There was going to be only so long that Mike James was going to stay quiet and not make his mark for Monaco on one of these games against Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Euroleague quarterfinal series.
Sure, James had scored his points in both games one and two in the Principality, but he had not been the star of the show, the player that dictates Sasa Obradovic’s offense and the star that can just slice, dice and chop you up one piece at a time. But no worries, that’s exactly what he did in game three at Yad Eliyahu in Tel Aviv.
James paced the Monaco offense with 21 points, 18 of which coming in the first half while he dissected the Maccabi defense to perfection time and time again over the opening 20 minutes as he set the tone for the visitors to snatch a 83-78 victory and recapture home court advantage.
The fact is that, the Roca Team may not even need that final home game five in the series in order to advance to the Final Four. If they play the way they did in game three there is no reason to think that they can’t polish off the best-of-five game series in four games.
That was most certainly the attitude that all of the visiting players had when The Sports Rabbi spoke to James one-on-one following his all-world performance in the Monaco lockerroom. A cool, calm and collected James was level headed as were his teammates in what was a very, very quiet victory with no celebrations or just the bare minimum knowing that the series is not over just yet.
“It’s cool,” James began when asked about the win in which he scored 21 points. “It don’t really mean nothing in the grand scheme of things, we still got one more win we need to get. So we just got to keep moving forward.”
James who joined Monaco just in time for the 2021/22 season gave the franchise instant credibility. The Portland, Oregon native has been a star in almost every stop in his illustrious career whether it had been at CSKA Moscow in Russia, the team he played for just before signing in the Principality or with Milano, Panathinaikos and Baskonia.
Add to the fact that James has also played with three teams in the NBA including the Suns and Nets, there is no question that the star guard can bring it with the best of them. With that in mind, when General Manager Oleksiy Yefimov inked James to a deal to join the club, the European basketball world opened its eyes really, really wide. It was very quickly noted that Monaco was not just in the Euroleague for a season or two, they were there for the long run and to make an impact while competing for the top prize.
This team wasn’t going to be a one and done team like many others. Have a cup of coffee for a season and then head back down to the EuroCup. That was not in the cards for Monaco after winning Europe’s second tier title in 2019/2020; they are here to stay with not only James but a number of top level talent whether it may be Jordan Loyd, Donatas Motiejunas, John Brown or Elie Okobo.
“Mike was aggressive early, 1 on 1, he did a good job,” French international Okobo said of James to The Sports Rabbi. “He brought confidence for everyone else and we followed the way.”
James agreed that the key for him to break out early on was the way Maccabi changed their defensive strategy in trying to contain him, “They stopped triple teaming me and they began guarding me one-on-one basically. In the first two games it was a lot of doubles and heavy stunts and trying to get the ball out of my hands. I guess they tried to go with something a little bit different and guard me straight up and one-one-one. I like myself against a lot of people so I was able to get a rhythm and exploit some mismatches.”
Brown told The Sports Rabbi about how James was able to use his talent to get things going for Monaco just as Okobo had mentioned, “We had nothing to do with that. That was just Mike taking initiative on his own. He hit those shots and other guys got going so that just gave us what we needed.”
Perhaps the fact that the Maccabi fans came out in full force to jeer James and let him know what they think of him whether it was as he stepped off of the bus and entered the arena or when he stepped onto the court for the pregame warmups helped him out as well. But it was clear as day that the yellow-and-blue supporters weren’t going to bother James who was in the zone early and often.
While James finally broke out in game three thanks to Maccabi’s tactical decisions to defend him differently, that didn’t mean the guard who once upon a time played for Hapoel Galil Elyon in Israel’s Galilee region wouldn’t be ready for anything and everything Maccabi was going to throw at him whether it was on the court or off of it.
“This pressure, hostility, it doesn’t bother me,” James said. “I played at Panathinaikos with a similar atmosphere against Olympiacos. With all this hatred aimed at me, I see it more as recognition, a form of respect, even. I was ready to play no matter what. Not everyone is like me, but outside I like to be on the pace early, shoot big shots. I am calm in this situation.”
— Sports Rabbi (@thesportsrabbi) May 2, 2023
James, who attended Eastern Arizona College and Lamar University which are not powerhouse schools in terms of basketball programs, has faced plenty of adversity along the way. But the now 32 year-old has experienced and seen it all in his career which has led him to many corner of the hoops world.
“I was just prepared to do anything,” James said. “The first two games I was trying just to not force too much and get my teammates involved. Obviously, I had a lot of attention on me so I try to pass the ball and in this game it was the opposite so I felt I had to be aggressive to get us going. Luckily some people in the second half got going as well and we kind of just floated into the win.”
With a chance to wrap up the series, James understands full well what Monaco needs to do in game four in order to punch their ticket to Kaunus, Lithuania and the Final Four.
“Make sure everybody gets their body right, treatment, try to come with the same intensity and I think what led us today was that we played defense and stopped their transition. When Maccabi get in transition especially here [at Yad Eliyahu], they are hard to beat with Wade [Baldwin] and Zo [Lorenzo Brown].”
“We fought hard,” James continued. “We needed to come here and take back home-court advantage. We’ve only got two wins in the series. We’ve got a lot more to do and we’ll try to get one more. We needed to win and I knew that I had to step up for us to do it, so I came with that mindset.”