The question that usually hangs over this type of playoff series is whether it’s possible to beat the same team twice in 48 hours.
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This time the question was whether Maccabi Tel Aviv was capable of playing superb defense twice in two days, for Game 3 made clear that Maccabi’s defense would be the determing factor.
The team came up with an original answer: No, it’s not possible to play perfect defense for 80 consecutive minutes. But 20 minutes of it is still enough to win.
At halftime, Milan had scored 43 points; in the second half it scored just 23. The difference spelled Maccabi’s ticket to the Final Four.
As the game went on, and it became apparent that what we had here was a battle between a lone shooter and a team – Keith Langford versus Maccabi – it was clear that at some point Langford would be done and Maccabi would be left alone on the court.
Langford is a great scorer, but not a great player. A great player exploits the attention of the defense in order to build his team’s offense and make his teammates shine too. When Langford draws two guards, he insists on taking a difficult shot over them while his four teammates are left with nothing to do but watch.
This Final Four is a huge achievement for Maccabi, precisely because this team is one of the more underwhelming editions the club has ever put on display.
David Blatt was majorly disappointed by Joe Ingles, lost Shawn James (remember him?) and had to cope with Tyrese Rice’s slow and difficult acclimation, but he managed to bring a team without a single top-tier European talent (aside from the 15 minutes of the evening when Schortsanitis is on the court) to the continent’s basketball summit.
After the game, Blatt talked enthusiastically about Maccabi’s “spirit,” but on this team, the one responsible for the spirit, cohesiveness and toughness was the coach.
For some strange reason, some of the team’s managers just don’t understand that Blatt is the one who is singlehandedly responsible for the team’s relative advantage over all of Europe.
Maccabi’s vulnerable roster led it to numerous “lowlights” this year, whether you’re talking about the embarrassing losses in league play or the 35-point thrashing in Moscow.
Blatt’s strength and that of his players was in being able to look beyond the latest loss and bring themselves to their mental and professional peak at exactly the right moment.
And speaking of club spirit, at the final whistle somebody placed Israeli-flag hats on the heads of the players.
I am willing to bet that the majority of the team’s players have no idea what this flag looks like. This, as just a small reminder that with Maccabi Tel Aviv’s current roster, getting to the Final Four may be a tremendous accomplishment for the club – but it has very little to do with Israeli basketball.