Relax and everything will be alright for Maccabi TLV, Less is more at Hapoel TLV, 90% of the game is half mental for Jerusalem

Mar 15, 2024 | Holyland Hoops

Maccabi Tel Aviv went into Stark Arena for a tough road game against Red Astra, a team that has given the yellow-and-blue so many problems over the years they are too many to count. In fact, Maccabi had not won at Crvena Zvezda since the fall of 2013, over a decade and after the first half of Thursday night’s game in Serbia it looked like that streak would stay intac5 for yet another year.

However, it seemed that Maccabi head coach Oded Katash had other ideas for his team as he looked to bump the club’s record up to 16-13 and stay in contention for an automatic spot in the quarterfinals.

“During halftime we spoke about relaxing and coming back through our style, aggressive, consistent but we have to relax,” the Israeli tactician told his charges at halftime. “That was the key. We had 3-4 good minutes in the third quarter that changed the momentum of the game. We showed character and this was a very important win for us if we want to reach our goals in the Euroelague.”

Oded Katash – Photo credit: Dov Halickman

And that was that.

Maccabi actually went down by 18 points as the third quarter began but from that point on it was all yellow-and-blue as Ioannis Sfairopoulos had no answers to stop his former club who chalked up a 84-80 victory in absolutely stunning style.

Red Star came into the game with no less than five players out of the lineup for one reason or another and that lack of depth really hurt the hosts especially when one of this players is the all world guard Milos Teodosic who always sees, to find a way to carve Maccabi up.

Ioannis Sfairopoulos – Photo credit: Dragana Stjepanovic

But without a deep bench, Sfairopoulos saw his players tire over the course of the second half especially up and coming guard Yago Dos Santos who unfortunately took an inadvertent elbow from Bonzie Colson which resulted in a concussion as well as a fracture of the front wall of the frontal sinus area which usually requires surgery as per the club’s statement.

Lorenzo Brown, Wade Baldwin along with Colson and the MVP of the game Josh Nebo went right for the gut while captain clutch John Dibartolomeo drilled home a Kate game triple to seal the deal and send Maccabi into their final double week of the season with games against Villeurbanne and Bayern Munich.

There’s no question that Maccabi has a better team than Red Star, anyone who looks at the rosters will see that without much of a problem, but any road game in Serbia and one at Stark Arena is going to be an issue. The 20,000 seats facility provides quite the home court advantage with fans sitting right on top of the benches and the court as the sound reverberates throughout the gym.

Lorenzo Brown – Photo credit: Dov Halickman

Bottom line it’s not an easy place to play and after Maccabi had choked up a 24-point lead to a Partizan Belgrade in the same arena just a number of months ago, there’s no question that the loss was still sitting on them throughout the first half. But Katash’s message at halftime to relax was no doubt the key moment in the game for Maccabi as they rolled off yet another win.

Maccabi showed just how mentally string they are by mounting such a huge comeback over the final twenty minutes and Nebo who never complains that he is tired mentioned it a number of times in his post game interview that having to overcome such a massive deficit took a ton out of him and the rest of the players.

However, this is perhaps the difference between Maccabi Tel Aviv and the other Israeli teams that had a brutal week in Europe. From Hapoel Tel Aviv holding a huge lead and blowing it over the course of the second half to Besiktas in a win or go home EuroCup quarterfinal game, to Hapoel Jerusalem not being able to show up against Peristeri where they could have clinched a quarterfinal spot in the Basketball Champions League to Hapoel Holon who did manage to hold on to beat Promitheas but also blew a huge advantage that could have allowed the purples to control their own destiny. So much of the game is mental as I talk about later on in the column.

Maccabi Tel Aviv – Photo credit: Dov Halickman

Will Maccabi be able to avoid the Play In and head directly into the quarterfinals should they run the table or even lose one game in their last five? We’ll find out soon but don’t doubt the yellow-and-blue, they have proven to be mentally strong and have been in the same position in the past.

But they need to remember one thing, relax, everything will be alright.

