Maccabi forward Lior Eliyahu has gone through some rough patches in his career. Zvika Sherf benched him for a long stretch of the 2007/08 season, and he sat on the bench a lot under Dusan Ivanovic at Tao Vitoria. However, he never had a bad run quite like the one he is having now.
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“What happened to Lior is a combination of several factors,” says Ido Kozikaro, Eliyahu’s teammate on the national team. “He was injured and was out for two-three weeks, returned and then was sick for ten days. He told me he was wiped out. He didn’t get out of bed. They even hospitalized him.”
Kozikaro said the timing was horrible, and once he left the rotation he was quickly replaced. Captain of Maccabi since December, Eliyahu is the veteran player on the team, carrying the most Euroleague mileage, yet he neither starts nor gets off the bench much. He played a total of 19 minutes in Maccabi’s first two playoff games against Real Madrid, which visits Tel Aviv on Monday.
It’s hard to blame the coach, David Blatt, with Eliyahu shooting just 3-for-19 between the Euroleague’s second round and Top 16. Blatt said on Sunday that he tried to give him minutes in Madrid, but the game didn’t go well − not just for Eliyahu but for the entire team.
Arik Shivek, the national team coach, also sees the double whammy of the injury and sickness as spelling Eliyahu’s undoing. “The train left the station, and the team got by without him,” he says. The recent strike didn’t help. Coach Blatt notes Eliyahu was supposed to work his way back through the league, but the team didn’t play for a month.
Eliyahu only managed four league games between injury and his illness, having a part in Maccabi’s losses to Hapoel Tel Aviv and Netanya. Shivek says it can only be expected that Eliyahu’s confidence has sunk. While Shivek notes that confidence works both ways, Kozikaro says explicitly that Maccabi doesn’t believe in Eliyahu. “Lior isn’t one who tolerates lessons,” he says. “When he feels the coach isn’t working with him, he goes into his cave and waits until everyone sees they need him. In the end, they always need him.”
Kozikaro says Eliyahu’s absence gave Nik Caner-Medley a window of opportunity to take and miss shots and be able to stay on the court, building his confidence. He says Caner-Medley has yet to have a big game, but if Eliyahu was the starter and Caner-Medley was the reserve at the four spot earlier this season, the roles are now reversed. “It’s just that Eliyahu at his best is better than Caner-Medley at his best, so Maccabi’s results have gone accordingly,” he says.”
Caner-Medley does offer an advantage. When he isn’t scoring, he makes up for it with uncompromising scrappiness diving for the ball and playing efficient defense, goods that Eliyahu doesn’t usually deliver.
Still, Kozikaro and Shivek both see importance in inserting Eliyahu against Real Madrid in Game 3 to help save Maccabi’s European season. “Lior can create a mis-matchup against Real Madrid’s tall men, but he can’t’ get into a game in three minutes,” says Kozikaro. Lior may not have scored in recent games, but I didn’t see other players scoring, either.”
Shivek adds Eliyahu has gone through several series and critical games in his career. “It’s impossible to find the kind of experience he has, and it’s important to use it against Real,” he says. “Lior is a great player. He didn’t forget how to play basketball. At some stage he’ll get the hang of it again and the shots will fall in.”
Indeed, Eliyahu scored 16 points, hitting seven of 13 field goal attempts in last night’s 91-73 league victory over Bnei Herzliya last night. Perhaps it marks the beginning of Eliyahu’s comeback. He was the last of the starting five to go off the court and played 31 minutes, more than any other player, while pulling down six rebounds and dishing out seven assists.
Blatt said after the game that the team had run well without him before last night, but that he decided to give Eliyahu a chance and the forward was outstanding. “I hope he’ll keep it up Tuesday,” he added. “Comeback?” said Eliyahu. “I don’t do comebacks. I am not that kind of guy. I had an injury followed by a tough bout of the flu. It’s behind me.”