but he never had the big chance to take a team to call it his own.

Now he has it and he’s been able to grab the bull by the horns getting the team to play upbeat, positive and team basketball. Just as Williams had explained last week when I asked him about the changes the team has undergone. He used that word accountability and how the players are holding each other accountable.

Ioannis Sfairopoulos – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

But it’s also more than that. Even has been able to take the three players that Sfairopoulos had kind of tossed to the side in Derrick Williams, Jalen Reynolds and James Nunnally and turned them into a formidable force to the tune of 48 of the 95 points or a click over 50%. If Sfairopoulos had gotten that type of output he would still be coach. But it’s clear that the relationship was just not where it needed to be and the trust was not there. In fact, Reynolds praised Even last week saying he was the best coach.

Is Even the long term answer for the club? My initial though was no. Could he continue and succeed in the role? My answer to that now is yes. Pablo Laso, Real Madrid’s coach came out of nowhere after a number of years tolling in the lower leagues and has been at the helm since 2011. Am I comparing Even to Laso? No, but could Even’s impact may be more than just a quick fix? Perhaps, but there is also plenty of time until the end of the season between the Euroleague playoffs which was something of a pipe dream a week ago to the Israeli league championship that is still wide open. There is a lot of season to go and just as one can be king one day, they can be the goat the next.

“There are always slim chances you don’t make the playoffs and slim chances that you do,” game MVP Derrick Williams said.” But I never gave up hope. We work hard every single day, we are in the gym every day. It [would be] good for our fans good for our team.”

Jalen Reynolds – Photo Credit: Euroleague.net

Reynolds spoke about downing Panathinaikos which is a shell of its former self, “We came out and competed, played a good team and we got the job done defensively, offensively and excited down the stretch. This was very important, every game matters and it’s definitely not easy to go on the road and get the win. We got to stay focused and continue to be aggressive and stay together.”

The last time Maccabi won at OAKA was almost a decade ago and I have seen my fair share of Yellow & Blue losses at the legendary arena, but this game was very different than many that had been played in the past. The PAO Ultras were not out in full force and just a smattering were there as they showed their disgust as to where this once proud franchise once was. It was sad to see the swaths of empty seats throughout the facility.

But that also played a factor in Maccabi’s performance, one that didn’t start off too well but ended just fine.

“We didn’t start great,” Williams noted. “But it’s not about how you start but about how you finish and we played well as the game went on. The only thing that we got to change is our rotations in the first half, making sure we are on point, concentration and focus. Coach is always talking about that and we finished the game like that.”

Derrick Williams – Photo Credit: Euroleague.net

Williams also spoke about wanting to make a point that Maccabi can win on the road which has been something of a struggle all season long, “We wanted to make a statement today. Our road record hasn’t been that great this year, I think it is the complete opposite of our home record. So we wanted to come out here, make a statement. We’ve been playing consistent the last two weeks, so we just want to keep it going. It is a lot of positive momentum, so everything is going well right now.”

Next up is a home date against ASVEL Villeurbanne and Maccabi would love to notch yet another victory and punch there postseason ticket with a win. At 14-11 the Yellow & Blue could ensure their playoff participation with a victory with two games to spare. Of course they would still like to finish off their season in as best position as possible and avoid the two Spanish powerhouses in Barcelona and Real Madrid but they still in fact have a road contest at Barca and a home tilt against Fenerbahce to go.

There will be plenty of emotions at Yad Eliyahu after the terrorist attacks this past week which left no less than 11 innocent people dead. Fans will be singing at the top of their lungs and Israeli flags will be on full display in support.

Even spoke about the unfortunate incidents immediately after the win over Panathinaikos at the post game press conference, “It was a very tough night with another terror attack in Israeli and it’s tough for me to talk basketball. Our heart and the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball club’s thoughts are with the victims and we hope that the injured will recover.”

Deni Avdija – Photo Credit: Washington Wizards

Former Maccabi forward Deni Avdija also reflected on the attacks from the Washington Wizards facility when queried about the situation, “Next game I will wear shoes that will have written on them “Am Yisrael Chai” The Nation of Israel Lives – My heart is with Israel and I am upset as to the situation. There are things that are bigger than basketball and it’s tough as I have friends and family in Israel. I want to send my best out to the families of the victims and hope that the attacks end soon.”

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