Hapoel Holon always seemed to have a problem last season to out their mark on key games. Whether it was in the State Cup competition, Basketball Champions League or the Israeli domestic league, Holon always came up a wee bit short (no insult meant to the Balkan League title intended).
However, the 2021/22 version of the purples don’t seem to be the same team that graced the courts around the Holy Land. Of course, there are new players that replaced the old, an Italian maestro replaced a Greek bench boss, but the one constant that remained was the battle tested, former NBA swingman Chris Johnson.
The Israeli league’s 2021 defender of the season is back and better than ever, always playing at 110% and now knowing anything else. Going all out on every play, for every ball and for every second on the court, Johnson is the unquestioned barometer and leader for Maurizio Buscaglia’s squad.
“I want a thousand players like him (Johnson),” Buscaglia said at the post game press conference. “He can cover two-three roles against Maccabi. He denied Maccabi from three and played well without the ball. In this game we all followed Chris’s example.”
Johnson who attended the University of Dayton for four years began his professional basketball career in the G-League with the Rio Grande Vipers and made his NBA debut in the 2012/13 season with the Memphis Grizzlies. Over the course of four seasons, Johnson played for five NBA teams and made 170 appearances in the world’s best with 70 coming during the 2015/16 campaign with the Utah Jazz.
There’s no question that Johnson can go toe-to-toe with the best of the best as he uses his veteran instincts and abilities to absolutely neutralize anybody and anyone in his way explained teammate Steven Gray to The Sports Rabbi.
“I think the biggest thing with Chris is we know exactly what we are going to get. His effort defensively is probably the biggest thing. He can basically eliminate a player or a matchup with his ability to guard multiple positions. His energy offensively with rebounding and cuts off the ball gives us solutions if the offense isn’t flowing.”
Johnson, who made his Israeli league debut for Hapoel Jerusalem back in 2018/19 then went on to play in France before returning to the Holy Land to anchor Stefanos Dedas’s team in 2020/21. During such a challenging season, Johnson and Holon made waves playing entertaining basketball and shooting lights out from deep game by game.
Had it not been for a concussion, perhaps Johnson would have been able to help Holon get by Hapoel Gilboa Galil in the semifinals of the Israeli league. However, this version of the purples seems to be more well-rounded he explained, “This season we have more size and athleticism whereas last year we played more ISO one-on-one along with having more guys who can finish and make more plays.”
Johnson also felt that Maccabi had improved and while beating the Euroleague contenders in nice, well, it’s just one more win.
“They have more athleticism this year and are better, but we came out strong and fought hard. I told my players not to get caught up with the refs and just stay focused on the task at hand. To me it’s another win. Maccabi is a good but we now move on.”
Maccabi coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos didn’t get too caught up in the loss and brushed off the defeat as they now ready for a slumping and ever dangerous CSKA Moscow, “We didn’t have great concentration as to what we planned especially defensively where we weren’t focused enough. We started the game with great effort and scored 27 points, but from the second quarter we lost our concentration and let our opponents score easy points. It’s hard to win when you allow the home team to score 88 points.”
While the Yellow & Blue may have allowed easy points, the Maccabi defense was still able to close down some of Holon’s key players including sharp shooter Steven Gray who only got into a rhythm during the final frame scoring a trip of triples when the hosts finally created enough separation to put the game away.
“I was happy to knock down a few 3’s today. I just have to stay patient and understand that there are so many moments within the game. So when my moment comes and I have good shots to be ready and knock them down. Today was great to reinforce that belief.”
Prior to the game Buscaglia stressed the importance of playing a high tempo, high energy game which they were able to do in front of an almost sold out Holon Arena. “We spoke about desire and high energy and my players did that getting important rebounds, playing without the ball along with sharing the ball.”
Johnson agreed with the coach about how they made sure not to have a repeat performance that they had last week in the capital city as they were able to feed off of the electricity that the fans were able to produce.
This of course was a non-factor last year when fans were not allowed in the stands, “We brought energy that we didn’t have in the last game against Jerusalem. You have to bring it every night. Last year it was quiet in the arena when we played Maccabi with just the players and you guys (the media) but this year the fans did an amazing job and tonight they helped us to the win.”