Maccabi Tel Aviv begins its quest for European glory as it opens up the best-of-five Euroleague quarterfinal series on the road against Real Madrid on Wednesday night.
This will be the first time since the 2014/15 season that the yellow-and-blue will participate in the postseason after having advanced to the playoffs in 2019/20 only to see the season cancelled in March 2020 due to coronavirus.
The Israeli squad has played inspired basketball over the past few months, since Avi Even took over the reins behind the bench on an interim basis from Ioannis Sfairopoulos, and is entering the series with Los Blancos playing the best it has all season long.
One of the reasons why Maccabi Tel Aviv has ratcheted up its play on both sides of the ball is the play of standout guard Keenan Evans. The Texas Tech product joined the yellow-and-blue this season after an MVP-caliber campaign with Hapoel Haifa, where Evans was a level above the league.
The 25-year-old spoke to The Jerusalem Post about a myriad of topics, from the upcoming playoff series to the reasons the club got back on track and found a way to get into the postseason along with how the adjustment has been to play with a Euroleague team like Maccabi Tel Aviv.
“It’s been pretty fun playing in the Euroleague after hearing so much about it,” said Evans. “Any player in Europe wants to get to that level. It’s been fun from the traveling and playing against the top teams. The competitiveness and now making the playoffs has been just really fun.
After his first year in Haifa, the city of Tel Aviv has been quite the eye opener for the Richardson, Texas, native.
“Tel Aviv is so young wherever you go, it’s just beach vibes and kids your age, a lot more English speakers in Tel Aviv where Haifa is more of a family environment. I enjoyed Haifa, but when you’re younger you want to be in Tel Aviv.”
Maccabi has had a history of mining other franchises in Israel for players and Evans was the next in line, with the feelings being mutual on both sides.
“I feel like one of the main reasons was that it’s always frustrating transferring to a new country. I had played against Maccabi and I knew the coaches and the style of the Israeli league. Ioannis Sfairopoulos, the coach at the time, said that I had a chance to be a big part of this team and have a bigger role than on other teams so I knew that this would be a good opportunity to set the foundation of my Euroleague career.”
Stepping into a Euroleague team is a big responsibility, but Evans has been able to do that almost seamlessly as he has averaged 8.5 points and 3.6 assists in 26 minutes of action over the course of 30 games.
“I was pretty comfortable and excited and the only thing I was thinking about was how I couldn’t wait to play against some of these top guys. It was definitely an exciting summer.”
In addition to adjusting to a new team, Evans has had to get used to playing in two totally different leagues, the Euroleague and the Israeli league, where he is chalking up 10.6 points and 4.1 assists per game.
“It’s definitely an adjustment and it’s tough. I always asked the other guys how they did it and hard is it to focus going from playoffs to the regular league. The drop-off is so big and you’ve just got to focus and find that balance. You have to show up for every game because if you don’t, it will throw off your whole game and rhythm. Right now, we want that rhythm to continue due to the way we are playing.”
Despite being a Euroleague rookie, the guard’s play has raised many an eyebrow across the continent as he has been one of the reasons that Maccabi Tel Aviv has had such an incredible renaissance, though Evans also credits his teammates for being a help to his success.
“It feels that your work isn’t going unnoticed. One of my goals this season was to go from unknown to known in the Euroleague and then work my way up from that. Almost everybody on the team had played more Euroleague years than me. I have a question for everybody about how this guy should be played or that guy. I am just trying to learn the history about certain players and certain teams, but especially the coaches as to how they think. My teammates have helped me a lot to adjust.”
Another important factor for Evans has been assistant coach Doron Perkins, who was a key player for the yellow-and-blue a decade ago and his experience has been invaluable.
“It’s so, so cool that he is here. Every American needs an American on staff and it’s so good for the players and the environment. Perk is so good for me especially because he is not just a ‘yes’ man and says what you want to hear, he tells you what you need to hear and I am thankful for that. He is a huge part of my success this year.”
There had been mixed feelings among the Maccabi staff during the offseason as to the addition of Evans to the squad. While the then-head coach Sfairopoulos wanted him, there were others who preferred to keep Chris Jones, who had just finished his first season in yellow-and-blue. Ultimately, the decision was made to release Jones, who went on to sign with ASVEL Villeurbanne, and give the keys to Evans to take over the point.
“Everywhere I go and every time I step on the court, I feel that I have something to prove. Whether or not people like me or not, there will always be people like that. I just want to show who I am and I hopefully I have earned the respect of those people that said that, but I try to prove people wrong every time I step on the court.”
Sfairopoulos was replaced in February after a poor run of games that saw the club lose its third straight Tel Aviv derby to rival Hapoel Tel Aviv.
“It was a tough situation and losing always hurts. Before they get to the players, they always go to the coach. I feel like it’s a 50/50 thing it could have been some of us and hopefully it doesn’t happen again, but I feel like the next time it does happen it could be some of the players. It was just an unfortunate situation because we got off to a really good start and then we had that lapse where we were just losing and he just happened to be on the end of that. I don’t really know too much about the conversation with him and management, but he’s a great guy and a great coach and I was blessed to have him bring me in.”
