It doesn’t get better than this: Maccabi heads back to Playoffs; this time to the Belly of the Beast, Panathinaikos

Apr 17, 2024 | Holyland Hoops

The Killer B’s are back and better than ever for Maccabi Tel Aviv as Lorenzo Brown and Wade Baldwin have hit their stride just in time for and rock ‘em, sock ‘em quarterfinal series against Panathinaikos with the winner heading to the Euroleague Final Four in Berlin later in the month of May.

The yellow-and-blue notched a playoff spot for the 4th time in 5 seasons and the second in a row under Head Coach Oded Katash who has proven once again to be a player’s coach and one who understands the intricacies of taking a team to the Promised Land.

After finishing the regular season with a 20-14 record which was good for 7th place overall, Maccabi was forced to take part in the Play In game to get into the playoffs against Baskonia. However, that didn’t seem to matter to this group of guys as they crushed the Spaniards to punch their ticket to what will be yet another classic quarterfinal series against Panathinaikos.

Lorenzo Brown – Credit: Djordje Kostic

Heading into the Baskonia matchup there were certainly plenty of questions surrounding Maccabi Tel Aviv. From how to stop the stealth Markus Howard to how healthy is Lorenzo Brown and Wade Baldwin arriving in Belgrade late due to a bureaucratic issue with his son’s passport not to even mention the over 300 missiles and drones being launched by Iran at the Jewish State.

“Wade means a lot to this team,” Katash commented. “We can talk a lot about Wade and Lorenzo and we can add Bonzie Colson and Josh Nebo that continued with the team from last year, they are the heart of the team and Wade is great for us. He is a leader for us on and off of the court. Nothing has been easy for us this year including the last three days to prepare for this type of game was kind of crazy too. But maybe we are used to it already, to play under these circumstances and we showed a lot of character which is an achievement for us which makes it even more special than last year because of the situation.”

Baldwin also recognized the challenges that the team had experienced since the weekend while praising the Israel Defense Forces, “We had another 48 hours that’s been crazy. First and foremost we want to shout out to Israel and the defense system that is protecting us as players and getting out here and dealing with the circumstances. Our team really appreciates the support that we get from our country and from our fans. This was a team win from everybody, we were locked in and focused and left all of the distractions away and we were able to play a very good game.”

Credit: Djordje Kostic

The yellow-and-blue had plenty of excuses had the Play In game not go their way and in fact they have a million and one reasons why the season could have ended in disaster way back when in October when Hamas launched a war an assault on Israel.

But not this team. They have stuck together from beginning to end and then some to get to this point in time once again just as they did last season when they played an all-out stellar series against Monaco which they ended up losing in heartbreaking fashion in five games.

That is one massive advantage Katash and Maccabi will have over Panathinaikos as the core of the yellow-and-blue have already been through a payoff series together whereas Ergin Ataman’s squad have not. In reality, PAO is where Maccabi was last season but they do have home court advantage and the decisive 5th game, should the series get there will be played at a hopping 20,000 seat OAKA Arena in Athens.

Wade Baldwin – Credit: Djordje Kostic

But there is plenty of time until Maccabi would even get to a 5th game with the dynamic duo of Brown and Baldwin back playing their best basketball.

Both guards came out flaying against Baskonia and set the tone very, very early on, so much so that the game was pretty much done before the first quarter had come to an end. With Brown going 7/8 from beyond the arc and scoring 29 points to Baldwin’s all-around performance that ended with 26 points, it was game, set and match after taking a 28-15 lead by the end of the opening quarter.

Brown was very content with his showing as well as how much better he is feeling as we head into money time, “It was much needed performance by me for my confidence and for my teammates as well. No one really knows the pain that I’ve been going through with the nerve in my hip and I feel much better and I feel like I am agile. I feel grateful that the pain is actually gone. I was feeling it and it was much needed for us in this game and looking forward to the next ones.”

