Anytime Maccabi Tel Aviv beats CSKA Moscow, it is cause for celebration due to the rivalry these two teams have had throughout the years in continental competition. The players are happy, the professional staff is content and above all the fans are thrilled when they can put a check mark next to the Russian squad’s name to signify a victory.
However, while it was great to beat CSKA 84-75 in a Euroleague game on Thursday night that was never that close, the reaction to the triumph was a bit more muted than other similar wins. Why?
That’s because Maccabi has Hapoel Tel Aviv on deck in a one-game Israel State Cup semifinal matchup on Monday night. Should the yellow-and-blue win that contest, the final will take place on Thursday night back at home in Yad Eliyahu.
The State Cup is always a crucial competition for Maccabi Tel Aviv and a title that the club has won 45 times, more than any other club in the country. So while it was great to beat CSKA, and even though Maccabi fell to Hapoel Tel Aviv twice in a month in Israeli League play, all that goes out the window in Monday’s winner-take-all matchup.
The keys going into a semifinal clash that will see Yad Eliyahu packed in a sea of yellow-and-blue on one side and red on the other, will be defense and how effective the Israeli players will be. As the rules will only allow Maccabi head coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos to dress five foreign players, it will be critical that the team have an all-hands-on-deck approach just as it did at Hapoel Galil Elyon this past week in the quarterfinals.
In that game, Maccabi only remembered the word defense in the second half after having allowed over 50 first-half points. But ever since that first half vs Galil Elyon, the Maccabi players have turned on the jets and upped their intensity. Whether it was conceding only seven points in the first 15 minutes of the second half in the Galilee, or ripping off a 47-17 run after starting off slowly against CSKA and staring down an early 11-2 hole, the yellow-and-blue seems to have turned a corner.
“I really enjoyed watching the team play with aggressiveness, toughness and determination for the entire game,” Sfairopoulos explained. “We had one of our best first halves this season. They only scored 11 points in the second quarter and only six points after the timeout that we took in the first quarter. We had great percentages from the outside and we scored 49 points in the first half. The third quarter went the way we wanted and they pressed, but we controlled the game from what we had done in the first half. I want to see them continue to play with passion and determination.”
There’s no question that Maccabi played with plenty of passion over the past couple of contests, and that is going to be the recipe to winning the State Cup, as well.
“It starts with defense and we started that in the second half in Galil and continued that today,” noted captain John DiBartolomeo. “We have to be more consistent and when we are getting stops, we are running and playing our best basketball. Defense is something that we focus on at the beginning and coach is always stressing its importance to us. When we are getting stops, we get our best rhythm on offense, everyone enjoys scoring and you get your momentum from defense.”
Jake Cohen, who has really begun to come into his own, also spoke about the team’s defense and how that played a part in the win.
“We were really focused from the tip, and even though the first few minutes didn’t go great we continued to push hard and I thought we did a great job defensively. Even though they were missing guys they still have plenty of weapons and we held them to 75 points, and when you do that you’re going to have a great chance to win the game.”
It wasn’t just the team’s defense that spurred Maccabi to the win, but the fact that it had the entire roster making a contribution to the win. Of course, Scottie Wilbekin, Keenan Evans and a number of other players are usually the key players in a Maccabi win, However, recently it has also been a number of veteran Israelis who have been crucial in helping the club in taking the victory.
This will be doubly important in the State Cup Final Four.
Against CSKA, both DiBartolomeo and Cohen made huge contributions to the win with clutch baskets, savvy play and top-level hustle to once again make their mark for the club after a stretch of time where their play was extremely inconsistent.
Cohen hit a very important corner three-pointer when CSKA was starting to pare down the Maccabi lead in what was a big-time shot for a player who has not looked like to be in the same form that he displayed a couple of seasons ago.
“I knew that Jake would come back and he helps the team in a lot of ways,” said Sfairopoulos. “He is smart and he can defend, rebound and he knows how to play the game. He was not in great shape and slowly he found himself and he is more ready to give to the team which I am very happy about that.”
The bench boss also complimented DiBartolomeo.
“John also has found himself after a long period and had been coming back after two surgeries. In fact, he started the last season late because of the surgery. It’s also the mental side of the game and he is now playing free and he is the regular John, the one who we love and know who plays great defense and he’s part of the system. I am very happy for him.”
With CSKA now out of the way and Maccabi improving its Euroleague record to 11-12, just one game under .500 and in the thick of the hunt for one of the final playoff spots, the yellow-and-blue can really begin to focus on what is next in the line – the State Cup semifinal derby.
“The derby is a huge game,” DiBartolomeo said with a smile. “After we win a Euroleague game we usually celebrate, but now we are already focusing on Monday. We had two tough losses against them, but these are the most important games and the best to play while we are here at our home arena in order to get to the final.”
Sfairopoulos also began to look ahead to the Tel Aviv derby as he would like to exact some level of revenge after falling twice to Danny Franco’s team.
“If we play with this intensity, we win games. We showed how we can win a lot of games playing this type of defense. You have to have a complete game to be good on both sides of the ball. We have to bring all of our heart to the next game.”