As the losses mounted, so did the pressure on the players and team as the season looked to be slipping away.
“It was definitely a lot of pressure and when we got to four losses in a row, for me the pressure went away as we knew we just had to turn it around. We knew how good we were and the most frustrating part was that each game was just so close. One or two games we lost were blowouts, other than that is was just frustrating and I am so happy that it is behind us and hopefully we can continue playing good going forward.”
The head of scouting, Avi Even replaced Sfairopoulos and brought a new outlook to the game while finally getting everyone on the same page.
“Everybody is just having fun and everybody knows that we can’t go lower than we already had been. We really just locked in and we realized how good we were. It took a while to learn each other and how we react or talk and how we want the ball. Once we figured that out we started having fun. We all got in the gym and figured each other out. We had an understanding of each other and how each other works. But Avi, he’s very animated on the sidelines and when everyone is having fun it makes basketball that much more fun…winning is always fun.”
With everything falling into place, Evans feels that the interim tag on Even could be removed and that he will continue in in his role.
“I can see him continuing. The players love him, the coaching staff and the people love him and he is winning. He is a good guy, but I don’t know if he likes training more or coaching more. This is a different life for him so we will see what the future holds.”
Evans brings a lot of poise and professionalism to the court, and he described the attributes that has made him a key contributor and floor general.
“I am really good at bringing energy and be the defensive anchor to set the tone for our team. I really like to get everyone involved on the floor. I feel like as a point guard, if I do have a bad lapse or bad run in the game I have to bring my team in and bring everyone on the same page. Calm the team down and keeping the composure especially now heading into the playoffs. Real Madrid is a good team and they are going to make runs and they are going to play good basketball. I have to keep us grounded and keep us on the same page.”
While Evans hones his skills and the NBA is a dream that almost every professional basketball player aspires to reach, he is pretty satisfied so far as to where his career has been heading,
“The NBA is always out there for me and forever waiting for that opportunity, but Maccabi treats me well, the fans are great and the city is great so I really can’t complain.”
There are some excellent point guards in the Israeli league in J’Covan Brown, Joe Ragland and Retin Obasohan, and Evans feels his place is right at the top of that list.
“I’m going to say that I am at the top every time. Everybody should say that about themselves if they believe in themselves. I am going to say that I am the top of the list.”
As for the Euroleague, Evans has been able to play with some of the best in the continent, he explained.
“One of them for sure is Mike James from Monaco, because he is so unexpected with his style. He can make all types of shots and when you can do that it has the defense on its heels. Real Madrid center Walter Tavares is just a huge guy, there were several plays when we were rebounding and he was standing on his tiptoes and he was kind of tapping the ball around. Nikola Mirotic from Barcelona is such a great player, so smart and knows the game so well and a veteran. He can score at all three levels and he just makes it look so easy.”
When the three Russian teams – CSKA Moscow, Zenit St. Petersburg and UNICS Kazan – were excluded from the Euroleague due to the conflict with Ukraine, the record from these games were erased from the standings and Maccabi jumped all the way up into a playoff spot. Evans said that the team’s confidence went sky high when that happened and it gave them a chance to do something special despite having had some rough patches during the season.
“Everybody got excited thinking about playoff chances, but like I’ve said before they got excluded we knew how good of a team we were and we were already kind of back on the path with the winning streak we were on. During the losing streak, I felt like we were still there and we knew that because we had some two-point losses, four-point losses,six-point losses and we just couldn’t get over that hump. After we got back in the gym and realized what those problems were, it really made a big difference in moving forward.”
Maccabi and Real have faced each other twice this season in two very close games, one being a 72-70 loss for Maccabi in Spain and the other a 75-74 victory in Israel, which sets up to make this series one for the pantheon.
“I’m confident and I’m really excited. A couple of games ago I said that we were one of the scarier teams coming into the playoffs. Us and Monaco are the two teams that everyone should be worried about. We are in a really good groove right now and I feel super confident coming into this game. I am sure we were all kind of sick when we lost by two points over in Madrid, we want to get that win and get that revenge going.”
Real has been going through some very tough times of late and has not been playing its best basketball. However, it is still Real Madrid and one of the best teams in Europe regardless of recent inconsistencies that have plagued Pablo Laso’s club recently.
“It doesn’t affect us at all. Whoever is on that scouting report, whoever is showing up for that game we are scouting them and getting familiar. But honestly right now we are focusing on getting better. We played them not too long ago and we just have to focus on us so when we show up to the game if we do what we have to do, that will take care of everything.”
As for winning the club’s first Euroleague championship since 2014, Evans definitely believes that it’s a possibility.
“Yes, for sure. I like our matchup odds with anybody and I think we have shown that. Hopefully we can go all the way.”