1) After going down 29-13 ten minutes into the game most fans and media were ready to chalk up the contest as a loss. Sure, Maccabi has gone on a good run the las week or so with only ten players, sure they won games against CSKA at home because of the adrenaline pumping through Yad Eliyahu, sure they beat Zenit on the road because they had to. But against Panathinaikos at home down by 16 points and then 18 midway through the second quarter the initial big had finallyy caught up to the Yellow & Blue and that was that. The home winning steak was done and that was that. A 10-5 record wouldn’t be so bad after 15 rounds of Euroleague action. But then it happened. The team without quit. The team that refuses to lose, the team that somehow put all of their injury problems to the side mounted a comeback and cut the PAO lead to just 46-43 by the end of the half. “We came out a little sluggish, there is no point making excuses,” said acting captain Jake Cohen in the lockerroom after the game. “We were completely out of the game,” explained coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos at the post game press conference. “We were without concentration and then we turned it around from the second period until the end.” Veteran forward Quincy Acy who just arrived from the NBA at the start of the season was short on words to describe what had happened, “We started playing defense. It felt like a playoff game and the fans helped us to victory.“
2) The key to the win was not only the desire to find a way to victory but an incredible fourth quarter that saw five saw five straight 3-pointers, three of which from Maccabi and a pair by Panathinaikos. Let’s set the stage. Deshaun Thomas scored a pair of points to give the visitors a 71-66 lead with 8:29 left in the game but veteran guard Nick Calathes who did not have one of his best games picked up his fourth foul forcing Rick Pitino to send him to the bench. With arguably the Greeks best creator and scorers in Jimmer Fredette and Calathes on the bench, the Yellow & Blue went to work. Acy scored a bucket and was fouled and although he missed the free throw shot he grabbed the offensive rebound got it to Elijah Bryant who sent it to Tyler Dorsey for a triple. Wesley Johnson went the other way and also bagged a triple, but Scottie Wilbekin cane right back and drilled one of his own. If that wasn’t enough a red hot Thomas hit another 3-pointer for PAO but Bryant did the same at the other end of the floor, 77-77 with 6:22 left in the game.
You could say it wasn’t a bad two minutes of basketball. Remember though that Calathes is still parked on the bench though. After a couple of Panathinaikos misses Bryant and Dorsey each went for two points to give the hosts a 81-77 lead, Calathes and Fredette come back into the game with five minutes remaining but the tide had turned, the arena became unbearable, Wilbekin hit another triple raising the decibel level up yet another notch and that was that.
“The team showed a lot of heart to take a bad situation to turn it around. We got to be gutsy,” said Cohen. “I had goosebumps,” an excited Deni Avdija said. “Me and Zoos were staring at each other and we were thinking what the heck is going on here!” Yovel Zoosman may not have played in the crazy fourth quarter but he certainly enjoyed what he saw, “It was fun watching from the side, they scored tough shots and so did we. It’s about who wants it more and I think we want it more almost every time. Whoever puts more heart in will win.” Finally Coach Sfairopoulos was also amazed at what had a happened, “To find this energy and this fighting spirit, this soul and to show this effort that started from the second period and finished in the last period in which they gave everything, all their heart. The score in the fourth period was 23-10, they scored 10 points in the fourth period, and we scored 23.” Case closed.
3) Deni Avdija was the catalyst that turned the game around in the second quarter. With his insertion just seconds into the second quarter, the tide began to turn. The NBA 2020 draft prospect turned up his play a notch and scored three buckets including a clutch triple with 1:19 left in the half to cut the PAO lead to 46-41. He showed the poise and professionalism of a veteran player who was under the NBA microscope with Michael Zarren, the assistant general manager of the Boston Celtics and Prosper Karangwa the Orlando Magic director of scouting plus a scout from the Brooklyn Nets. There’s no question they walked away with a favorable impression of a player with passion, guts and a ton of intangibles that every NBA team would be looking for. “What can I say about Deni Advija? I think he had his best game in the EuroLeague,” said Coach Sfairopoulos.
It’s an honor and a privilege when a coach with the resume of character of Rick Pitino comes to town. Being able to listen to him in the post game press conference is a sight to behold. He is articulate, intelligent and just an all around basketball guru who demands our respect because he just plain and simple deserves it. Every word he says during a press conference has to be listened to with the utmost attention because he is one who has been in the game of basketball as an NBA head coach, in college as a head coach and of course in Europe the past two seasons with Panathinaikos. He’s won championships, he’s seen some of the greatest players and coached them as well. The bottom line is, he knows just a little bit about the game of basketball and when he speaks, you darn well have to listen.
So when I asked Pitino about Deni Avdija at the post game presser, he surprised not only myself but I’m sure may others in the room when he said the following about the Israeli protege, “I think a lot of media people listen to too much of these draft boards, I heard about these lottery picks and they don’t turn out to be lottery picks, I’m not saying it’s his (Avdija) case, I’m just saying it all comes down to what they bring in to workouts. I’ve experienced it coaching. The NBA has become a 3 point league. They will put him through all the 3 point shooting drills all the 1 on 1moves defensively or offensively and that will determine if he is a first round pick. For instance Donovan Mitchell had a great year for me but it wasn’t until the workouts that he went from a late first round pick to moving all the way up so don’t pay attention to that now and I’m not saying he is or he isn’t he’s obviously a very talented young man. But it’s going to come down to the workouts.”
Once we’re on the subject of Rick Pitino, I asked the coach a another question in the press conference about the effect the home crowd had on his team, “This is one of the premier crowds in all of basketball. I’ve experienced Kansas. I’ve experienced Kentucky. I’ve experienced Portland Trail Blazers when they were really good. And this was one of the best in all of basketball. It’s loud, but some places you go to the fans are chanting, I don’t know what they’re chanting, but they’re not paying attention to the game. They’re going through their slogans and they’re not really watching the game. Maccabi fans are into every shot, into every referee’s call. It’s a great crowd, I give their fans a lot of credit.” Now I spoke to a Maccabi player following the game about how much the crowd really effects the players and the game and he shed a bit of light and another interesting fact saying that it really has no effect on the home players. Where it does have an effect is with the visitors as they get mixed up under the pressure and that’s when mistake can happen that the hosts take advantage of.