“I think that defense was the key to the series,” that is what Real Madrid coach Pablo Laso said was the key in his postgame remarks following the 87-76 win over Maccabi Tel Aviv to complete a 3-game sweep in their quarterfinal series to advance to the Euroleague Final Four in Belgrade during the month of May.
The veteran bench boss who will be making his 7th appearance in the last stage of the continental season certainly hit the nail squarely on the head. Maccabi offered very little of it over the 160 minutes of game play against Real while the Spaniards were able to get the yellow-and-blue totally out of their game play to notch the series win.
“First I want to congratulate my players,” Laso begean. “I think they did a great job in this series, from the first minute until we finished it. I want to give a lot of credit to Maccabi. They keep fighting until the end. I think we were able to shut down Wilbekin and Nunnally, probably their most important players. We knew they are very dangerous. Wilbekin started hot, had 22 points, and Nunnally got 17, but still we were able to do a great job.”
Sure, Scottie Wilbekin was there for Avi Even’s troops in game one and game three while no one surfaced for the second game of the series but that was about it. Don’t let some of the numbers fool you on the final stat sheet of game three as most players were nowhere to be found in a series that Real masterfully shut down Maccabi’s run a and gun offense that worked so effectively for Even after having replaced Ioannis Sfairopoulos.
Maccabi was not up to the task to take on a well oiled machine like Real Madrid who have one weapon after another coming off of the bench with oodles of experience whether it was Sergio Llull who sliced up the yellow-and-blue or Fabien Causeur or Rudy Fernandez or Walter Tavares to just name a few. Even’s squad were just not good enough.
“For sure Sergio and Rudy have a lot of experience and they are important for us,” Laso commented. “I would love to play but I’m 54 so I can’t. Maccabi great Doron Jamchi also couldn’t play tonight. The veterans stepped up but the whole team did a great job and they understood the importance of the game from the first minute.”
There was never a moment in the series where you felt that Real wasn’t in control. Whether it was when Maccabi had tied up game one at 34-34 and Causeur hit a pair of triples with Madrid scoring a trio in 50 seconds or when Maccabi was ahead in the first quarter of game one and Llull came off the bench to drill home 3 from deep. It wasn’t going to be the yellow-and-blue’s series.
“Huge credit to them,” Maccabi captain John Dibartolomeo said. “They are talented offensive team and played with rhythm. They had confidence coming into the game after the way they played at home. They capitalized on our errors, they scored at the end of shot clocks and that’s why they had 18 assists and we were down by ten at the half.”
Sure, there were thoughts that Maccabi had a very good chance or perhaps were even considered favorites in this 4-5 matchup due to Real’s poor play over the month prior to the playoffs and also having lost at Yad Eliyahu on a 9-0 run in March. But this is still Real Madrid. The same team that is a European powerhouse and that competes in arguably the world’s best domestic league outside of the NBA as well as being part of one of the largest sports franchises on the planet.
“We took them seriously, from the beginning,” Real star forward Guerschon Yabusele said. “We know what they bring on the court, so we just needed to stay together, work together. That was really the key, and you know, going on the court and fighting, and making the least mistakes. It was really important for us to take these three games. Now we got to rest and get ready for what is coming next.”
Their pockets are deep, very deep and that is something that allows them to have a squad with 15 top level players who can move the ball at ease and overwhelm any and all comers. They can turn it on and they can turn it off on a moment’s notice.
Maccabi just doesn’t have that quality, what they do have are fans. Fans who tried to create the most difficult situation for Real to play in, but at the end of the day, quality trumps fan support.
“We are really happy to reach one of our goals at the beginning of the season,” game MVP Sergio Llull said. “The atmosphere was just crazy, it’s amazing to play basketball in this arena. I think we did a great job on offense and on defense. Everybody was really concentrated so we are really happy.”
Laso also spoke about the Maccabi fan support, “We knew the atmosphere was going to be great and I love to play here and see the fans getting into the game. We knew it was going to be hard. I told the players that we are Real Madrid and we love to play in this type of atmosphere. They pushed the team and I said we had to play more together. I give a lot of credit to the fans who pushed the team to the limit.”
