Maccabi Tel Aviv plays Lokomotiv Kuban in Russia tonight in an early Euroleague test, with the team already at a crossroad.
Maccabi officials are struggling to explain the detached and confused basketball that the team has played this past month. Team sources hinted that the new players have to understand that Maccabi has tradition. Just give us a few moments, they say, we’ll give Joe Ingles and Tyrese Rice a session in Maccabism, and everything will work out fine.
At this stage of the season, every missed layup – and not only at Maccabi Tel Aviv – gets the automated response that “we need time to gel.” It's ironic, then, that Maccabi entered this season with a roster that was an island of continuity relative to the mess going on with most of the teams, who dismantled their rosters over the summer and reassembled them.
A hard core of six top players stayed from last season, and another two – Sofoklis Schortsanitis and David Blu – returned to the arms of the system and coach who know them well. Only Ingles and Rice are truly new among the first 10 in the rotation. It’s an ideal ratio of veterans to newcomers. On paper, Maccabi should have had a two- to three-month head start in team solidarity. On the court, Nes Tziona and Holon schooled the team in chemistry.
The current lineup, for all its problems, certainly has a lot of areas to improve - the sloppy transition defense; the guards’ permeable defense; the ridiculous dependence on outside scoring; the minimal contribution by Schortsanitis – all these are deficiencies that can be fixed.
It will be harder to deal with the weak defensive rebounding. Anyway, coach David Blatt, being the experienced diplomat that he is, should know that blaming Monday’s 72-71 loss to Nes Tziona on Devin Smith’s absence doesn’t come across well. Smith played in Vitoria and against Maccabi Haifa, as well as in last year’s playoff final against the same Haifa. He is important, but not an insurance policy against poor basketball and losses.
The picture of Yuval Naimy and Alex Tyus watching the loss in Nes Tziona in civilian clothes is an illustration of the impossible split that Blatt is forced to make between the games in Europe and Israel, while also being trapped in a web of rules and restrictions (keeping a minimum number of Israelis on the court, putting young players on the roster, etc.). It is something that returns us to the painful point of Israeliness.
Scraping the bottom
Perhaps I am being conservative, but it’s hard for me to grasp how Maccabi Tel Aviv willfully turned itself into a band of eight Americans backed up by a Greek and an Australian, along with two token Israelis. Perhaps I am not alone. The Yad Eliyahu stadium may have been full and joyful as usual last Thursday, but the ratings on Channel 10 scraped the bottom of the barrel.
When I watch games with my 10-year-old son, he searches in the lights for an Israeli he can identify with and dream to fill his shoes. While the entire Maccabi team made four of 17 shots from three-point range against Nes Tziona, Hapoel Jerusalem's Yotam Halperin sank five three-pointers in Malha against Eilat. Sometimes the guy who doesn’t play is the best, and sometimes it turns out to be the Israeli you gave up on who is now sharpshooting for another team.