Sinai Says: Even Blatt failing to live up to Mac TA’s gargantuan expectations

After a nightmarish week, Maccabi Tel Aviv eked out an 83-79 victory over Hapoel Eilat, improving to a 5-3 record locally and releasing some of the pressure that has been building at the club.

David Blatt 370 (photo credit: Adi Avishai)
David Blatt 370
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
It took about five minutes from the sound of the final buzzer for David Blatt to finally relax and crack a smile.
After a nightmarish week, Maccabi Tel Aviv eked out an 83-79 victory over Hapoel Eilat in BSL action at Nokia Arena on Monday night, improving to a 5-3 record locally and releasing some of the pressure that has been building at the club since the yellow-and-blue lost its league opener at Hapoel Holon six weeks ago.
“We needed this win. No doubt,” said Blatt in his postgame TV interview, finally allowing himself to smile in relief.
“After the tough week we experienced it was hard to lift everyone to the level of composure required to win the game. There is pressure from every angle, but I think we recorded an important win and I’m pleased with that.”
But Blatt’s bleary-eyed smile was somewhat similar to that of a prisoner on death row who had just found out his execution had been stayed due to a malfunctioning guillotine.
He may still be alive, but the inevitable was likely only postponed.
There was speculation that Blatt would have been fired had Maccabi lost to Eilat after last week’s dejecting derby defeat to Hapoel Tel Aviv followed by the demoralizing Euroleague setback versus Laboral Vitoria.
A quick glance at Maccabi’s position in the BSL and Euroleague standings could make an outsider wonder what all the fuss is about.
After all, only Maccabi Haifa has a better record in the BSL – by a mere half a game – and Tel Aviv currently has sole possession of second place in Euroleague Group D, one game behind Lokomotiv Kuban and one game ahead of Panathinaikos and Vitoria.
But at Maccabi, the level of expectation is so much higher. One could argue that it is perhaps impossibly high.
A Maccabi coach has to guide his team to a win in every game. And he has to do so in style, preferably with Israeli players making key contributions.
It is only a matter of time until the ownership loses its patience with the coach, regardless of his identity. Such a level of success simply cannot be maintained over the long run.
It is a testament to Blatt’s capabilities and character that he became the first coach since Tzvika Sherf in the 1980’s to start four straight seasons at the club.
However, despite winning nine of a possible 10 local titles in his two tenures as head coach, he has had his back against the wall ever since Maccabi dropped the league title to Maccabi Haifa last season, with his relationship with several of the owners going sour long before that.
Defeats in this season’s BSL and Euroleague openers complicated matters further, as did the shock loss at newly-promoted Ironi Ness Ziona.
Six straight wins in all competitions over the first 16 days of November saw Maccabi climb to the top of its Euroleague group and looked to have steadied the ship.
However, last week’s loss in the derby shattered any confidence the yellow-andblue had built and the failure to clinch a victory against a mediocre Laboral side put Blatt’s job in danger.
The last Maccabi coach to lose three local games so early on in a season was Oded Katash, the current Eilat coach, and he was fired the day after falling to a 5-3 record at the end of December 2007.
In his first four seasons as the head coach of Maccabi, Blatt suffered a combined six regular season defeats. Even in last season’s erratic campaign, Tel Aviv registered only five losses.
Maccabi is well on its way to eclipsing that total this season, but it is not just the team’s results that have got Blatt on the hot seat.
Reports of the coach’s clashes with players have been rife since the summer and there were two incidents that were clear for all to see during Monday’s encounter.
In the first, Blatt squabbled with David Blu during a timeout in the final minute of the first half, ultimately benching him until the break. However, Blu was back on the floor at the start of the second half and helped his team to the win.
The second confrontation hit boiling point between the third and fourth quarters and could have longer lasting repercussions.
Seemingly offended by Blatt’s decision not to send him back out on court, guard Tyrese Rice sat at the far end of the bench and didn’t even bother to listen to the coach’s instructions to the team.
Rice never re-entered the game.
Blatt has long had a reputation of being a perfectionist coach with very high demands from his players and Rice has struggled to settle in his system since the start of the season.
Blatt would surely like to bring in another guard in his place, but the owners are wondering if perhaps it is the coach who needs to be replaced.
Of all players, it was Guy Pnini who came to Blatt’s rescue on Monday, scoring 22 points against Eilat after netting a combined 25 points in the limited minutes he was afforded by the coach in Maccabi’s first seven league games.
Pnini gave the team, which has often lacked fighting spirit this season, a spark that seemingly only a born-and-raised Israeli can provide.
So far this season, Yogev Ohayon has been the only Israeli-born player who has regularly appeared in Blatt’s rotation and his absence through injury last Thursday meant that for the first time in its history Maccabi played an entire game without a true local player.
The mistakes made in the building of the team last summer, including the lack of players with local pride, cannot truly be corrected until next season.
It is strikingly clear that changes need to be made to the roster, but it remains unclear if the owners will allow Blatt to make them rather than his replacement.
Smiles have been somewhat scarce at Maccabi in recent weeks.
Blatt took his opportunity to finally relax, at least momentarily, on Monday, but he knows better than anyone else that long nerve-wracking days lay ahead as he continues to fight for his life as the coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv.
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