Avi Even brought in a number of players over the summer to the delight of the fans but there are reasons why Maccabi were able to do so and that was exposed in this series. Brutal defense, not being quick enough on their feet, allowing Real to just move the ball around like a symphony orchestra and always being 2 steps behind on a drive or on a switch did Maccabi in while offensively they were stymied play after play.
“I feel sad and proud,” Even remarked. “I really wanted to take this game. I feel that we left everything on the floor, but unfortunately, we played against a very good team, and we didn’t really manage to win. The momentum is crucial and they have great players with big experience, they had good shots, good decisions, combined with crazy shots. But it is what it is.”
The ball didn’t move fluidly enough, Real held Maccabi to just a click over 11 assists a game and dished out 65 to Maccabi’s 34 while the Spaniards won the battle of the boards 111-91 over the course of the 3 games. Throw in the total efficiency rating of 331-193 and you have a first round or in this case quarterfinal knockout.
The stats don’t lie. And in most cases records don’t either.
As the great football coach Bill Parcells said “you are what your record says you are.” However, as much as Maccabi wants to sugarcoat the fact that they finished with a 17-11 record and that even without the three Russian teams who were excluded they would have made the playoffs.
“We recorded 17 wins without the Russians and would have had 18 with them,” Even stated. “We would have made the playoffs regardless as we beat Real, Milano and others at home. I am proud as to how we did and finished in 5th place. We played one of the best teams in Europe. We played every game hard and we stayed modest and hungry.”
That is just simply not true. Once CSKA Moscow, Zenit St. Petersburg and UNICS Kazan were taken out of the standings the entire dynamics of the rest of the season changed. Forget about the wins and losses, but the actual game play was altered as some teams didn’t have the pressure to win to make sure they had home court advantage in the playoffs and some teams were able to take their foot off of the gas.
Sure, Maccabi took advantage of having three losses taken out of their record and went on a run which ensured a playoff berth for the first time since the COVID-19 plagued season of 2020. For that they deserve a ton of credit for not looking a gift horse in the mouth, but they shouldn’t be fooled to think that they would have made the postseason anyways. Plus, what good was it to be swept away so one-sidedly by Real Madrid in a series that they were barely able to compete in?
There are positives for making the postseason from a matter of pride and sportsmanship no doubt and the players can say that they went to the playoffs as can the club when they sell season tickets for the 22/23 season. But this team needs an overhaul and a coach who has been at the highest levels of Europe should they want to be a true contender. Even and Maccabi were exposed dearly and Real went after their weak points which have plagued the yellow-and-blue since the start of the campaign and those flaws need to be corrected going forward.
Now it’s on to the Israeli league with the Classico against Hapoel Jerusalem on Sunday night as the teams battle it out for first place overall heading into the domestic playoffs. There is still plenty to play for and about 6 weeks until the championship series in June. Maccabi will unquestionably want to win the title once again and add another piece of hardware to their bountiful collection, but it won’t be easy. The Israeli league has been super competitive this year and there are a number of teams that are capable of taking home the crown.
“A lot of mixed emotions which makes sense and we could have done better this series, Dibartolomeo commented. “It’s been a tough ride in the Euroleague all things considered and we had a good run. Now we will continue on and try to win an Israeli league championship.”
Even will need to get back to playing the positive basketball that the club did before the Real series and also work on the mental state of the players to make sure they switch gears quickly or else they may be handed another disappointment by one of their contemporaries.
From getting the Israelis who did not play much in the playoffs from Iftach Ziv, Jake Cohen and Oz Blayzer back in the saddle to making sure that the imports who really in fact play and live for Euroleague basketball all get on the same page to make a run for the local championship.
“I’m not going to sum up the Euroleague season just yet and if I’m going to be the Maccabi coach or not next season. I’m proud to be part of this club and it’s a 24/7 job. I’m proud. We have a super, super important goal which is to take the Israeli league championship,” Even said.”
It won’t be easy and there is a big task ahead for the interim head coach, however, thankfully for Maccabi he has never been one to back down from challenges.