Hapoel Jerusalem defeated San Pablo Burgos 96-91 to clinch home court advantage in the first two playoff rounds. The Reds were able to pull out the tight win thanks to a pair of clutch 3-pointers by Suleiman Braimoh to overcome a late 14-0 run and five triples by Thad McFadden to take the victory. Tashawn Thomas dominated the game for Oded Katash’s squad with 27 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 blocks for an efficiency rating of 38. Braimoh ended the night with 19 points, Feldeine scored 15 points and J’Covan Brown notched a heroic performance with 10 points and 11 assists. McFadden led the way for Burgos with 20 points in the loss.
Jerusalem and Burgos went neck and neck over the first half of the opening frame as Shelvin Mack hit a 3-pointer for the Reds while Augusto Lima was a force inside for the visitors as the score was knotted up at 9-9 midway through the quarter. Su Braimoh drilled a triple and Miquel Salvo did as well for Burgos, but Tashawn Thomas scored inside and James Feldeine found the bottom of the basket from the outside as the Reds took a 24-17 lead after ten minutes of play.
Big man Mindaugas Kupsas got into the act with points in the paint and Feldeine scored from deep but Alex Barrera got hit with a trio of triples to pull to within 36-34 with five minutes remaining in the second quarter. Feldeine scored yet another 3-pointer but Lima put the hammer down on an alley-oop, Salvo dropped a floater and Vega scored in paint but Thomas hit free throws and a layup to stay in the lead 47-46 at halftime.
Shelvin Mack got to work in the third quarter with a triple and layup for Oded Katash’s squad but Bassas answered right back as did Thad McFadden with a layup and 3-pointer as Burgos kept pace with Jerusalem, down by 3 points 60-57 midway through the frame. The visitors went on a 7-0 run but Tamir Blatt and J’Covan Brown each broke through with their first 3-pointers of the game to give the hosts a slim 70-68 advantage after 30 minutes.
Thomas continued to put in points in the paint, Blatt hit another triple as did Brown to give Jerusalem a 82-74 lead with 5:57 left in regulation time. But Burgos ripped off an 14-0 run thanks to a quartet of 3-pointers by McFadden to take a 88-84 lead with a shade over two minutes remaining. But Braimoh hit two clutch triples and Brown dropped a layup to lead Jerusalem to the hard earned 96-91 victory to clinch home court advantage in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
The Lead Point
1) Suleiman Braimoh is one interesting dude. Born in Benin City, Nigeria, the 6”8 forward moved to New York City with his parents in 2001 and attended the United Nations International High School as well as The Lawrenceville Prep School in New Jersey where he starred before heading to Rice University.
For the Owls, Braimoh averaged 4.4 points and 3 rebounds in roughly 11 minutes a game over his 4 years at the school. From university, Su began his fledgling professional career with the Rio Grande Vipers but after only 15 G-League games he headed to Qatar in 2012. With stops in Japan, New Zealand, Mexico, Germany, Russia and France, Braimoh arrived in Israel and featured prominently with Hapoel Eilat as he helped the squad reach the Israeli league Final Four where they were ousted by Maccabi Tel Aviv in the semifinals in a tight contest.
After a year by the Red Sea, Braimoh moved up to Jerusalem where he has used his aggressive play to take Oded Katash’s team to a perfect home record in both the domestic league and the Champions League.
With 19 points, 7 rebounds and an efficiency rating of 24, “Magnificent Su” went 3/6 from 3-point range with two coming with time winding down and the team behind by four points late. Braimoh took the bull by the horns and hit two big time shots even after he had been frustrated by some of the referees calls, “I had to get back to controlling what I could control and not what the refs were calling. Kudos to my teammates to getting me back locked in. After that it was just good team basketball as we shared the ball and the shots I got were open shots. Trust the work you put in before and we’re lucky they went in.”
With the victory, the Reds finished atop their group thereby giving them home court advantage throughout the first two playoff rounds which get underway in March. Last season, Jerusalem finished in second place and were forced into a very tough quarterfinal matchup against Tenerife which they lost, so the importance of taking first place was key as they now prepare for the post season, “It was very crucial to secure home court,” Braimoh said. “We have some amazing fans and trying to see it through to try and get this championship is definitely crucial for us.”
