Preview: Maccabi Tel Aviv heads to Khimki Moscow with the goal of getting back on the winning track

The following article is in The Jerusalem Post October 23, 2020.

Maccabi Tel Aviv faces Khimki in Moscow on Friday night in Euroleague action as the yellow-and-blue enter the contest with a 1-3 record having lost three continental clashes in a row. Ioannis Sfairopoulos’s squad has been having trouble closing out games after having given up the game winning baskets in all three defeats as time wound down. The team has been competitive in the losses to CSKA, Bayern Munich and Olympiacos but the finishing touches just weren’t there for Maccabi for one reason or another.

The club began training a couple of weeks later than other teams around Europe due to the fact that the Israeli league’s 2019/20 season came to a conclusion at the end of July. Other league’s either never returned after shutting down in March because of the coronavirus pandemic or in the case of Germany and Spain ended much earlier than in Israel.

Another factor that has been an issue for Maccabi is that they barely had any exhibition preseason games which didn’t allow the coaching staff the chance to test out lineups and truly get their squad in game shape. In addition, the yellow-and-blue brought on new players in Ante Zizic and Dragan Bender who have either yet to have meshed with their new teammates or are still working themselves into shape because of the lengthy break that they faced once their respective NBA seasons came to an end back in the winter time.

One other issue that Sfairopoulos is having to deal with is that he doesn’t have the same tools that he had last season which was arguably Maccabi’s best since David Blatt brought home the 2014 Euroleague Championship. As they say you can’t put a square peg into a round hole or even better, you can’t ride a horse the same way you ride a donkey which may be more apropos for the Middle East.

Maccabi staff and players have been saying publicly that they are improving as every game goes by (and they are), however, you just can’t be using Euroleague regular season games as preseason contests. You can’t try things out on the fly, split minutes up and then hope to pull out the win, it doesn’t work that way, it just doesn’t. That is why Maccabi has faltered in the closing minutes of the last three games.

Let’s face it, Maccabi needed to start training earlier, Maccabi needed to play more exhibition games and Maccabi at this point really needs the Israeli season (which will begin on November 1) to try things out instead of using precious and valuable Euroleague games to work on plays and sets.

“We are sad because we lost our third game in a row in the final minute” said a disappointed Sfairopoulos following the defeat to Olympiacos last Friday. “We will continue to fight, practice and improve our game, especially on the small details, to get these types of wins in the future.” Elijah Bryant, one of the club’s holdovers from last season echoed the coach’s comments, “It’s sad to lose but these are games that we will win later in the season as we continue to get better and build good habits.”

Sports Director Nikola Vujcic brought in a pair of Croatian big men from the NBA this season in Ante Zizic and his compatriot Dragan Bender? Both have looked out of sync at times, more so Bender than Zizic but in Piraeus last Friday in a combined 20 minutes on the floor at the Peace and Friendship Arena the results were abysmal with a total of 4 points, 5 rebounds and 3 turnovers. That’s just not good enough and way off the mark as to what Maccabi Tel Aviv needs out of these players in order to win games.

We are certainly waiting to see Dragan Bender really start to play the passionate basketball that Maccabi is hoping. The issue is perhaps he just can’t and maybe we are now understanding what NBA teams have seen since being drafted in 2016 by the Phoenix Suns. Is he really a replacement for Quincy Acy who Maccabi didn’t re-sign for the 20/21 season? The answer thus far is a resounding no. “Dragan hasn’t played for months and it’s normal that he will have ups and downs,” began Sfairopoulos. “Up until two weeks ago he was just doing individual practices. We trust him and he has quality and he will find his rhythm and role.” Scottie Wilbekin also commented on playing with the two new big men, “I’m still trying to get used to playing with Zizic and Bender and it’s nice but we’re just trying to talk and figure out what we can do better, learn from this and move forward.”

Once we are on Ante Zizic, although he scored 19 points through 3 quarters in the loss to Bayern Munich he didn’t step on the floor in the fourth frame for better or for worse. Sfairopoulos explained why, “We wanted to play a switching defense and I was thinking with Othello Hunter on Wade Baldwin we would be better than Zizic on Baldwin.” Will Zizic be able to play a switching defense in due time? There are some serious doubts that he can. He just isn’t as flexible as Hunter is and as Tarik Black and Amare Stoudemire were who featured for the yellow-and-blue last year.

Sfairopoulos doesn’t have his defensive ace Yovel Zoosman who is still hurt, his captain John DiBartolomeo who is on the shelf and Omri Casspi who will return to training this week. Those are some big pieces to the puzzle that Maccabi are missing. Guard Chris Jones joined the club after playing in Turkey last season and is the only true ball handler who can free up Scottie Wilbekin to get his shots.

But once again, there is still an adjustment period going on, one that perhaps could have gone a bit better with time being of the essence as Wilbekin said, “I like playing with Chris and getting off the ball. He’s a new player and as a team we haven’t done the best job of figuring out how to play with each other. We need more time to get the most out of each other. I think we have to learn how to play together and find out how to cooperate with each other. We have to hurry up and get this stuff.”

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