The first game of the quarterfinal series between second-placed Maccabi Tel Aviv and seventh-placed Hapoel Tel Aviv kicked off at Menorah Mivtachim Arena on Thursday night (May 12), with the hosts running out 100-88 winners, taking a 1-0 lead in the series – and their first win over their cross-town rivals this season after three losses.
Scottie Wilbekin (31 points, including 3/7 from three and 10/10 free throws) and Keenan Evans (18 points and 7 assists) starred for Maccabi, while Bar Timor (19 points), James Young (17 points) and JP Tokoto (16 points and 6 rebounds) were the strongest performers for Hapoel.
Roman Sorkin (12 points and 4 rebounds) started at center for Maccabi in place of Ante Žižić, who is recovering from his frightening injury in Maccabi’s loss to Haifa on Monday night. The home crowd showed support for the star center with a huge banner before the start of the game, and he will definitely be missed by Maccabi until his return.
The teams were neck and neck for most of the first half. Maccabi started to look like they might pull away, building a 25-17 lead towards the end of the first quarter. But a late fight-back from Hapoel, including a 3 pointer from Timor with seconds left, saw Maccabi’s lead reduced to 28-25 at the end of the first quarter.
The teams continued to exchange buckets throughout the second quarter. A three from Gil Beni with 6:09 left in the quarter saw Hapoel take the lead 37-35 for the first since early in the first quarter, and the lead continued to change until the end of the first half. Just as they did in the first quarter, Hapoel finished the second quarter strongly, with late baskets from Timor and Tokoto giving them a 49-48 lead at the main break.
The third quarter opened with Wilbekin and James Nunnally (11 points, including 3/5 from three) scoring back-to-back threes for Maccabi. With each of them adding another three-pointer within the first three minutes of the quarter (and Wilbekin scoring 14 points in the third quarter alone), Maccabi looked like they were going to finally pull away, at one point leading by 9 points. However, Hapoel just wouldn’t let Maccabi out of their sight, with Maccabi going into the break with a slim 75-72 lead.
However, Maccabi looked like the much stronger team throughout the whole last quarter. When J’Covan Brown left the game with 6:24 remaining after his fifth foul, sending Derrick Williams (14 points, 5 rebounds) to the line, and Hapoel coach Danny Franco earned a technical foul from the sideline, Maccabi took an 87-79 lead after the free throws which they never looked like relinquishing.
After the game, Wilbekin – the night’s MVP – talked about the hype surrounding the game and the significance of the series after the three losses to Hapoel this season. “This is the playoffs and not the regular season,” Wilbekin said. “The only thing we are focusing on is the playoffs and that’s more important that the regular season. We want to win the championship. Everything else is just outside noise. This was a derby, but at the end of the day it’s the first round, and we have to get the championship.”
Maccabi coach Avi Even put emphasis on the importance of winning the first game in the series after already losing to Hapoel three times this season. “It was an offensive game, the two groups were not at their best defensively, I’m happy that we were able to improve our defense in the fourth quarter which helped us win the game. We now look forward to Sunday.”
Oz Blayzer (9 points, 6 rebounds and a block), a fan favorite, brought enormous energy when on the court, and he indicated that he will give it everything he’s got, notwithstanding the limited opportunities that he had during Maccabi’s EuroLeague season. “When I’m on the court, I give 200%. If I’m not, I work every day to maintain my fitness. My confidence is always high, my work gives me confidence. I’m here to win trophies, it doesn’t matter what happens on the way.”
On the other side, Franco told the press after the game, “This was not the game that we wanted here tonight,” making note of the impact of Maccabi taking 78 shots (at 44.9%) versus Hapoel’s 59 shots (at 50.8%).
Timor, Hapoel’s captain, focused also on two additional areas in which they were lacking: “Defensive rebounds and turnovers let us down… Defensive rebounds destroyed us.”
However, both coach and captain tried to take positives going forward, with Timor pointing out his team’s 20 assists and the fight that they showed in the first three quarters.
Franco also stressed that over the past couple of months, his stars have not been at full health, and their top players have not had the chance to play together consistently in the lead-up to the payoffs. “We came here to a place at which it is not easy to play, and we are not at full strength. Maccabi wanted to pull away, but we didn’t give up, and we came back. We have a group with a lot of character, a bonded group, a group that really loves to be together and wants to win games, and they have a lot more to give in this series.”
Both teams will now prepare for game 2 at the Drive in Arena on Sunday night.