Maccabi escaped with a nail-biting 84-83 win against Žalgiris on Thursday night in its first game of the 2022-23 EuroLeague season. Here are some of my reflections from the opening night.
The Good: Coming home
There’s nothing like returning home, and the Maccabi fans filled the stadium to watch their team in EuroLeague play at Yad Eliyahu for the first time in 163 days. “The crowd really gave a performance,” Oded Katash said in the post-game press conference. “For a long time I haven’t been in the stadium – I was here last season in the game against Monaco with [Doron] Shefer when they inducted us into the Hall of Fame – but I haven’t really experienced it like this. It’s an exciting crowd.”
As a fan, I couldn’t hide the smile from my face: The Gate singing each player’s personalized song during the pre-game warmup; the sold-out crowd proudly singing Hatikvah before the tip-off; the singing and chanting of the various Maccabi anthems throughout the game. And to top it off, Maccabi got the win. There were an anxious last couple of minutes as Žalgiris came back late in the fourth quarter to take the lead, but the yellow and blue army never wavered in their support of their team as they continued cheering until the final buzzer.
To sum it up, it was great to be back, and I’m already impatiently waiting for the next home game against Monaco on October 18th.
The Bad: The Israeli contribution
As the only Israeli team in the EuroLeague – and with four of the top ten Israeli players playing in Israel (per the Sports Rabbi’s list of top 50 Israeli players in the Israeli league) – it was disheartening to see the Israeli players on the court for only a total of 14 minutes and 56 seconds. Perhaps this is a bit harsh of me, given the performance of the other players on the court – and perhaps we shouldn’t pay any attention to a player’s passport – but I love seeing our local stars performing in EuroLeague action.
Captain John DiBartolomeo (2 points in 8 minutes and 32 seconds, with 0/3 from three) lead the Israelis in minutes, but he struggled to make any real impact on the game. Rafi Menco (5 points, 1/1 from the field and 3/3 from the line in 6:24) had a respectable performance in his first EuroLeague outing, and although it would have been great to see him play more minutes, he earned praise from his coach after the game: “Rafi is mature, he’s at the right age, the right place. He has the confidence. He knows what we expect from him. It’s impossible to expect from a player in the EuroLeague for the first time, his first game at Yad Eliyahu. He was also a little excited. I think that in those circumstances he did some good minutes. I really trust and believe in Rafi.”
While it’s no surprise that returning fan favorite, Guy Pnini, did not see any game time, the most disappointing thing for me was that Roman Sorkin – who had a breakout season as a EuroLeague rookie last season – sat on the bench for the whole game. While the fans will get to see him and the other players who didn’t suit up for the EuroLeague in Winner League action in the coming days (with home games against Nes Ziona on Saturday night and Kiryat Atta on Tuesday night), I hope that we will see Maccabi’s Israeli players show why they are the best local talent as the EuroLeague season progresses.
The Ugly: Defense and rebounds
There were too many times during the first half that Maccabi looked very unsettled on defense, allowing their opponents to get some easy buckets and take some easy rebounds. It did not look pretty, and the numbers reflected what we saw – Žalgiris lead the rebound count both at half-time (22-12) and even extended that lead by the end of the game (43-26). While the defense improved in the second half (including causing 9 Žalgiris turnovers for a total of 15 turnovers for the game), it was very concerning that Maccabi let Žalgiris score 48 points in the first half and nearly steal the game in the dying minutes.
“First half, we were really confused on defense,” Katash observed. “I liked the way that the players reacted after half time. We played better defense in the second half. Better defense, and they made some tough shots, some contested shots. But you can’t find a lot of games you win when you lose by 17 rebounds.”
This is definitely an area in which Katash will need his team to improve quickly before next Friday night’s Round 2 away game against Fenerbahçe (who beat Bayern Munich 74-62 away in their opening game) and Maccabi’s former star, Scottie Wilbekin.