For the first time in 23 years, near-perennial champion Maccabi Tel Aviv lost the opening game of the Premier League season on Monday. The first game to be broadcast live on Israel Channel 1 television this millennium also coincided with the first visit in a decade to the Holy Land by the Holon great of yesteryear Israel Elimelech, and 2,500 fervent fans packed into Holon’s sweltering arena.
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Ahead of Thursday’s opening EuroLeague game against Caja Laboral, coach David Blatt decided to rest Devin Smith and instead opened with untested point guard Tyrese Rice. David Blu, who hadn’t played for six months, opened with eight points in the opening minutes and Rice, who took time to find his stride, added 10 in the second quarter as Maccabi led 60-47 in the 27th minute.
But from that point on there was only one team on the parquet. Guni Izraeli had the best game of his nine-year career, netting 26 points, including six from seven 3-point attempts. Laurence Bowers showed himself to be an efficient forward, Graye Grant flourished inside the paint, Brian Asbury had a great game and Shlomi Harush never stopped fighting for the ball.
Blatt, meanwhile, experimented with his lineup, which never really gelled. Rice spent much of the game on the bench, watching his replacement Yogev Ohayon make mistake after mistake, as he had throughout last season’s EuroLeague campaign.
Maccabi lost its head as Holon took 36 points for the price of 13 for a famous victory as its fans went crazy.
“We tried too many times to shoot from afar, and when it doesn’t work the team loses its momentum,” Blatt said after the game by way of an apology. “This game gave me lots of things to think about that need improvement.”
The game against Holon revealed the weaknesses in Maccabi’s roster. But it would be better for the team to take a deep breath and not take this defeat too much to heart. After all, it’s still the beginning of the season.
But what went wrong Monday night? How does a team with such a talented and deep pool of players succumb so easily to relative lightweights? Maccabi’s tall players must take some of the blame: Shawn James and Sofoklis Schortsanitis – the league’s two most important tall players - missed every shot they had, and even lost 35-27 in terms of rebounds. Also conspicuous was the lack of a genuine power forward who helps his centers under the basket.
Maccabi was soft and vulnerable, while the athletic Holon players seemingly did whatever they wanted inside the paint.
Yet Maccabi’s bench is already bursting at the seams, and Blatt, who has a sharp basketball brain, lost his way among the seemingly endless possible permutations.
With so many options, the coach has yet to devise a workable player-rotation formula. He must decide which of his foreign players will not don the yellow jersey for a particular game, which Israelis older than 22 won’t play, what to do with the controversial Yuval Naimy and how to distribute playing time. By the time he reached the end of his bench, Blatt had lost his way.
In his defense, it can be argued that he chose to rest some of his leading players for periods of the game ahead of Thursday’s EuroLeague clash. At least that’s what Maccabi Tel Aviv fans would like to think.
The centers were unfocused. The Australian Joe Ingles missed shot after shot, and it’s unclear how much Blatt trusts Rice, and how his rotation plan will evolve. If the coach believed there was no way Maccabi could lose the game, he was mistaken. In any case, this doesn’t yet look like a Blatt team.