Maccabi Tel Aviv's Cinderella Syndrome

The team is putting its best foot forward in Europe, only to fumble in the local league where the Yellows are struggling to perform twice a week with a limited roster. Is the championship in danger?

After Maccabi Tel Aviv was saved by the skin of its teeth from defeat to Hapoel Eilat in another terrible Premier League game in mid-February, we wrote that in a slightly weaker league the team would easily accumulate eight or 10 defeats – as in the 2008 season when Maccabi lost the championship to Hapoel Holon.

Since then something strange has happened to Maccabi Tel Aviv: The team started playing well in Europe but completely forgot to show up for games in Israel.

With such a narrow and limited roster, Maccabi of 2013 is confronting what many Israeli basketball teams have experienced over the years: the challenge of having to play twice a week without the resources to do so.

How many times has it been said recently that Maccabi has developed a dependency on Shawn James? On Sunday we received proof that the cliche “in basketball there’s no vacuum” doesn’t always hold true. Without James, Maccabi was left with a gaping hole under the basket. There was no vacuum there, because it was filled by Barak Netanya’s effective Marco Killingsworth and Raymer Morgan, who took five of Netanya’s 10 offensive rebounds as the underdogs beat the near-perennial champions 76-70. 

Coach David Blatt so highly rates Nik Caner-Medley and Darko Planinic that in the final quarter he preferred to play with five midgets, with Lior Eliyahu in the No. 5 position. Maccabi Tel Aviv – and this is a sentence you’ll only hear once in a generation – had nothing to offer against Netanya’s tall players.

It was the second consecutive Premier League game in which Maccabi finished the quarter with strange results like only 12 points, and also the second consecutive game in which the rival did not have to play particularly well to win. Netanya did everything to allow Maccabi back into the game, including some stupid lost balls and odd decisions, but Maccabi didn’t know how to respond to such gifts.

Now it’s clear to all that this year’s Premier League championship is wide open. Maccabi’s last two defeats were in neutral venues (Hapoel Tel Aviv played at Rishon Letzion’s Maccabi Arena and Netanya at the Zissman Arena in Ramat Gan). The end-of-season final game will also be played in a neutral venue.

All of Netanya’s opening five played for 31-37 minutes – a privilege of a team that plays once a week. Last Thursday against Fenerbahce Ulker in the Euroleague, Maccabi landed an incredible 15 three-pointers, but on Sunday night the clock struck midnight and Cinderella returned to her old habits and succeeded on only four of 15 three-point attempts. When there are no points coming from outside the paint and no Shawn James to score from under the basket, Maccabi can’t even beat Netanya.

This coming Thursday Khimki Moscow will be in Tel Aviv to play for Euroleague survival. One wonders whether Maccabi chairman Shimon Mizrahi will be satisfied with a repeat: a great win on Thursday followed by an embarrassment on Sunday in the local league, until the end of the season.

Blatt has at last learned from his predecessor Pini Gershon to concentrate on the really important things. For the first time as head coach, he has suffered two consecutive defeats in the Premier League.

“We took the decision to invest our energies in order to win the important games,” Blatt admitted. “If it cost us two defeats, we will have to live with that. We have to concentrate on our European targets – that’s the reality. As the leader I have to be prepared to suffer the consequences. When we finish in Europe – for better or for worse – we will return to concentrating on the league.”

Yet it is still impossible not to wonder how the great Maccabi got into a situation whereby for a month now all the effort has been put into Euroleague, and the team turns up exhausted for local games. After all, only a year ago when it was competing in three different tournaments (including the Adriatic League), Maccabi lost only two local games all season.

The answer is that in the recent period Maccabi has relied on too few players – James, Devin Smith, Ricky Hickman, David Logan, Yogev Ohayon and not much else. Guy Pnini has been on a downturn recently, Sylven Landsberg’s shooting has been poor lately, Caner-Medley continues to hurt  the team (two fouls in his first 15 seconds on Sunday), Roth cannot take off,Planinic  is improving, but not enough, and Eliyahu is playing while injured (he missed the most important shot of Sunday's game, 15 seconds from the final buzzer with his team behind 69-74).

Until other players begin to share the burden more equally, and as long as Maccabi remains in the reckoning for a Final Four Euroleague place, it may continue to falter in the local league.

Nir Keidar