They were like two trains passing in the night. One heading the right direction, with total understanding, control and desire to get to the top of the mountain while the other was speeding down the opposite direction, out of control with no conductor being able to slow it down and put it back.
Hapoel Tel Aviv knew exactly how to find a way to take an unlikely second Derby win in as many months, ironically by the score of 78-77 to move their winning streak to five games over a Maccabi Tel Aviv that is just maddeningly consistently inconsistent while spiraling totally out of control.
Danny Franco made sure to have his squad in tip top form after returning from an unplanned COVID-19 break that left lingering effects on their star guard J’Covan Brown who was unable to be an active participant on the floor but gave his all on the bench as a quasi-assistant coach. This is nothing new as he did the same for Oded Katash when he would find himself sidelined with an injury.
But have no fear, JP Tokoto and James Young filled the void left by Brown by taking control of the game from the outset and hitting key shots down the stretch as well to send the Reds faithful into absolute pandemonium for more than an hour following the game at the Drive In Arena.
“JP is a very dominant and can lead a team. If J’Covan wasn’t going to play, he was like a guard for us and handled the pick and rolls and we made some adjustments. We added some things to our game and I’m so proud of my team and the people that came here to support us today,” Franco said.
Tokoto not only scored 24 points but added 5 assists in what was a stellar no fear performance for the Reds somewhat stepping into Brown’s shoes, “J’Covan is a major piece to this team and his poise on both ends. We knew there was a strong possibility that he wasn’t going to play and guys filled that void. Guys stepped up and played big minutes and there would be a lot of pressure to perform. But having J’Covan makes it easier.”
Ultimately, the fans played a huge factor in this victory and Tokoto was all smiles when he described their importance in knocking off an overmatched Maccabi, “The atmosphere was amazing. At Maccabi with our supporters that was great (last month’s Derby win at Yad Eliyahu) and we knew it was going to be amazing here and that they would be our 6th man. They cheered us on when we were struggling and pushed us.”
As for struggling, that would be Maccabi Tel Aviv’s department. The Yellow & Blue have looked bad at times this season, they have looked pathetic at times this season and they looked just plain old awful on many occasions this season. Against Hapoel Tel Aviv it seemed that this was the same movie yet again with the same exact ending, another brutally embarrassing, effortless defeat.
There is no way to hide it, cover it up or find cockamamie excuses, Maccabi stunk up the joint after winning a big Euroleague game just a few days prior.
“It’s a bad loss and we wanted to win the game,” a dejected Maccabi coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos said. “The worst thing was our performance and I didn’t expect that we would play so bad. I don’t know why we played so bad. The turnovers issue, there was no explanation and we weren’t ready to play the game tonight. I will discuss it with the players and we will find out. They need to understand that they need to play all together.”
The key issues here is that Maccabi doesn’t play together at all. They played half-assed basketball with line-ups that rarely have seen the court at the same time, with players who didn’t play much or at all in the Olympiacos win and then mix them up with some of the regulars and what do you have? One big mess that should be pinned rightfully on the coach.
It was clear as day on this dark night for Maccabi when Scottie Wilbekin went off at Roman Sorkin for not going to the right spot on a play early on in the game. The guard was so distraught that Sfairopoulos had to take him off the court and settle him down. The frustration was boiling over for the club’s anointed star who missed clutch free throws and an open shot in the paint to steal a victory that they didn’t deserve.
All in all Wilbekin went 1/8 from deep and had the final shot drawn up for him once again in a terrible timeout where it still wasn’t clear what the team was going to do just seconds before they had to get back onto the floor. But one thing was clear, Wilbekin was going to take that last shot come hell or high water.
Instead of pounding the ball inside to Ante Zizic who had an advantage over Josh Owens, or instead of setting up a 3-pointer from the top for Jake Cohen who had gone 5/5 from the exact same spot, or instead of setting up a play for Keenan Evans or John Dibartolomeo, Sfairopoulos just handed the ball to Wilbekin for the good and the bad. And over the last two seasons, it’s been more bad than good.
After the game, Sfairopoulos said that Wilbekin played with an injection for neck spasms and to that all that needs to be said with two huge Euroleague games coming up this week, is why did the coach even dress him to play if he was not 100% when other players were.
So instead of having players fresh and ready to go against Yovel Zoosman and Tamir Blatt when ALBA Berlin comes to town on Tuesday, Wilbekin while injured played 28 minutes, Zizic played 29, Evans played 23, Caloiaro played 21 and on and on and on.
It’s as if this movie has really played out time and time and time again. Personnel mismanagement at its best.
Of course, if you look at some of the players performances such as Iftach Ziv who was horrific in 6 minutes with 4 turnovers and without a clue as to handle the point before turning an ankle and leaving the game, or Oz Blayzer and Derrick Williams who were non-existent in 15 and 12 minutes respectively or even Evans who coughed up the ball four times as well, Maccabi had issues across the board.
“Not a good game for us,” Dibartolomeo said in the quietest voice following the game. We didn’t start focused enough, without enough energy and it didn’t go much better from there. We can do a better job to get into rhythm and we never quite got our feet under us. A few days ago we started better and today we didn’t. It’s mental toughness and we have to find a way to do it.”
There is no question that Maccabi was rattled because of the electric atmosphere in the building and when asked at first about that playing a factor, Sfairopoulos mistakenly said that the players have played there and know what it would be like. But seconds later he walked that back as it was the first time for no less than four players to have to play a Derby in such a heated environment.
“Some it was the first time that they played in this atmosphere and we have experienced players. But they have played here before and they should know how to play,” the coach said.
Maccabi needs to do some serious soul searching and fast because for all intents and purposes this week will determine the team’s continental future. Two wins and the Yellow & Blue move to 10-11 and are still “in the game” for a playoff spot, but anything less than that you might as well close up shop and Sfairopoulos knows it.
Another question that needs to be asked is how much more will Maccabi management want to ride on this train wreck of a team and season? Will any serious moves be made or will they just accept what Maccabi used to think was unacceptable.
While Maccabi tries to keep their ship afloat, Franco has high hopes for his team as they head into a critical month ahead with the State Cup semifinals on the horizon, “Our goal is to make the playoffs and we weren’t there last year so I’m not looking too far ahead. I am going just game by game. This was a big win for the club but we have to keep our feet on the ground and take it day by day.”