Danny Franco – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

I’ve been saying this for quite some time, that “Less Is More” in reference to Hapoel Jerusalem over the past month and that same old adage has now hit Hapoel Tel Aviv after being bounced out of Europe in embarrassing fashion by Besiktas. The Reds having been ahead by close to 20 points at one point or another during the one game knockout quarterfinal fell apart in embarrassing fashion over the course of the second half to succumb to the Turklsh squad and crash out of continental competition.

Danny Franco’s squad jumped out to what should have been a good enough lead to advance to the semifinals where Bourg from France was already waiting but that was before a 57-39 halftime lead evaporated over the course of the final twenty minutes in what was painful as painful can be. Besiktas chipped away and chipped away which took care of Hapoel’s lack of desire and drive during the second half as one player after the next couldn’t help stop the bleeding and Hapoel disintegrated along with their European dreams.

There was clearly too much going on around the club over the course of the past few weeks leading up to the “do or die” matchup. From Xavier Munford’s suspension for cannabis use to the Israel Basketball Association’s hearing, will he play or will he not, how much practice time will he have ahead of the game and what kind of shape is he in, there was an endless news cycle that featured “X”. J’Covan Brown who has a long history of injury issues saw him go flying off of the court in the first half and into the stands sending him to the bench injured but then returned to the game at the end of the third quarter but after a missed triple and foul was taken out.

Xavier Munford – Photo credit: Yehuda Halickman

How about the decision to play in Vilnius at an arena that the club was unfamiliar with instead of staying Belgrade where they had played their home continental slate. Sure, the Reds wanted fans to attend which was not going to be possible in Serbia but was an option in Lithuania and that is obviously a legitimate decision. But when you don’t know the arena or the floor you’ll be playing on for what is a home game, that puts you at a massive disadvantage.

Beating Hapoel Eilat by the Red Sea is one thing, it doesn’t take that much effort and talent and basketball know-how. But finding a way past an experienced team like Besiktas with a top up and coming Serbian coach in Dusan Alimpijevic who knocked off a serious Spanish team in Gran Canaria just last week is a totally different proposition.

The entire season for Hapoel Tel Aviv has been a revolving door. There’s no question that the campaign has not been a simple one due to the war that broke out on October 7th when Hamas decided to maliciously attack the State of Israel. But the Reds have seen one player after the next come in and out of the lineup from Dez Wells to Will Cummings and from Kyle Alexander to Braian Angola, Xavier Munford, Jaylen Hoard, John Holland and J’Covan Brown.

J’Covan Brown – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

Eight foreigners is a tremendous amount for a EuroCup team that also has solid Israelis in Tomer Ginat, Bar Timor and Idan Zalamnson. It’s an embarrassment of riches which leads us back to “Less Is More” once again.

Somehow the man at the top of the pyramid and in this case Danny Franco needed to find a way to cut down his rotation, see what his best options were going to be and run with that since returning from the international break knowing full well that a massive one game win and your in was ahead.

Instead there was confusion, disillusion and the unfortunate setting of the stage where one could feel that a certain uncertainty was surrounding the club. From Franco’s comments at Ben Gurion Airport where the lack of confidence was clear, to his statements following the game which included some criticism of his players and to the high expectations that some set with the franchise’s new owner Ofer Yannay coming in, ultimately the buck stops with the head coach who should take full responsibility for the results, win or lose.

Ofer Yannay – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

There had been rumblings about Franco’s future with the club should they not win one of the three competitions they are in this season and that has already come to the forefront the morning after the loss to Besiktas.

There’s no way to say it more clearly but this was a brutal, brutal defeat for the team.

Is it the end of the world? For sure not, but Yannay is no doubt looking to see how his team can take the next step in Europe and that may not include Franco in charge. However, the club now has the Israel State Cup and the domestic league to worry about over the next three months which should keep them busy. But will Hapoel keep running with a loaded squad of 8 imports the rest of the way? Will Franco go with players coming in and going out? Will they begin to release and retool for the balance of the season? My guess would be that there will be some changes.

Danny Franco – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

With so many players who will be out of contract including that of the bench boss, it would seem that Yannay will want to go into the 2024/25 season with a blank slate and along with a new head coach who has a proven track record in Europe and will be tasked with building the roster anew.

However, the immediate contest ahead for Hapoel Tel Aviv is a Saturday night (21:10) clash at Hapoel Jerusalem as both teams will be looking to get back onto the winning track. One team will, the question is which one of the Reds?

