Basketball is a game of opportunities.
Some players grab them with both hands and do the most that they can with their chances while others, just plain and simple don’t. And that’s exactly what we saw in the Israeli Classico as Hapoel Jerusalem downed Maccabi Tel Aviv 80-75 to pick up the win at Yad Eliyahu.
Siim Sander-Vene was one of Aleksandar Dzikic’s charges that took the opportunity that the coach granted him. After having not played in a competitive game for the Reds since November 1st when Jerusalem defeated Bakken Bears in Basketball Champions League action and since October 15th in Israeli league play, Vene couldn’t have played his part any better.
The Estonian international scored 11 points going 3/3 from beyond the arc and grabbed four boards in 30 minutes of play as Vene was able to spread the floor which helped Jerusalem go 11/23 from downtown and offer a totally different look than Mareks Mejeiris who sat out for this game.
Vene has played for numerous teams over the course of his career and there had been rumors circulating that he was looking to leave due to the lack of playing time, but the forward was tasked with a job to do against Maccabi and he did that job to perfection.
“Not many people supported my decision to register Siim,” Dzikic began. “He did what we asked him to do. The fact that Mareks and Siim are different types of players in the perfect world maybe we can find a way to use them both. It probably was not a smart move but in the end it paid off.”
Mejeris has been very good this season for Jerusalem and in many games he is the best playing, knowing how to play his role to a “T”. But in this game, it was clear that Dzikic, as modest as he wants to come off, is still a wily veteran and knows exactly what he wants to do in a certain game which is what he did as he checkmated Maccabi coach Oded Katash.
Vene’s teammates understood what type of showing he made despite having the deck stacked against him over the past few weeks and they knew it was not something that can be taken for granted in the club’s 5th league win in a row and 6th overall.
“Me personally I felt like Siim was the MVP of the game,” point guard Speedy Smith said who himself flirted with a triple-double for the second game in a row.
He communicated well on defensive and hit timely shots. He hasn’t played in sometime and to be a spark like he was today was amazing for the team but more importantly himself.”
Or Cornelius who has worked up the ladder of Israeli basketball success also understood what Vene was able to accomplish, “It’s incredible to see it. A player who didn’t play for a month in the league and he gets to a chance to play and thrive, it’s very special. It’s very special for him and he deserved it.”
However, it wasn’t just Vene who showed up, it was Smith with 14 points, 10 assists and 6 rebounds as he scored a KO on his Maccabi counterpart Wade Baldwin. It was Khadeen Carrington off the bench who scored 16 second half points to keep the Jerusalem motor running.
It was Noam Dovrat who went into the fourth quarter with no points in 9 minutes and played his heart out in the final frame hitting a dagger 3-pointer to put the game away. And it was Itay Segev who played a huge 21+ minutes defensively while scoring some huge buckets.
“He (Carrington) comes from the bench and it won’t change,” Dzikic said. “He knows what I expect and the team expects. I’m happy for Noam and Siim. The guys really wanted it.”
Jerusalem did a have an entire week to prepare for this game and Dzikic acknowledged that the yellow-and-blue had a pair of Euroleague contests plus a Tel Aviv Derby during that time. The Serbian tactician wanted to send his squad a message that they are to stay level headed and not let the win get to their heads with a crucial BCL game coming up on Wednesday against Bakken Bears.
“I’m happy that we won and this was a big test for us,” Cornelius said. “We don’t have time to enjoy it as we have some games coming up this week. This was a lot of fun and there was a lot of energy. It was great to see all the fans here supporting us.”
“They (Maccabi) found the energy to play a competitive 40 minutes, we figured out at the end how to close the game, it is what it is and I hope we will be better. They made us play as hard as we could. It’s the hardest test for us as they are a Euroleague team. The rules limit the imports and we wanted to see where we are,” Dzikic explained.
As for energy or the lack there of, Katash’s Maccabi were just not there. They had nothing in the tank and that was clear right from the tipoff.
It was a game of chase all contest long for Maccabi as they kept cutting down the lead to 5-6 points and then saw Jerusalem bump it right back up again until finally time ran out.
In what was a very disappointing performance for the yellow-and-blue, Katash seemed to have no answers while some of the players themselves had absolutely no confidence. Whether it was seldom used Iftach Ziv, Darrun Hilliard, Jalen Adams, Jake Cohen or Rafi Menco, each of the quartet could find no rhythm which shouldn’t come as any surprise due to the lack of playing time they get.
However, just as Vene had been out of action for close to a month and came in with the proper mindset and game plan the same could have occurred with Maccabi. This is the responsibility of the coach to make sure that they understand what is expected from them and give them that encouragement to take advantage of the opportunity.
That was nowhere near the case as to what happened in reality. In 84 combined minutes these players scored 27 points and that’s just not going to be enough.
If we take a look at just Ziv and Hilliard you’ve got a grand total of 3 points in 19 minutes.
“We know what Hilliard can do,” Katash began. Everyone knows that he’s much better than this but there are reasons also. He was hurt last season and this season as well and it’s very hard to get into the swing of things. This happens at all teams with players having ups and downs.”
Hilliard himself who had alluded to his disappointment, Tweeted just that after the dismal performance.
Real eyes recognize real lies…
— Darrun Hilliard II (@DHilliard6X) November 27, 2022
Bottom line is that there was no direction and no game plan as Maccabi ended up going 2-3 in five games over 9 days and that’s not good enough if they want to compete as Katash admitted.
“Of course I want to be playing better basketball at this point of the season and we always want more. In some aspects we are getting better but we aren’t the only team that is. We have to take a step up,” the coach explained.
One player who did grab the opportunity for Maccabi was Jarell Martin who once again played hard, hustled and kept his team in the game throughout his 17 points in 23 minutes of paying time.
“I feel we came out a bit flat and that hurt us in the end. We have to come out throwing the first punch and wanting it more. We got to be better as a team and being aggressive. As for myself, I have to just keep improving and getting better and be in a flow with the team and find a way to help.”
The coach has to be the one to lift his players up when they need it and boy did they ever need it after a 69-68 devastating loss at Red Star Belgrade. Katash can talk about how he saw that the players tongues were hanging out and they had no energy, but that can’t be the case when the five players listed above played on 17 minutes in Serbia!
Something is not right if that is the case and that responsibility lies squarely on the coach’s shoulders.
Is Maccabi looking to make a player personnel move? Katash responded cryptically, “There is nothing concrete that is happening or about to happen with the roster, we are working with what we have. But as a club we will always looking to improve and get better which is what a team needs to do.”
Just as confused and lost the Maccabi players looked in their defeat to Jerusalem and no less at home, that seems to be the same for its head coach with no answers to be found.
While the yellow-and-blue are heading in one direction, the Reds seem to be heading in the other as Smith explained, “We’re still building but this is a step in the right direction.”