Keenan Evans orchestrated the offense while Ante Zizic dominated the paint in what was one of Maccabi Tel Aviv’s most complete performance of the season as they disposed of Olympiacos who have been flying high throughout the campaign.
But it wasn’t just the offensive showing that won the Yellow & Blue who were wearing white for this special 90th Anniversary game, it was the defensive effort shown by each and every one of the players who took part in the victory.
The defense was stifling, the defense was swarming, the defense was well just plain old battling for every loose ball, understanding where and when to be in the correct position as well as knowing how to stop Olympiacos from having easy scoring chances.
There’s no question that Ioannis Sfairopoulos and his squad spent the two week COVID-19 break working on fundamentals, defense and of course offense in order to try and get back into the race for a Euroleague playoff spot. Maccabi now sports a record of 8-11 with two more continental tilts coming up next week in which both are winnable against ALBA Berlin and Fenerbahce.
“We took advantage of the break in our favor,” Sfairopoulos said. “We rested and we practiced. We reinforced ourselves and our bodies both mentally and physically and we worked on details.”
The key word over here is details and that is where Maccabi really made a huge difference in their game, the details in which so many times this season they would get caught up in. However, that would not be the case this time around.
“When you don’t have a preseason you can’t control the way the team will look,” the bench boss continued. “We had time to practice these things and we gave very smart fouls to stop easy baskets. This was my best game in four years where we saw this. I think the key was the beginning of the fourth quarter, they didn’t score in the first 5 minutes. We want to continue to play with habits.”
The entire team from 1 through 12 played defense, but not only played defense they committed to their defense and it as clear that this was a major area that was worked on during the couple of weeks off. Derrick Williams was blocking shots, grabbing rebounds and boxing out, Angelo Caloiaro did the same along with some solid minutes from Jake Cohen where he made a pair of intelligent fouls as Sfairopoulos had indicated.
Both Ante Zizic and Keenan Evans stood out in their overall efforts in the victory. Where Zizic led the way with 23 points, Evans played the role of floor general to a “T” bringing up and distributing the ball like a veteran as he has become more and more comfortable in his role.
“Keenan is still playing for the first time in his career in the Euroleague and he can have his ups and downs. It’s also the first time he has played 3 times a week. He has to be ready to play mentally and physically. The period we were out we rested and pushed ourselves in practices and you could see that the players were fresh. We were fresh with more power and mentally fresh to do the right things,” Sfairopoulos noted.
Evans spoke as to how he saw his role evolving with the club, “My teammates have faith in me and they said do this and do that. We are reading each other better and we are bonding on the court and this has helped elevate my game.”
As for Zizic, Sfairopoulos is very content as to where his big man is heading, “Ante is performing very well this year and he has big presence inside the paint both offensively and defensively. His teammates took advantage of him really well and with the timing of his passes and whenever he tried to help we found him and we finished.”
The Croatian was the main reason that Maccabi was able to open up a gap in the third quarter which has been one of the issues for this team all season long. The Yellow & Blue made a concerted effort and had the right energy to put the Greek side away right after the halftime break.
“At halftime we talked about what we were capable of doing and when we came out we were more aggressive, played tough defense, shared the ball and our offense helped us get that lead,” Zizic commented.
Sfairopoulos put an emphasis on this, “We worked and improved. We came back after halftime and we were more focussed and determined to do the things we wanted to do.”
While this was just one win after 8 straight losses, the players were very happy to get that proverbial monkey off of their backs as they look to turn the page on the firsts half of their season and try their hardest to find a way into the playoffs. But that will take some pretty hard work and a 11-5 record in their final 16 games. They’re 1-0 and could be 3-0 by this time next week. Will they be is a different story, but they made the first steps towards that mini-goal.
“We just needed one game to turn it around,” Zizic said. “We have a tough schedule but most of the games doming up are at home.”
Evans also saw the victory as a chance to get back into the swing of things and point the ship in the right direction, “I hope that this is the spark that gets us going. I think we are really focussed to not go on another losing streak. The break allowed us the time to look at things, we watched film on ourselves and coach gave us great criticism and we worked on a bunch of things.
“We came out with a good start and we wanted to grit and grind teams down. We put in a lot of work these two past weeks and we wanted to get that win.”
And that’s exactly what they did. They got the win and kept their chances alive to get back into the playoff hunt.