Maccabi Tel Aviv started the second consecutive EuroLeague double-week on the right foot with a 95-78 win at their home court Aleksandar Nikolic Hall against Virtus Bologna. The Yellow & Blue now find themselves on equal footing with Panathinaikos and Fenerbahçe in fourth place in the standings at 12 wins and 8 losses, while Bologna is two wins ahead and equal with Barcelona in second place in the standings.
Wade Baldwin IV (22 points, 5 rebounds and 8 assists), John DiBartolomeo (16 points, 4 rebounds, 1 assist and 2 steals) and Bonzie Colson (14 points, 4 rebounds and 2 steals) led the scoring for the winners, while Marco Belinelli (24 points, 2 rebounds and 3 assists) and Isaia Cordinier (13 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists) were the only players in double-figures for the visitors.
Here are my thoughts from the game.
The Good: Captain John
Baldwin was both the MVP of the game and the EuroLeague MVP of the of the round (the five time he has been awarded the honor), with a game-high and round-high performance index rating (PIR) of 29. However, the highlight of the night for me was DiBartolomeo’s return to form for his best game of the season after struggling a lot with injury through the back half of 2023. DiBartolomeo not only influenced on the scoreboard – notably making three of four three-point attempts and five of five free throws – but he also brought his trademark energy and aggression on defense, which is exactly what the team needs from its leader.
While Baldwin was the game’s MVP, with a game-high performance index rating (PIR) of 29, the highlight of the night for me was DiBartolomeo’s return to form for his best game of the season after struggling a lot with injury through the back half of 2023. DiBartolomeo not only influenced on the scoreboard – notably making three of four three-point attempts and five of five free throws – but he also brought his trademark energy and aggression on defense, which is exactly what the team needs from its leader.
“It was a great game for John,” Maccabi coach Oded Katash said of his captain after the game. “We missed that. We missed John and the things he brings to the game, the energy and also offensively find a way – he had big shots, big plays. We missed Tamir [Blatt] today [through injury], so I liked the way that John and Rafi [Menco, who had 2 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist and 1 steal] stepped up.
“We needed him both defensively and leading with the ball, he brought exactly what he brought last year,” Katash continued. “We have been missing him in many games where he was injured. I’m happy for us that we have him back and I’m happy for him.”
“It was good,” DiBartolomeo said of the win. “Obviously a really important win at home against a very good team. Obviously every game matters as we get into the second round. I’m just happy that I was able to come back and help the team.”
Maccabi struggled early in the game – see the “Bad” below – but the team came together to put together a consistent second half performance and come away with the W.
“It was a battle,” Baldwin said of the game. “We had to match every trick they had. They’re well coached and they have a lot of plays. Like I said in the beginning, they have an MVP candidate in [Tornike] Shengelia. Belinelli, he’s the best shooter I’ve ever seen in my life, the shots he can make. But I’m happy we responded after an embarrassing loss against Fener [74-109 last Thursday]. We got another one on Friday [against Partizan].”
It’s also noteworthy that Shengelia was held to one of his worst performances of the season, kept to single-figures for the second time this season and with a PIR of 10 – well below the 20.4 average he had coming into the game.
The Bad: The First Half
Both teams started the game a little rusty in the first quarter. In the first minute alone, the eventual game MVP Baldwin awkwardly failed to keep the ball in play after the tip-off, missed a two-pointer and turned over the ball.
However, nothing underscores how unfocused the Maccabi was than the last two minutes of the first quarter, when a 16-11 Maccabi lead turned into a 16-19 deficit courtesy of three-pointers from Achille Polonara (4 points and 1 rebound) and Belinelli (who was 7/12 from long range in the game), as well as a two-pointer from Alessandro Pajola (2 points, 3 rebounds, 6 assists and 2 steals), the quarter ending with Maccabi down 18-21.
Things did not get better at the beginning of the second quarter, with Bologna stretching out their lead to 9 points after another Belinelli three-pointer four minutes into the frame, Maccabi finding themselves down 26-35.
Maccabi did manage to refocus courtesy of three-pointers to Lorenzo Brown (12 points, 1 rebound and 3 assists), Colson, Roman Sorkin (13 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal and 2 blocks) and DiBartolomeo, as well as contributions from Baldwin and Josh Nebo (4 points, 12 rebounds, 2 assists and 1 block), to win the quarter 28-24 and go into the main break with a 46-45 lead. Then Maccabi was able to maintain their pressure and intensity after halftime, winning the half 49-37 to get the important win.
“I think we deserved a better result in the first half, because we played the right way and there are games where it feels like the game plan works for you and that’s how it felt today,” Katash said in defense of his team’s first half. “We were a little naive, we didn’t use our fouls well enough in the first half – things that happen due to lack of focus. But we made the adjustments and we came a lot more focused and aggressive in the second half. I’m happy with the win, I’m happy for our response after the loss against Fener.”
“Obviously it feels good to turn around after the first half,” DiBartolomeo said. “Like I said, they’re a very tough team. Belinelli causes so much havoc on opposing teams. So I’m happy we refocused at half time and got a couple of more stops in the second half to pull away.”
The Ugly: Two-point percentage
While Maccabi gets an A+ for their three-point and free throw percentages in the game, which were above their season averages (50% (13/25) vs 36.4% and 90% (18/20) vs 76.8% respectively), the poor shot selection and bad misses resulted in the team shooting 43.2% (19/44) from two-point range, lower than their 52.4% average across the season.
The main culprits were Brown (3/9) and Nebo (1/7). The latter made up for his bad shooting with his strong rebounding performance – 12 of Maccabi’s 38, comfortable beating Bologna in this stat column who had 32 rebounds – while the former was playing hurt, which may explain his relatively poor game.
“Lorenzo was in doubt before the game, he was a little limited with his back,” Katash said. “He took an injection before the game and really revealed responsibility with his character and I had to say this.”
Maccabi will be hoping that this game was an outlier when it comes to their two-point shooting, as the three-point performance is not sustainable and will be very, very difficult to repeat.
Up Next: Shabbat evening in Belgrade
Maccabi now turns its attention to Round 21, a cross-town trip to face the 10-10 equal 9th placed Partizan Belgrade at Stark Arena on Friday (21:30 IST / 14:30 EST). Partizan has the luxury of an extra day’s rest, with Partizan’s Round 20 game – a 76-91 loss to Fenerbahçe in Turkey – played on Tuesday night. Maccabi will want to avoid a disaster similar to last week’s second game in the double-week.
“We need to learn from last double week that we played after 48 hours,” Katash said. “We were not there with energy and that’s our challenge right now, to show that we learned our lesson. Now is the time to show that we learned something. We have another big game, a tough one in two days. We need to make sure that we come with the right energy, not like we did in the second game of the double week last week.”
While it may be daunting going from playing in front of no fans to going into a hostile arena with 20,000 plus fans, this isn’t something that seems to phase Katash.
“I think maybe it’s one of the best atmosphere you can play in, personally I like that. Not only the atmosphere, it’s also a good team. So I think in a way we miss playing in front of a crowd. Hopefully we can do it as soon as possible back home, but we have to be ready. We have to match up their aggressiveness and I think knowing my players, they like to play in that atmosphere and it’s going to be special.”
“That is why we play EuroLeague, to play in arenas like Stark Arena,” Baldwin said. “We know what type of energy is there. We beat them the first time [96-81 in Round 1 at Yad Eliyahu]. They’re a totally different team right now, so we got to recoup in these 24 hours and get ready to go on Friday.”