After Barcelona, perhaps, Maccabi Tel Aviv is the hottest team in Europe. The perennial Israeli champion recorded its fifth EuroLeague win in a row on Friday night, defeating Olympiakos, the reigning European champion, by 73-67 at the Peace and Friendship Stadium in Athens to take another major step toward ensuring qualification for the next stage of the competition.
As he has done on several occasions so far this season, coach David Blatt brought his players into a tough away game in a perfectly focused frame of mind.
Maccabi did not trail at any point in the game. After opening at 2-2 the Yellows sprinted into a 21-13 lead at the end of the first quarter and an even more incredible 41-23 lead at halftime after shooting 7-of-14 from the three-point range, compared to 1-of-8 for Olympiakos. David Logan put in a stunning first-half performance, scoring 16 points.
But Maccabi’s success was mainly due to its great defense. Olympiakos captain Vassilis Spanoulis, who was MVP in the Greek team’s victory in Tel Aviv earlier this season, was ably guarded by Yogev Ohayon, and even when he did manage to get past the Maccabi player there was always another Israeli on hand to block his progress.
Olympiakos’ main problem came after coach Georgios Bartzokas opted to bench Spanoulis. The Greek offense was totally anemic, a shadow of the team that won the European crown last season despite the nearly unchanged roster.
Everything changed in the second half, however, after Spanoulis realized that only long-range shots could turn the game around and Olympiakos’ defense game enabled the team to cut the visitors’ lead to eight points (46-38). Ricky Hickman cleverly forced the Greeks into unnecessary fouls and helped put daylight between the teams (54-39), but the home team’s three-point accuracy improved and Maccabi’s lead was slashed to three points (63-60) with four minutes left on the clock.
Maccabi then went several minutes without scoring a basket. Nothing that Hickman and Ohayon tried succeeded, while Shawn James was guarded out of the game. Then, in the final second of an offensive and with 96 seconds left on the clock, Devin Smith nailed Maccabi’s most important basket of the season, a massive three-pointer from far out, to give the Yellows a 68-62 lead.
Hickman added another two points, Spanoulis cut the margin from the free-throw line and a three-pointer from Acie Law brought the Greeks to within three points (70-57) with 19.2 seconds left. On the next offensive Hickman scored one of his foul throws, James − who was the defensive MVP, with four blocks and 10 rebounds − halted Spanoulis’ progress and Logan sealed the win with a break-out basket in the dying seconds.
After the game a delighted Blatt told the EuroLeague website, “We came today determined to win the game and we did it. We played an amazing first half, maybe our best this season, and, no less important, we knew how to withstand the pressure of the second half and we stood against a strong and talented team, which needed the win just as much as we did. The whole club deserves credit. We prepared the right way. We came with confidence and we head home with an important win. Our job is not over. We must keep our feet on the ground, prepare ourselves and word hard until the last moment.”
Blatt’s opposite number, Georgios Bartzokas, said his team “played terribly [in the first half] and with the wrong philosophy in the first half, which was our worst of the season, and we threw it away. Then we improved our defense and we came very close to getting the win, but the three-pointer made by Devin Smith from almost nine meters killed us.”