Maccabi Tel Aviv couldn’t have dreamed of a better start to their Euroleague season after dominating Partizan Belgrade who looked as if they had been stunned to see the ghosts of Yad Eliyahu past. Whether it was Kevin Punter, James Nunally or continental newcomer Frank Kaminsky, Oded Katash scored a knockout over his former coach the legendary Zeljko Obradovic.
The yellow-and-blue played terrific basketball from the opening minute and put up incredibly high numbers, finishing with 55 points in the first half. The offense couldn’t have been any better as Lorenzo Brown raised his level knowing that Wade Baldwin would be on the shelf for at least a couple of weeks with a back injury.
Zo, as he is affectionally known, made a massive impact on the club last season which prompted management to sign the star guard to a new long term deal that will keep him at Yad Eliyahu for the next few years. And what a terrific decision that was.
After a subpar performance in the Winner Cup preseason final, there was no question that that game was in his books an exhibition matchup to help ready the team for the real thing, the Euroleague.
Brown danced on the court to his won tune as he started the game off with a flurry of triples and deuces. Before you knew it he was up to 13 points after the first quarter and went into halftime with a cool 22 points which gave Maccabi a 55-43 advantage after twenty minutes.
The guard turned it on to lead and turned it on to show everyone exactly what he can do on the floor for his team in the tome of need. There is no question that losing Baldwin was a huge hit to the team and that everyone needed to step up in order to make up for his loss and that stared with the top, Maccabi’s numero uno, Lorenzo Brown.
“For sure, I just do the work people don’t see. I try to make myself better and my teammates,” Brown said. “The basketball gods were in my favor at the start of the game. I’m in here every day working hard to be that type of player, it was my night.”
Antonius Cleveland who made his Maccabi debut and scored 4 points all free throws, also felt that Brown put in an all world performance, “Zo is a gamer he just came out ready to play and you could tell that he was locked in. That’s why he is first team all EuroLeague. He made it look easy. We kind of just got on his back, followed him, he led us tonight.”
Cleveland himself was making his Euroleague debut after having played at Hapoel Eilat last season and he couldn’t have been happier with finally getting his chance on the big stage, “It felt good man, crowd was electric. We played pretty well as a team and we got the win. The only thing different to me was the crowd. I never really played in an environment like that probably since college. That was the first thing that stood out. I felt comfortable and everything else seemed pretty normal, everything other than the crowd.”
Brown felt that Cleveland fit right into the team making quite the comparison to an NBA great, “He is the EuroLeague Kawhi Leonard right there man. Defensively he is a beast. On the offensive end he can push the ball and do whatever you want him to do. He can guard from 1 through 5, make the open shots and you can see how athletic he is. That just speaks for itself.”
Josh Nebo who dropped 14 points, also had high praise for Cleveland after his debut, “Anotonius played amazing today on defense. What he did may not show up on the stat sheet, deflections, passing ability and his slashing ability is just amazing.”
As Nebo said there is plenty of things that the 29-year old Memphis, Tennessee native can do for the club that may not show up in the boxscore and his coach Oded Katash understands that as well, “AC is a great guy and he wants to learn every day. His intensity in the Euroleague league is still new to him him and there will be upside. His body type and defending is terrific and he can be a major factor for us but there is still a lot of work to do over the upcoming months, the level of play that we saw from him gives us a lot of hope going forward.”
Cleveland wasn’t the only player making his Maccabi debut as Tamir Blatt with 8 points and 8 assists returned to Israel after two seasons at Alba Berlin and fit like an absolute glove after having experienced Euroleague play and understood its demands.
“Tamir knows how to play the game,” Cleveland explained. “He’s not afraid to make the passes, make the right play and set his teammates up. He is also not afraid to be aggressive. I’m jealous when I’m not out there with him sometimes, I love playing with him.”
Nebo concurred, “We all know Tamir Blatt, he’s played in the Euroleague for two years and we all know what he can do.”
“I have played with Tamir from the age of 14,” Roman Sorkin said. “He is a huge addition. He knows Oded’s system which is great and he plays at a high level. We are happy he is on our team.”
As for Katash, he is thrilled to be able to coach Blatt once again after having him with a number of teams including the Israel National Team and Hapoel Jerusalem, “Tamir is in his third season in the Euroleague and for sure it’s exciting for him to be playing for a team in Israel now. We relied on him and he showed leadership and his passing was excellent in this game.”
“I call Tamir the quick trigger,” Brown said. “He has a quick shot he’s like a Ray Allen type of guy. For a small guy he can see over defenders and makes those tough passes. He’s going to be big player for us this year.”
Having a quick trigger and one that is always ready to shoot is no doubt one of Blatt’s true attributes that he goes back to time and time again as it makes no difference to him. He will take his chances no matter what as he gets used to a new team.
“The start of the season was great and thanks to the crowd who pushed us. Alba helped me a lot as my first steps in EuroLeague were there,” Blatt said. “The main thing is that most of the players stayed from last year. It’s a great thing because everyone knows the system and 3-4 new players who joined the club are all settling in.”
Yet another new player to the team is James Webb who was happy to get his first Maccabi game under his belt, “It felt great we protected home court we hit some shots which let us breakaway. In the second half we started a bit slow, but we picked it up. Guys getting used to each other and working on it as we go. We need to play like ourselves and we need to keep our identity. Everything else will take care of itself. Maccabi pretty much has the same core along with the new guys like Jasiel Rivero and myself. We learned our roles and the team has embraced us.”
Rivero had a wonderful showing as well with 11 points including some that came at very important points in the game explained Katash, “Jasiel was able to help us, he’s a tough player and opens up the floor and was dominant in the paint as he helped us to win the game.”
While Baldwin is injured, Maccabi has been looking for an additional player to add to their roster. Katash said, “There always is that chance and I am praying that it’s not too serious. We will be smarter in about 7-10 days. We will need to bring in another player in this case as we look at the schedule this upcoming month and we are short in the guard position. Just like we did with Jalen Adams last season we will need to do the same this season.”
However, it’s not just bringing in any player, but one that will fit right into the culture of the team which is something that the club has taken very seriously and according to Jake Cohen deserve plenty of kudos.
“Credit to management for not just bringing great players, but also high quality guys. Everyone in this league has talent. What separates teams in this league is how you play together and a lot of that starts in the lockerroom. Playing with the new guys and watching them fit in is great.”