Heading into the game it was unknown if star guard J’Covan Brown would play due to a knee problem, but the Texas Longhorn product showed up and gave it all he had to finish with a double-double, while playing facilitator with 11 big time assists. His effort which at times saw him limping on the court was not lost on Braimoh, “People like JB (J’Covan Brown) are why I decided to come here. I played against him last year, and you may not know this but we played each other in college. I know he’s a big time player with a big heart on and off the court as he’s a great locker-room guy. To see him out there battling for us, putting his body and his heart on the line you can’t help but do whatever you can to help pick him up and help pick the team up and that’s what I tried to do.”
Jerusalem has had a lapse in their defensive play since Trent Lockett left the team late in 2019 to be with his ailing mother who unfortunately passed away earlier this week. Lockett was just that, a lock down defender for the Reds and they have suffered defensively ever since leaving a big hole. However, while he was here Lockett was part of the team and still is as the club honored his mother’s memory before the game and the players wore black ribbons on their uniforms as well.
“We love Trent and he was integral part of what we were doing and at any point we would love to have him,” an emotional Braimoh explained. “Him not being here and going through what he’s going through puts life into perspective with the whole Kobe situation as well, this can end in an instance. I play with my heart on my sleeve and I play as it’s my last game every time. I think today we took it to the next level to put it all out there. However, when the game ends we can live with that as long as you give whatever you have.”
Of course with the passing of Kobe Bryant in the tragic helicopter crash still fresh in everyone’s minds, Braimoh reflected back as to how the “Black Mamba” influenced him as both a person and player, “My first number as a professional basketball player was 24. For me that meant something. When I got the number I was like are you sure you want to give me this one? The type of standard that he set related back to me and inspired me because I try not to play the score but I try to play the competition. I try to play to a standard which is high level basketball and high IQ basketball. I like to play for my teammates respect, my coaches trust and that’s playing to a standard which is what Kobe did. I just try to be consistent and that’s what Kobe embodied. Someone who was going to work and would give the same amount of effort and tenacity each and every game. That’s the standard I try to play to every time I play.”
2) In addition to Braimoh’s clutch shooting, both Tashawn Thomas and J’Covan Brown need appropriate shootouts. Thomas is looking more and more like a player that will be heading to the Euroleague and should take home this week’s Champions League MVP honors for his magnificent performance. Brown as usual out up a tremendous effort while playing on what it looked to be one leg all night long. This was a great game with a great atmosphere,” Thomas said. “We knew it would be a tight game and we stayed together especially during the tough times.” The forward who had 4 blocks against a strong inside Burgos team also looked at the key to closing their big men out, “We talked a lot about how aggressive we had to be and we brought it to them today. But now it’s one game at a time, we can’t think about being undefeated.”
3) It looked at times that J’Covan Brown had no business being on the basketball court. He looked to be in pain, hobbling and not getting his shot off the way he usually does. But that didn’t stop him one bit as he dished out assist after assist, drove to the basket and only coughed up the ball once in 27 minutes of play. A magnificent performance. “We were really not sure if he was going to play,” explained Coach Oded Katash following the game. “But we saw his heart today and he did a great job along with Tamir Blatt who had a combined 17 assists to only 1 turnover. The way they handled the game was magnificent as they scored 96 points. And he was playing on two legs!” It was truly magnificent.
Burgos gave Jerusalem all that they could handle playing the Reds tight all night long while taking an 88-84 lead very late in the game. From being 10 points donw they quickly went 4 points up. The architect of the comeback was Thad McFadden who was spectacular in money time scoring 5 triples late in the 4th quarter. Katash talked about what happened as the game almost got away from his team at the end, “We can still defend better. McFadden’s first 3-pointer was a mistake by the defense and then that allowed two more. But we called timeout to calm the players down.” McFadden also looked back at his team’s effort, “We didn’t play 40 minutes and we had key stretches where we didn’t play very well. We fought in the 4th but made some mistakes and they hit some key free throws at the end.”