Maccabi Tel Aviv may have lost in Madrid but their performance against Real showed that they are back playing the brand of basketball that works for the Israeli club. Emmet Ryan on how Neven Spahija has brought common sense back to what had become a madhouse and stopped the rot for the 6 time Euroleague champions
The regression began almost immediately after the confetti stopped falling on the treble winning season in 2014. With a few key departures, Maccabi Tel Aviv took a step down but the relative stability of that 2014/15 season, or at least it’s middle third, was enough to mask the issues that were starting to fester. A new look roster got its ass whupped in the Intercontinental Cup. That was fine, it was just a glorified pre-season game with a largely rebuilt roster and a new coach. Then the start to the Euroleague and Israeli League campaigns began with ample reasons to worry. A 7-3 run in Euroleague’s opening phase was fine on paper but some performances left plenty to be desired. The early blows in the ISL were a much deeper cause for concern. Think about everything that’s happened to Maccabi in the last few years and then read the following:
It was panicked, sloppy, and very un-Maccabi.
That’s from November 2014, not even six months after the club had lifted the Euroleague championship in Milano. It essentially described what was to come for most of the next two and a half seasons. Save for winning the Israeli cup and salvaging their Euroleague campaign with a win at Alba Berlin on the last day of the Top 16, before getting swept in the playoffs by Fenerbahce, there were no bright spots. That was followed by missing the Israeli finals for the first time in 22 years. Things were escalating.The following year would see sweeping changes on the floor that ended in a dismal regular season performance that saw Maccabi go into Eurocup for the first time and subsequently fail to make any noise there.
More changes, more spending, and then an awful lot more coaches. The disgrace of 2015/16 season was addressed by signing a bunch of guys clearly ill-suited to play together. The too many cooks situation in terms of who was in charge of bringing in players and making decisions on how to go forward made everything worse. An ignominious maiden campaign in the new-look Euroleague was followed by a third straight failure to make Israel’s title game (although they have managed to keep winning the cup throughout this spell). The failure to win the national title for three straight seasons, the first time ever for Maccabi, was finally the shock to the system required to result in wholesale changes.
Back came Spahija and with him came hope for some order. The moves on the roster looked far more inspiring. DeShaun Thomas isn’t a superstar at this level but he is good at doing his job. Norris Cole was a steal and a logical fit for the type of basketball Maccabi should be playing. There were some signings that weren’t all that confidence inspiring in terms of style, DeAndre Kane is fun but he looked like the wrong fit for a change, but even these pieces have worked.
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That brings us to Friday in Madrid where Maccabi were 8-7 going into it and down both Thomas and Cole through injuries. Up stepped Kane who delivered a proper Maccabi-ball style performance around a team of guys doing the same. Real eventually made their move to sprint clear but beneath that was the type of game we wanted to see.
The offence was disciplined and stylistically balanced, with enough grind and flair in kind, and they worked the ball intelligently. The game was built from strong defence, with Kane giving Luka Doncic plenty to think about throughout, and no silly stuff. This may not be the sexiest of ways to play basketball but it was the fundamentals of Maccabi ball, punching the guy in the nose and then keeping your head, that was missing over the past few seasons.
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There are several guys on this roster who fit the description of dudes who can do their job with little fuss. Michael Roll, John DiBartolomeo, and, most of all, Artsiom Parakhouski. They can get work done and work with those around them.
DiBartolomeo is the right kind of mind, coming from a small school, performing well at an unfancied club, and knowing he has to work his ass off to earn his minutes at this level. Roll is coming off a season with Besiktas where Ufuk Sarica, a guy who is not noted for his strategic nous but is excellent at drawing ever drop of basketball out of his players. Then there’s Parakhouski who looks like a throwback physically but has a really intelligent game that allows him to work within whatever limitations are set on him.
None of these guys is the one to put you over the top but the problem with Maccabi in recent seasons has been an excessive effort to find the guy to put you over the top. The likes of this trio, Cole, Thomas, and the bulk of the roster are all about the collective. It’s about bringing the right parts together in the first place and then trying to build on it.
As it stands Maccabi’s record is that of a borderline playoff side but their performances point to a team that should make the post-season and, while unlikely to make it to Belgrade, won’t be an easy out.
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