Markus Howard – credit: Baskonia

Markus Howard was always going to be the focus of the Maccabi defense and the chmes that the staff put together were second to none as Antonius Cleveland shutdown the sharp shooter and slasher and once that was done, there was no doubt that Dusko Ivanovic’s crew were going to be in for a long and lengthy night.

“Coaches did a good job with the scouting report,” Brown remarked. “Markus Howard was our focus and the guys who guarded him did a helluva job by stopping his 3-point shot and penetration. It was a great scout by the coaches and they deserve credit for that.”

Cleveland also chimed in about shutting down Baskonia, “Total team effort from the about and from every player that stepped foot on the court, we came out and executed the game plan and we had fun most importantly and the scoreboard showed that.”

Bonzie Colson – Credit: Djordje Kostic

Maccabi has no doubt been through a lot this year with having to play their Euroleague home games in Belgrade after the assault on Israel on October 7th as well as the Iranian attack that took place between Saturday night and Sunday morning. It took the plyers some time to adjust but adjust they did both back in October as well as the couple of days before the crucial Play In contest. All season has been one big adjustment and changes on the fly for Maccabi and Katash has been the glue that has kept the squad together. For that he deserves a tremendous amount of credit.

Who in the world thought Maccabi would be where they are now just a little over half a year ago. Katash has been a miracle worker and should be commended and recognized for the work he has done with this team.

However, not being considered for the coach of the season is not something that Katash is even thinking about, “It doesn’t really bother me and I am really proud. We know what crazy circumstances we had that we found a way to fight and compete and to get the results, I’m not really thinking about myself but of the players and the organization who I am really happy for. We made people in Israel very happy so I’m not thinking about an individual award.”

Oded Katash – Photo credit: Djordje Kostic and Dragan Tesic

Now the story shifts to Greece where Panathinaikos will give Maccabi everything and more that they can handle.

Although the yellow-and-blue beat PAO in both meetings this season, those games have to be taken with a grain of salt. The first meeting took place in October at OAKA in a game that Maccabi was absolutely flying and started to run away with until Ataman’s squad sent it into overtime where Maccabi ultimately had the upper hand. The second game between the two took place in January at Pionir Arena in Belgrade and Panathinaikos did not have their pair of point guards in superstar Kostas Sloukas and Luca Vildozza who were both injured.

Brown knows that PAO will be a tough series but will look back at their experience in order to be very well prepared for the quarterfinals ahead, “As for Panathinaikos, they are a great team and there will be a great atmosphere there as they are one of the best crowds in Euroleague and they have a good team. But focus on details and play our game, we have great players on our team and a great coaching staff. It’s back to the drawing board for us it’s the same thing as last year and we’ve been here before so I think the guys are well prepared and mentally well prepared for sure.”

Wade Baldwin – Credit: Djordje Kostic

“We are going to the belly of the beast,” Baldwin enthusiastically said. “It’s a Greek atmosphere that’s one of the tops in Europe. We got to be ready and we will talk a week to prepare for Panathinaikos and it will be a great matchup with two very good teams and we will see how it will play out.”

Games one and two will be on Tuesday and Thursday respectively in Athens while games three and if necessary four will be back in Belgrade the following week on Tuesday and Thursday as well. If there will be a need for a game five that will be on Wednesday May 8 back at OAKA.

The history of the two teams is intertwined and has been for years. From Katash having once been a star player for both teams including winning the Euroleague championship for the Greeks over Maccabi, to having recently been the club’s head coach and now in charge of the yellow-and-blue, the storylines are oozing with plenty of schmaltz.

Antonius Cleveland – Photo credit: Djorde Kostic

Another chapter is about to be written between these two great franchises as a trip to the Final Four is on the line.

“It’s going to be tough and this is what we wanted,” Cleveland said. “They are a great team and it’s a great opportunity for us to keep growing and just play some playoff basketball it’s doesn’t get better than this.”

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