Thursday night was always meant to be about Alba vs Maccabi but actions elsewhere made the game even more important for a wild final round.
Given Fenerbahce had second place locked up, it was a little surprising to see Efes fall so meekly to their Istanbul rivals. Even more surprising was how Baskonia wholly failed to take advantage of the slip away to a Unicaja team that had nothing to play for. Efes backed into the playoffs and Group E was where things needed to take off.
Enter Maccabi Tel Aviv and Alba Berlin. The home side never led and were level only twice yet somehow stayed in this game until the final minutes. This was a freak show. Alba were utterly pulverised in the paint, with Maccabi flat out owning the home team on the inside. It should have been over at the half but every time the visitors looked capable of making a big push, they lost all ability to make a bucket.
Alba, with a pretty rowdy home crowd rising up whenever the 2,000 visiting Maccabi fans tried to get going, were hanging in on the back of good fortune at the right time and the utter incompetence of the visiting side at the free throw line. Maccabi had no trouble getting to the charity stripe but they made just 11 of 24 on the night.
It wasn’t just how many easy points Maccabi let slip, it was when they dropped them that made this game fascinating to watch. In simple terms, this wasn’t a great game of basketball but Maccabi managed to have their worst stretches at the free throw line at stages of the game when they could have really put Alba in a big hole. Alex Tyus, Brian Randle, and Jeremy Pargo, each had opportunities to stretch it out but their timing let them down.
Alba meanwhile were going lights out at the line, making 17 of 20, and they sure needed to because they were failing badly from the field as they made just 20 of 56 shots. Timing however kept this game compelling. When the home side needed scores to keep in the fight, they found a were to chip away. Maccabi simply couldn’t pull away.
Amidst all the dreadful offensive failure around him, one man decided he was going to score like the bucket was 10 feet wide. Devin Smith went 10 of 14 from the field, including 7 of 10 from deep, and managed to avoid Maccabi’s issues at the free throw line for most of the night by simply not getting any free throws until late. Smith managed to miss 1 of his 2 but with 7 rebounds and 1 assist as well in his ledger, he was the one man making sure Maccabi’s troubles never got serious.
This game was still very much in the balance while Boban Marjanovic was going wild on the boards early for Crvena Zvezda. With 9 rebounds in as many minutes, the biggest of big men was putting Panathinaikos in a world of trouble. The Greens needed help in Berlin. Maccabi delivered.
In the end the patchwork offence of Alba simply couldn’t deliver enough to complete an extraordinary playoff push. The oddest 7-7 record in recent memory had its highs but it’s back to the Bundesliga for the German club for the rest of the season.
Maccabi? Oh they just celebrated by having Pini Gershon carry a fan on his shoulders. The fan had correctly predicted Maccabi would win by 9 and Pini promised him he’d carry him high if it worked out that way. I was going to say it’s the type of thing that’s only plausible over here but if Pat Riley hears about it he will surely be kicking himself that he didn’t think of it first.
Maccabi get Fenerbahce. Panathinaikos get CSKA. We’ll know who Olympiacos and Efes get after tonight. Nobody gets Boban Marjanovic and for that every participant is grateful. Tuesday can’t come soon enough.