Finally, Maccabi Tel Aviv punched its ticket to the Euroleague playoffs over the weekend despite falling to Zalgiris 68-67 in the penultimate game of the regular season.
At 19-14 the yellow-and-blue will feature in the postseason for the second campaign in a row, with a game to spare at home on Thursday against Real Madrid.
There was no question that the playoffs were in the air already for the past couple of weeks, with Oded Katash’s crew having won six games in a row before succumbing to the Lithuanians. But no matter, that one single point was all Maccabi needed to secure a spot for a chance to return to the Zalgirio Arena for the competition’s Final Four in May.
Of course, there is still plenty of work to go for Katash and his squad. From playing one more game versus perennial title threat Real Madrid to finding out who they will play in the best-of-5 quarterfinal series, to then having to actually win that encounter, the fun is yet to come.
“I’m very excited and it’s a weird feeling after a loss,” Katash said after the game. “It’s a great accomplishment and we wanted this and we wanted to win but we missed some shots in the second half. We stopped a very tough team but we didn’t take care of the ball well enough.”
Is it strange to advance to the playoffs after a loss? Certainly, but with how the Euroleague season has gone thus far, anything and everything has been possible. So it should be no surprise that this would be the case in what has been a campaign for the ages.
Maccabi still does not know where it will finish in the standings, although it does know it will fall somewhere between fifth and eighth place, and that it will be the road team hosting Game 3 and, if necessary, Game 4 of the series. The options of potential opponents is also wide open, with the potential to play Olympiacos, Barcelona,Monaco and the dreaded Real Madrid, which swept away the yellow-and-blue in last season’s playoffs.
But we will have to wait for all of the answers to the above questions until the end of the week. Monaco has been earmarked by many as the team that Maccabi would want to face, but Katash put an end to that thought.
“It’s not fun to play Monaco on the road and anything can happen as we have seen this season.” Olympiacos is tough, Real Madrid will be very challenging and Barcelona is loaded with stars, while Monaco has players like MikeJames who can cause havoc.
As we have seen this season, the impossible has been possible and at this rate, beggars can’t be choosers. Whoever the yellow-and-blue will get, it’ll ultimately be the underdog and that is just fine for this team, a team that was put together from scratch at the start of the season.Maccabi management completely overhauled the roster after last season as Katash returned to the head coaching post after having been on the bench 15 years earlier. “I believe that this is again a great showing from us in our firstyear together,” Katash explained.
Lorenzo Brown also spoke about having the team together for just their first campaign. “I have been preaching it all year that it was going to take time but we always had that chemistry off the court to finally put it together.”
“It’s very impressive,” Wade Baldwin began. “I don’t even know how many new guys joined this roster over the summer and we added new players throughout the year. For a group to come together like this to make the top-8 as tight as it is, I have to take off my hat to that and you have to give us a lot of credit for the whole season.”
In addition to Katash, David Blatt was brought on as a consultant and most definitely had a lot of input in constructing the roster. Nikola Vujcic, who will step down from his post as general manager/sports director at the end of the season, and Avi Even, who had been the head of scouting and will move into the vacated role, also deserve credit.
The pair helped put together a roster that really began to gel after Brown and Baldwin both returned from injuries and led Maccabi to the six-game winning streak that made all the difference in the world to ease into the postseason.
The players that have been brought together are a good group of guys. All for one and one for all without question, and as Katash said last week, the one thing that Maccabi has an advantage over every other team is the character of the people on and off the court. They are great guys, each and every one of them. Each has given up a little of themselves for the betterment of the team. Some players could have been upset and turned up the toxicity with the amount of playing time they have had, others had not been used for months and then are relied on to make one crucial play, while others could have thrown in the towel and forced their way off of the team.
“The guys are very proud of each other and we have been working hard and holding each other accountable,” Brown noted. But none of that happened and that is a credit to both Katash and how he manages his team as a players’ coach, and also a credit to the players who have had the patience to understand that something veryspecial could come out of this season.
Now as Maccabi heads into money time, Baldwin, who is having arguably his best Euroleague season, was both succinct and correct. “April, May and June is the most important time for the season and everything we do before that is good, but everyone remembers what happens between April to June.”
This is it. The yellow-and-blue needs to turn it up yet another notch and be ready for the Euroleague playoffs, but also when those are over put 110% focus into the Israeli league postseason. Last year, when Even was the caretaker coach, Maccabi closed up shop after falling to Real Madrid and couldn’t finish off the season fast enough as it fell to Bnei Herzliya in the local semifinals and didn’t even make it to the championship series. Katash cannot allow that tohappen this season and he knows it.
Whatever happens in the Euroleague playoffs has to be put to the side once those games are finished and done and the Israeli league must be at the top of the priority list with no question. But now the primary focus has to be on the present for Maccabi and it must learn from the loss to Zalgiris as well because it will need to win at least one game on the road in order to advance to the Final Four. And, to be honest, the Israeli side has not played well away from home this season with a 5-12 record. “Playoffs are a different ball game,” Brown commented. “We will have to be more patient and aware of what is going on at the opposing end.
We have to lock in a lot more and take it a lot more seriously than any other regular season game.” No matter, Maccabi’s supporters will be with them both at home and on the road just as many traveled to Lithuania and spent the Passover Seder night in Kaunus ahead of the game against Zalgiris, and they will be with the club on Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut when they open up their playoff series away from home.
With the fan support that Maccabi has, Baldwin knows that this can also be a game changer when it comes down to a tight playoff series. “The fans have been the best in the Euroleague and we have the best record at home with one more game to go to really seal the deal. To have 14 wins at home – that is just incredible. Support has been amazing since I got here and everyone feels the same way, we are very excited going forward.”