I’ve been covering Maccabi Tel Aviv coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos now for a number of years, but at Monday night’s postgame press conference following the Yellow & Blue’s 67-56 win over Hapoel Beer Sheva I saw a side of the bench boss that I had never quite seen before. The tone of his voice really told it all.
Sfairopoulos has been happy and excited, mad and sad, but never before down; especially after a victory, one nonetheless in the playoffs. But there was good cause to Sfairopoulos’s feeling and that as Dragan Bender’s knee injury in which he tore his anterior cruciate ligament ACL which will put him on the shelf for quite some time.
This was supposed to be an opportunity for Bender. After not being dressed for the State Cup Final last week in the victory over Maccabi Rishon Le’Zion as well as for a number of other league games this season, it was going to be the Croatian’s time to shine after the departures of Tyler Dorsey and Elijah Bryant plus the decision to not dress Othello Hunter for the series.
However, it wasn’t meant to be.
Bender, who is always off the bench first to celebrate with a teammate, give a high five or say a word of encouragement was always upbeat, pumping his fists and displayed true professionalism throughout the season
Prior to the game, Maccabi Tel Aviv held a ceremony for Croatia’s 30th Independence Day with Bender, Nikola Vujcic and Ante Zizic together with their nation’s Ambassador where smiles were abound. In what was going to be a celebration became the exact opposite for Sfairopoulos and company.
“This is a very bad moment for Dragan Bender after tearing his ACL,” Sfairopoulos began. “We hope he will come back strong both mentally and physically. I’m very upset when one of my players has a serious injury. They are trying hard and are fighting as this is their profession. I wish he will stay strong mentally and strengthen himself even more.”
Zizic also spoke about the former 4th pick overall in the 2016 NBA Draft, “He’s a big piece of the team and I didn’t think it was that serious so I was shocked to find out the results of the MRI. He’s a good friend of mine and we will miss him.”
Maccabi did win the game, a game that as not as easy as it should have been had they hit some of their shots explained Sfairopoulos, “We held them to just 25 points in the second half and we had some good options shooting but we had a bad day from outside. If we would have shot 30% from outside we would have had an easier time.”
Despite not being able to hit their shots from deep, going a pitiful 1/15 from long distance, that wasn’t the case from inside where Maccabi went 26/45, while Bender’s compatriot Ante Zizic shot 9/12 and finished the game with 20 points showing at times just how unstoppable he is in the paint.
Over the course of the first half, it looked that Beer Sheva coach Rami Hadar chose to allow Zizic to do as he pleased inside while closing down all of Maccabi’s other offensive threats, but as the Reds bench boss said, that wasn’t the case even though the big man scored 14 points in the first half. “That wasn’t my plan but we really worked on Scottie and defending the pick and roll. We had trouble with Zizic and it wasn’t easy to deal with Zizic at all.”
“We are bigger than them, they have players that shoot from outside and they only have one big player. We attacked inside a lot on every mismatch that we had,” Sfairopoulos stated.
Zizic agreed with his coach, “We are tough to guard and they pressured us on the outside, pressured Scottie and I had more room and took advantage of that.”
Took advantage he did dominating the inside whether it was Ben Eisenhardt, Eric Thompson or at times Nock Hornsby. Beer Sheva never really stood a chance in the paint.
At the end of the day it really didn’t matter what margin Maccabi won by said Sfairopoulos, but just for the fact that they won. “It doesn’t matter how much we win by as it’s the playoffs and we have to now win one more game and the pressure is on Beer Sheva.”
The Yellow & Blue can polish off a two game sweep on Wednesday night and quickly move into the semifinals where they will tipoff against either Hapoel Eilat or Hapoel Haifa (Eilat leads their series 1-0). But they won’t be able to replace Bender with Hunter due to the league’s rules and will only be able to benefit from his services in the next round of action.
The rule which many found to be an issue exactly for this reason is now being rightfully thrust into the spotlight, “It’s not fair that we can’t change the player when something unexpected like this happened,” Sfairopoulos commented.
“Rules are rules and we can’t change anything” Zizic added. “Each one of us has to step up. We will have Othello for the second round. We played better than the result, we missed shots that we would normally make. They took 16 offensive rebounds and that were way too many. We have to show up on Wednesday and do our best.”