Ilaias Kantzouris – Photo credit: Yehuda Halickman

Hapoel Jerusalem also came up short, very, very short in their European clash against Peristeri that was held in Hungary. The Reds looked slow and sluggish with zero energy in the tank in a game that could have seen them clinch a spot in the Basketball Champions League quarterfinals but instead saw them way behind the 8-ball for the entire 40 minutes.

Head Coach Ilias Kantzouris’s team was absolutely nowhere to be found as only one player featured in double digits. This was a far cry from the offensive showing that Hapoel had at Tenerife last week with 92 points in a loss, while this week they shot one blank after the next as nothing seemed to fall.

Jerusalem has a had a rough go over the past number of weeks and has not be able to show the quality that they did under Aleksanadr Dzikic. This of course should not come as a surprise, but with the personnel that they do have with their experience and quality they should be a much better team than the one that we have recently seen.

Levi Randolph – Photo credit: Yehuda Halickman

Something seems amiss with the roster that has 7 imports as they have yet to find their true stride under the Greek tactician. The offense has not run smoothly despite having some very serious weapons in Levi Randolph, Khadeen Carrington, Speedy Smith, Bryton Lemar and Zach Hankins to just name a few.

Perhaps as Yogi Berra said, “90% of the game is half mental” really provides the proper description as to the issues that Jerusalem is having under Kantzouris.

Dzikic and his staff had a certain style and way of preparing his players for battle. Perhaps this is where the current iteration of the team is having problems. The troubles are certainly not due to the players themselves, they haven’t forgotten how to play basketball as they have done together for the most part of the past year and a half. Kanztouris is a coach that has solid skills and abilities, but perhaps that this match, in the middle of the season just isn’t the right fit.

Dainius Adomaitis – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

We saw this movie a few years back when Oded Katash left for Panathinaikos and Danius Adomaitis came in for a short period of time but could not find the success the team had experienced previously. In that case, Adomatis was let go and replaced by Yoantan Alon who was their sports director.

Alon who is once again the sports director was not interested in taking the team on this time around and told me that it would not be the correct move for the system that the new management was trying to put in place.

Fair enough. I disagree with the decision and still think that Alon is the best candidate for the job at this time and moment and should have taken it upon himself once it was clear Dzikic was leaving, but I also respect his thinking. However, if the decision is at some point to bid adieu to Kantzouris and that Alon will take over for the balance of the season, then well, the club wasted some seriously valuable time during the campaign.

Yonatan Alon – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

Jerusalem can punch their ticket next week when they play Karsiyaka as they would have a very tough time not qualifying for the next round win or lose. Of course, a loss is not what they want to occur and then back into the postseason, they want to win and look like the team that they certainly can be.
Can they turn the corner under coach Kantzouris?

Remember, 90% of the game is half mental. It’s all up there.

Photo credit: Maccabi Tel Aviv

Once we’re on the mental side of the game, I’ve got to look back at Maccabi Tel Aviv FC’s Greek Tragedy against Olympiacos. How is it possible for a team to take the first leg of their UEFA Conference League Round of 16 two legged tie by the score of 4-1 in Athens and then totally collapse and lose the return leg 6-1?

This seemed to be something right out of the moves and it was in fact a horror movie.

Robbie Keane’s yellow-and-blue couldn’t have looked better in Piraeus last week doing as they pleased stunning the hosts and flying out of Greece with what seemed to be a slam dunk. All that Maccabi had to do in the second leg was to play responsible football, simple football, that’s it.

But lo and behold, they just couldn’t do it.

1-2-3 and the tie was even on aggregate by halftime and while Eran Zahavi put home a penalty, the visitors came right back to level the score once again before heading into the overtime periods that saw Olympiacos dominate, score a pair of goals in tge forts half and say bye, bye, so long and farewell to Maccabi Tel Aviv.

Will this loss have an effect on the balance of their domestic season? Will they be able to overcome such a devastating defeat perhaps the worse European loss since the 4-3 defeat to Zenit St. Petersburg in the Europa League group stages?

The answers will be known fairly soon as they get back to Israeli league play on Sunday night when they welcome Hapoel Haifa, one of this year’s surprise packages.

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