Boy, Maccabi Tel Aviv looked a helluva lot better than anybody expected they would look after having battled COVID-19 over the past few weeks plus not having the services of arguably three of the best players in Scottie Wilbekin, Derrick Williams and Jalen Reynolds.
It took about a quarter hour of action but when the Yellow & Blue decided to turn up the heat, play aggressive ball, dive allover the floor and ratchet up the energy, well they were just unstoppable.
One of the keys to their 87-68 Winner Cup quarterfinal victory over Maccabi Rishon Le’Zion was undoubtedly Iftach Ziv who looked as if he fit right into the brand new spanking new Puma uniforms.
The former Gilboa Galil point guard had harassed and harangued Ioannis Sfairopoulos’s squad for the past two seasons and now he had his services on his side of the ball. Ziv slices and diced the Rishon defense, understood and read plays with ease and it had the feel as if he would be a Maccabi point guard for the next decade. He fit like a glove.
Ziv played on the ball, Ziv played off the ball, Ziv played with both another new recruit in Keenan Evans as well as captain John Dibartolomeo without missing a beat. How will he mesh with Wilbekin? That remains to be seen, but Ziv couldn’t have had a better debut.
11 points and 6 assists were a nice first game while his aggressiveness on the ball and off of it was even more tantalizing for Sfairopoulos who had followed his progress with much interest over the past four years with both Nahariya and Gilboa Galil.
“I liked him a lot when I saw him in the first year I came here, I liked him a lot. I followed him and this is the right moment for him to come to Maccabi as he is now ready. I liked him when I saw him in my 2nd and 3rd season when he played a very important role with his team.”
There’s nothing not to like about Ziv as he’s worked hard from day one to get to where he is today. He plays with absolutely no fear, he plays hard nosed hoops the entire time he’s on the court and he most important of all he plays like a team player.
Now that he plays with Maccabi, some of the veterans are quite relieved that they don’t have to go toe to too with him as opponents but only in practice.
“I met Iftach my first year at Maccabi Haifa and I followed him throughout his career,” Dibartolomeo noted. “I love the energy he brings and he provided a big boost for us and went for loose balls. I’m happy he’s on our side.”
“I expect him to play very good and I am very happy with his signing. I am very happy with Roman (Sorkin) and I really like him a lot. They will be very important in the the Israeli league but also in the Euroleague.I now have more solutions and we will play with two ball handlers which is how I want to play.”
Ziv was the catalyst for Maccabi’s aggressiveness which was their calling card in the win over Rishon and caught them by surprise. Perhaps Guy Goodes’s team thought that Maccabi would be coming into the game looking at it as just a chance to get some practice minutes in and that would be that. They were wrong.
“Into the first five minutes of the second quarter we were playing well but then things started to come apart and we had to stop their run,” a shellshocked Noam Dovrat said following the game. “As they minutes went by they got even more aggressive and we couldn’t stop them.”
Maccabi caused Rishon to turnover the ball 25 times which is a tremendous amount to give up with 16 coming on steals.
“They pressured the ball and we weren’t prepared for that level of aggressiveness, but we will have to work on that. I don’t believe the game was a reflection of our abilities as a club,” Dovrat stated.
Rishon’s bench boss Goodes also spoke about what went wrong, “We weren’t used to the physicality and aggressiveness that took us out of our normal way to play and then we started to go backwards. We played slower, turned over the ball and we paid the price for each of those. I am happy that these things happened now and not in the regular season so that we can work on them.”
“I believe that when we put pressure on the ball our defense will look tough and this is what we want to do. I don’t know if we will always have these statistics but we want to always play effectively,” Sfairopoulos explained. “We need to be ready to fight for every ball and fight for every possession. This is how we will build our game defensively and offensively.”
While Maccabi played well for their first real competitive game, their long distance shooting isn’t anywheres near where it needs to be (4/24). The players all know that and they’ll need to go head first for those balls on the floor and do what is needed to grind out the wins early on as they get back into shooting shape.
“I’m not surprised because we practiced well. The players were very worried about what happened over the last few weeks due to the coronavirus, so I’m sure we find our rhythm and we will have better shooting games,” Sfairopoulos said.
All in all, the coach can put a big checkmark on test #1 as the Euroleague opens in a week time when Bayern Munich arrives at Yad Eliyahu.
The next test will be a bigger one and that’s an Israeli Classico on Friday afternoon when Maccabi faces Hapoel Jerusalem. Will Maccabi be able to maintain the level of aggressiveness that they want to? Will the Reds allow them to run wild on them as they did against Rishon?
Jerusalem has more talent than Rishon, that’s for sure and former NBA players Thon Maker, Anthony Bennett and Sean Kilpatrick will want to show that they can hoop with the best of them on the grand Israeli stage. However, Maccabi will want to show that, well they are Maccabi and that no one is going to wrest away their Winner Cup trophy.
“We have another important game in two days,” Sfairopoulos said. “Both teams aren’t ready but it will be an interesting game.”
Interesting it will certainly be as the word interesting always seems to be an understatement when these two clubs get together.