Lior Eliyahu 248.88.
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger )
Young players aren't supposed to lead their teams in the playoffs.
Maccabi Tel Aviv forward Lior Eliyahu, however, isn't like most young players. At 23 years old, he has been one of the driving forces in Tel Aviv's playoff run.
After an embarrassing loss to Ironi Ashkelon in Game 1 of the first round, Eliyahu led the charge the very next contest. He scored a team-high 20 points in Maccabi's 86-69 rout over Ashkelon. It's not just his ability to score that has made the difference, but also the way he does it.
Eliyahu played efficiently in Game 2, with 8-for-10 shooting despite fouling out late in the game. His work early on helped put Tel Aviv so far ahead (19-3) that it gave his teammates enough breathing room to make up for when he fouled out in the final 10 minutes of regulation.
Thursday night at Nokia Arena was no different.
The forward tied his season high with 21 points and 10for-14 shooting. The high shooting percentage is nothing new. Eliyahu finished the BSL's top 10 in field-goal percentage (65.4 percent).
Maccabi coach Pini Gershon knows to expect a good shooting night every game because of his style of play.
Eliyahu is a player well beyond his years.
His basketball IQ keeps him from taking bad shots and he instead gets a majority of his shots down low, from a high probability area.
"His shooting is the same [from the season]," Gershon said following the Game 3 win over Ashkelon.
"He won't be a three-point shooter and he never was."
What has been uncharacteristic of Eliyahu (13.2 points per game) is his scoring. He traditionally is not one to take over a game. It's not because he can't, but rather because he typically looks to create opportunities for his teammates before he looks for his own shots.
Ironi Nahariya forward Jason Williams was the only post player to average more assists per game (3.4) during the regular season than Eliyahu (3.0).
"I don't care about points," Eliyahu said. "I don't care if I score 20, zero or 40 points. We just need to get to the championship."
In Game 1, Eliyahu finished with two points and played just 10 minutes.
Since then, he has shouldered much of the scoring burden on his own.
Eliyahu's teammates say that it is his aggressiveness at the basket that has made the difference in Maccabi's last two wins. Even Tel Aviv's leading scorer during the regular season had nothing but praise for his rising forward's performance in the playoffs.
"I think he's finding his spots very well against a team like Ashkelon," point guard Carlos Arroyo said. "He's playing great with great rhythm and he's waiting for his game to come to him.
"Lior is one of those guys whose game is around the basket and getting into the paint."
Three years after becoming a second round draft pick by the Orlando Magic, Eliyahu is finally becoming the player that got NBA teams interested in the Israeli prospect in the first place. His success did not come over night.
Eliyahu struggled to get off the bench last season (18.4 minutes per game), but was still relatively productive with 7.2 points while maintaining a 59.5 percent field-goal percentage.
If Eliyahu continues imposing his will the way he has against Ashkelon, then Maccabi will have a mismatch that could make it difficult for teams trying to pull an upset.
Gershon considers him to be faster than the majority of forwards in the BSL, yet too big for guards to stand a chance of stopping him alone. That is why in addition to getting his shots down low, Eliyahu has been a frequent target on the fast-break.
The Tel Aviv guards went on several spurts thanks to their quick play in transition during Game 3. And with a big target like Eliyahu running down the floor, Ironi had a hard time putting the brakes on Maccabi's fast break.
As one of the league's youngest players, it is easy to forget when watching Eliyahu perform at such a high level that 23-year-olds aren't supposed to play well in the postseason. For its part, if it hopes to keep its season alive, the team from the South must find a way to make Maccabi's big man remember that his performance from Game 1 is the way players of his ilk are supposed to play.
Unfortunately for Ashkelon, Eliyahu has a short memory.