After falling to CSKA Moscow earlier in the week which moved Maccabi Tel Aviv closer to the brink of Euroleague postseason elimination, the pressure was off and the win was on as the Yellow & Blue disposed of Valencia 84-72. Maccabi didn’t play one of their best first halves of the season in what was twenty tough minutes of basketball to watch with the club being massively dominated on the boards. However, down 35-33, Ioannis Sfairopoulos’s squad was able to pick up the pace in the third quarter and polish off the game in the fourth by reversing the roles on the glass to chalk up their 11th victory of the season.
In a game in which Scottie Wilbekin wasn’t a factor, scoring no points and taking only one shot while dishing out 4 assists in only 12:33 of action, it seemed that he was still nursing a hand injury which he covered elegantly with a towel on the bench. But no worries, Tyler Dorsey and Chris Jones picked up the scoring slack by dropping a combined 33 points on the evening to help the club notch the win.
Coach Sfairopoulos didn’t want to get into specifics about Wilbekin’s status but stated the facts in riding Dorsey’s hot hand in for close for 29 minutes, “I try to use all of the players and I saw which players were in a better rhythm and those are the ones I used.”
The victory was Maccabi’s first since January 21st in Euroleague action when they downed Real Madrid at home in a close cut victory over Pablo Laso’s club, so picking up a win in continental play was critical explained the game’s MVP Tyler Dorsey, “I just played hard. We needed to win, we were in a negative moment lately and it feels good to get a win.”
Keeping Valencia at bay was Sfairopoulos’s main goal as the Spaniards entered the game with the league’s second high scoring offense and holding Valencia to 35 and 37 points respectively in the two halves was exactly what the doctor ordered.
“The aggressiveness of our defense gave us stops and also good rhythm on offense. We scored 18 points more in the second half because of our good defense. Stopping Valencia with 72 points helped us win this game. We were stressed in the first half and missed shots and layups but we were able to find a rhythm to score 51 points in the second half.”
If Maccabi’s aggressiveness on the boards would have been present in the first half, perhaps the Yellow & Blue would have been able to pull away much earlier against a Valencia side that were markedly tired after having been on the road for 9 straight days.
In the first half, Jaume Ponsarnau’s squad took 22 boards with split between 12 on the defensive boards and 10 on the offensive side on the court, while Maccabi only were able to collect 11 rebounds. Over half number two it was a totally different story with Maccabi controlling the glass grabbing 21 boards, with 9 offensive and Valencia could only take 7(!) for the entire twenty minutes and that decided the game at the end of the day.
“We competed well but we lost the fight for the rebound in the second half and they controlled the rhythm of the game,” Ponsarnau said. “It was a physical game and we lost this fight.”
Sfairopoulos pointed at the rebounds as being a decisive factor, ”I think we improved our rebounding in the second half. We had problems in the first half, they took 10 offensive boards then, but only 2 after halftime.” Ante Zizic who recorded 13 points, 6 rebounds and a 21 efficiency rating, agreed with his coach’s assessment, ”In the first half they took a lot of offensive rebounds, but after halftime, we started with good defense, good box out, we ran, and they couldn’t stop us.”
Despite the rebounding issues, Maccabi were able to stay close in the first half and that perhaps by the way Sfairopoulos used his rotation. He started Chris Jones and Omri Casspi which was an interesting twist while captain John Dibartolomeo came off of the bench fairly early on, appearing in the first quarter when usually he sees time later on in the first half if at all.
Casspi put in a very solid performance with 14 points in 14 minutes including a 3-pointer late in the game to put away the victory and when watching him move and groove on the court, one can certainly understand how valuable a commodity he is on the floor. With his veteran experience and ten years in the NBA, Casspi offers oh so much to the team and that was so, so obvious against Valencia said Sfairopoulos, “You saw today how big an absence it was without Omri. He has quality and experience and he’s important for the win.”
As for Jones who usually in a man of few words as he lets his actions speak for themselves on the court spoke about not being surprised about getting the opportunity to start the game and not come in off the bench, “I wouldn’t say I was surprised but being ready when your number is called. The team played well and we played well on defense. It was a good game and a good start for us. We followed it up in the second half for the win. It’s about being ready when your number is called and I’m not thinking of the minutes. I want to be a team player and when I’m out there I want to help the team.”
Dibartolomeo also talked about getting onto the floor a lot earlier than usual, “It was nice to get into the game earlier with good minutes and had nice run. I play hard and give the team what I can.”
It was all men on deck for Maccabi as they wanted to make sure that the home game in front of 300 fans wouldn’t be the last meaningful game of the Euroleague season as they precariously are hanging onto their playoff hopes by a thread. “We will fight until the end” is Sfairopoulos’s quote this season, that’s for sure.
“We have to take every game as a final,” Dibartolomeo stated as Othello Hunter echoed the captain’s comment, “I don’t give up. We will fight to the end and that is what guys brought today.”
Dorsey was optimistic that Maccabi can build off of their 11-15 record with 8 games to go, with each one being a must win, “You never know what is going to happen, our back is against the wall, so we need to get every win we can. It’s good to get a win with the fans here.”
But Jones may have said it best as the club thinks about what could have been and what should have been, “We think about it all the time as a team and being inconsistent and not playing in the details. It shows in our record and we should be a lot better than we are. I feel like it’s a life lesson and we just got to learn from it.”