Maccabi Tel Aviv readies to take on Red Star Belgrade in Gameday 2 Euroleague action on Thursday night (21:05) at Yad Eliyahu as the Yellow & Blue will look to win their second continental clash in a row. Ioannis Sfairopoulos’s squad downed Bayern Munich last week 69-68 thanks to a 28-point performance by the league’s weekly MVP Scottie Wilbekin who scored 13 of Maccabi’s 15 fourth quarter points. The visitors come into the matchup after falling to Fenerbahce 61-57 in their opening round contest and will once again try to keep the score down and capitalize on their experience to steal a win at a packed arena.
If you have been following Maccabi Tel Aviv and I am sure you do then you know that the Yellow & Blue were hit hard with COVID-19 infections with 5 players testing positive just ahead of preseason which resulted in a very altered version of what coach Sfauropoulos had planned for the month of September.
One of the players that was hit hard was Derrick Williams who signed with the club over the summer to provide a veteran presence at the forward position and be a positive influence in the lockerroom as well as on and off of the court.
The former #2 pick in the 2011 NBA Draft certainly didn’t want to start his Maccabi career on the shelf and was able to play in one of the team’s three Winner Cup games in which he looked tired and sluggish feeling the aftereffects of the coronavirus. This raised the concern of all those around the club from the staff to the players and of course the fans as to how he would be able to step up for the first official Euroleague game and play his best.
And play his best he did. After a ho-him start to Maccabi’s win over Bayern Munich last week, Williams got into a groove and did what was needed of him whether it was defense, rebounds, hustle or just making sure to mess up his former team’s rhythm he did it in playing almost 20 minutes while scoring 6 points and grabbing 5 boards.
There was no question that down the stretch he was an important piece to the puzzle in that win and going forward.
“It’s no secret that Derrick that was one of the players who was affected (by COVID-19) and all the affected players are not in their best shape. The players may have practiced only five days with the team. He is starting to being himself and brings a lot of characteristics to the game. Derrick brought his athleticism, experience, scoring, rebounding and defending.He can do a lot of jobs on the court and that is what I expect from him this season.”
With no Israeli league games scheduled this past week between the Bayern and Red Star games, Williams and the rest of the squad were able to practice and get to know one another since they had such a broken training camp.
“The last two weeks we had a couple games, one of them in the EuroLeague,” Williams said. “We’ve also had some practices in, and that is good for me to adapt to the team and get in better shape. No excuses, we want to continue to take it game by game, especially at home, where we have to win. Defense, energy, effort… the offense is going to come. We are a new team with many new guys. It will come together.”
Red Star will bring plenty of energy and power to Tel Aviv and use that to try and upset Maccabi at home. Luka Mitrovic mentioned just that to The Sports Rabbi, “Our strength has to be our energy, togetherness and willingness to win and compete. We know that we are not the most talented team in the Euroleague, so we have to compensate it with all the things I mentioned above.”
Coach Sfairopoulos will need to make sure that his entire squad is on the same page and that they don’t take Red Star who finished last year with a 10-24 record too lightly or else they will be in for a big surprise.
“I want to talk about this game with great respect for our opponent. They are a very dangerous team. They have played two games in the Adriatic League and another in the EuroLeague, and we understand that our mission is not easy. They have experienced players, they have quality, they have played in the EuroLeague many years. We have to be ready to face a tough opponent.”
“They are a team that want to slow down the tempo and play slow and we are the opposite and want to play fast on offense. To help the rhythm on our side we have to run, play fast and hold the turnovers.”
Scottie Wilbekin shared the same sentiment as to trying to play the game the way Maccabi wants to and not vice-versa, “We want to try to dictate an up tempo game but they have done a good job defensively so we want to speed the game up. We have to stay focused and not let our guard down when the other team makes some shots and just stick to what you do.”
“We need to follow our plan and we know what they are trying to do and react to that. We need to play smart and read where they want to move the game and play according to how we want to play the game,” stated Sfairopoulos.