Speedy Smith’s message was crystal clear after Hapoel Jerusalem outlasted AEK Athens 64-55 in Game 1 of their Basketball Champions League best-of-3 quarterfinal series on Tuesday night.
The Reds get no respect. Whether it’s their defense, their offense or their coach, Jerusalem isn’t appreciated the way the players feel that they should be, both from their peers and from the competitions that they are playing in.
The star guard, who scored nine of his 20 points in the decisive final frame, was specifically referring to a General Manager survey that was released on the official BCL website just a few hours prior to tip-off, in which Hapoel players including lockdown defender Or Cornelius, head coach Aleksandar Dzikic and Smith himself earned little or no recognition whatsoever.
The underdogs go to the continental playoffs
Being the underdog has suited Jerusalem just fine the season as it sports an overall record of 10-2 heading into the continental playoffs and has flown way under the radar, having finished in first place in both the regular season and round-of-16 groups. But Dzikic has done what he’s needed to do which is to get his squad just 40 minutes from the Final Four which has been the club’s Achilles heel since joining the competition more than half a decade ago.
Jerusalem came into the clash with their Greek foes after having lost to Maccabi Tel Aviv with a makeshift lineup which broke the club’s 14 game winning streak across all competitions which included capturing the Israel State Cup with a victory over the aforementioned yellow-and-blue.
However, the defeat to Maccabi was absolutely inconsequential as the Reds raced off to a 21-0 run to close out the first quarter to take a 26-6 lead after 10 minutes.
From that moment on the stage was set for Jerusalem and put AEK in a very precarious situation where it would need to work awfully hard to dig out of a 20-point hole and expend oodles of energy.
The catalyst without a doubt was Israeli Cornelius, whose father Greg once upon a time played for Hapoel Jerusalem back in the 1989/90 season. The 25-year old Cornelius has played for a number of teams, most recently Hapoel Gilboa/Galil where he began coming into his own as a player who is known for his hard-nosed defending and solid work ethic.
“It’s very disrespectful that Cornelius doesn’t get the credit as a defender that he should get. I literally feel that he is the best defender in the league hands down. People should look at that more. We are the best defensive team in the league and we have the best defender. It started with Or on defense and that created the tempo for the offense.”Speedy Smith
“It’s very disrespectful that Cornelius doesn’t get the credit as a defender that he should get,” Smith lamented in his opening monologue. “I literally feel that he is the best defender in the league hands down. People should look at that more. We are the best defensive team in the league and we have the best defender. It started with Or on defense and that created the tempo for the offense.”
Cornelius did in fact help Jerusalem to that 21-0 run as his steal and dunk set off an avalanche of points from every direction as AEK couldn’t find a way to stop the bleeding as the Reds landed a massive first punch. While the guard did not shoot well won threes, going 0-of-6, he did finish the game with eight points to go along with a pair of steals that both led to baskets.
“It is so rare that your teammates are praising that much as we do about Cornelius,” said Dzikic, who lovingly coddled Cornelius as a timeout was called. “He’s a game changer in so many ways and people don’t understand that he uses a lot of energy on the defensive end and sometimes when he is open he is missing.”
Cornelius signing with Jerusalem in the off-season raised some eyebrows wondering if the former Maccabi Rishon Lezion and Ness Ziona guard was good enough to feature a big club like the Reds. That notion was very quickly dismissed in the preseason as it was clear that Cornelius was up to the task to take on both the Israeli league and the BCL’s best.
“Every player that he plays against struggles,” Smith said. “It’s ridiculous and I hate it that I don’t see his name mentioned for all of these awards whether it’s in the local Israeli League or the Champions League. He is the head of our defense and he starts us off for us to play offensively. It really makes me mad that he doesn’t get this type of attention for this.”
Whether it was diving for a loose ball, not giving an opponent an inch of space to move and groove or leaving it all out on the floor time and time again, Cornelius made his mark and also made sure to put everyone on notice that he was not just with Jerusalem as a passenger but a legitimate starter.
Sure the Reds let the visitors back into the game and they actually had a pair of chances in the fourth quarter to take the lead, but when they were unable to get over the hump Smith, as he has done time and time again, grabbed the bull by the horns and paced his team to the nine-point win to the delight of the over 7,000 delirious fans.
Kenny Williams, who scored 13 of his 18 points in the third quarter thought that his team could have stolen the victory as they came so close to going in front and had twice erased 20+ deficits this season alone, but a turnover and a missed layup ended that comeback dream for the Greeks.
“I think so, I didn’t say it, but in my head we got it to three a couple of times and we have been in that situation before. We had to get over the hump and take the lead and ride that momentum and tonight we didn’t do that.”
Dzikic and crew will need to be very careful in Athens as AEK will no doubt take the lesson learned from Game 1 into Game 2 and there is no reason to think that they will not give Jerusalem a fight for its life and not make the same mistakes that it did in the opening 10 minutes of this series.
Jerusalem will need to deal with the fact that Zach Hankins, who picked up the BCL’s March Player of the Month award, was not on his game on the offensive end and that his teammates can find him with better accuracy around the basket. That may be a tall order so to speak as AEK was able to really stymie the big man in the paint with a number of bodies and height of their own.
But as Dzikic said, the fact that they doubled down on Hankins opened up the perimeter, where Smith, Levi Randolph and Khadeen Carrington were able to operate.
“Both teams could have played better,” Dzikic noted. “We know it will be super tough in Athens and for them it will be do or die. At the start of the game it was a little bit too easy, an early big lead, they came back and it’s hard to play on the same level for 40 minutes. I believe that some of the guys can play better.”
“The way they changed their defense during the game allowed Speedy to score as they said that they wouldn't allow Zach to score. Zach will be a little more factor and we expect there will be more switching and they will use the atmosphere in Athens. We respect them very much.”
Can Jerusalem hold AEK to 55 points once again when they tip off in Athens next Wednesday in Game 2? That will be a very tough task without a doubt, but as with every underdog, don’t underestimate them.
“We understand that they are a very good team and have some great shooters as well,” said Smith.
“We are all playing with a chip on our shoulder. I guess we can be hated, that’s ok. They don’t want to give us any recognition and they haven’t given us recognition this whole season. We’re making our way with what we can.”