By: George Rowland / @georgerowland
With the Maccabi drummers and Ultras fully warmed up by taunting both Barca and CSKA in the third place game, the curtain lifted on the 2014 Euroleague Final. Although the Madridistas found their voices they were easily out shouted by the large Maccabist presence, and when the Real players came out they were met by a cacophonous chorus of whistles and jeers that was reminiscent of Nokia Arena. When the lights dropped and with both sets of fans comfortably drowning out the sterile corporate “fun” of the in game MC and KissCam the stage was set and the protagonists entered from stage right.
What followed was not the slick offensive performance we saw in London last year, but it was a final that was one of the most exciting, owing to the energy of the crowd, and the inability of either team to build a consistent lead. Maccabi came into the weekend as the distant fourth favourite, yet David Blatt had instilled a fight in his squad that allowed them to rise above their meagre expected performance and defeat two of the best squads in Europe to win this year’s championship.
Early on Maccabi quickly looked to utilise the massive frame of Sofoklis Schortsanitis, but despite frequently giving up deep post position Ioannis Bourousis did an admirable job bodying up and contesting his hook shots, along with aggressive help from the weak side. With no size mismatch on the other end Maccabi were able to stick with their man, rather than excessively helping, as they had to do with CSKA. This resulted in an opening sequence that is best described as cagey, with no consistent offence on either end, as well as early fouls and turnovers for both teams. After a timeout midway through the first quarter with the scores 5-8 in Maccabi’s favour the game remained even handed, although the scoring picked up as Madrid began to get out in transition, and Maccabi found their shooters in space on the wing.
Madrid came out hot to start the second as they pushed on from a 16-15 lead to 23-15, as Maccabi were forced to focus on Felipe Reyes inside, freeing up space on the perimeter. This lead grew further following a technical foul after big Sofo traveled under the basket, with Marcus Slaughter catching an alley oop on the following possession, Madrid’s lead was up to 11. With the resilience that brought them back from the dead against CSKA, Maccabi edged the deficit down to 6, as the semi final hero Tyrese Rice completed a tough three point play, after heavy contact from Marcus Slaughter. Though their fight back was short lived, as Madrid began forcing turnovers, and Reyes’ reintroduction and offensive rebounding pushed the lead back out to 11. With the teams trading buckets, Maccabi’s top scorer on the season, Ricky Hickman, picked up his third foul in a clash with Rudy Fernandez, that resulted in the Real swingman also collecting a foul. With Hickman on the bench Maccabi once again pulled themselves back towards Real, this time with David Blu scoring four consecutive points. With the half drawing to a close Maccabi had the ball with 8 seconds left, after the ball came down court Blu found it in his hands with the clock winding down, he crossed over to the right, loaded up his slingshot and splashed home a three to bring the score to 35-33 in favour of Madrid.
The teams once again traded baskets in the opening of the second half, but with three minutes gone Devin Smith hit a three that put Maccabi within one, which was followed on the next possession by a Ricky Hickman pull up mid ranger, that gave Maccabi their first lead since the beginning of the first quarter, at 41-40. With Madrid’s normally fluid offence turning stagnant, the game was at risk of turning into a slog, with the defining moments being loose balls and offensive rebounds, which had begun to fall in Maccabi’s favour. With Sergio Rodriguez checking in, the game perked up again, as first Devin Smith hit a triple from the left wing to give Maccabi a two point lead, before Chacho answered with a three of his own to give Real back the lead. Once again the game started to go up and down, with neither team taking enough of the initiative to build a lead beyond three points, which ultimately led to Real taking a 2 point, 55-53 lead into the quarter break.
With the game threatening to turn into an all time classic, Maccabi drew ahead with 2 minutes gone in the fourth, and then crucially drew Marcus Slaughter into his fourth foul. As threes, elbows and sweat were exchanged by both teams the game remained wholly on a knife edge, with Sergio Rodriguez joining Slaughter on the bench with four fouls. The game was tied with three minutes left at 67 after Ricky Hickman sparked Maccabi back from a small four point deficit. What followed was another demonstration of Maccabi’s mental fortitude, as they scored on two consecutive offensive rebounds, first Alex Tyus, then David Blu, when a Tyrese Rice bucket made it a four point game with a minute left Pablo Laso was forced into a time out, with the Maccabist in full song. Straight out of the time out the Sergio Rodriguez drew a foul on Rice and converted at the line to pull within two. Then after a wasted Maccabi possession, which resulted in a badly missed Ricky Hickman fadeaway, Ioannis Bourousis grabbed an offensive rebound from a Rudy Fernandez miss before getting hacked by Devin Smith, the big Greek obliged by hitting both at the line, giving Maccabi the last possession. When Tyrese Rice’s three missed and bounced askew off the rim, the game headed to overtime.
With Bourousis urging the Madridistas to their feet, they finally outmatched the Maccabi faithful in volume, peaking with Nikola Mirotic knocking down two free throws to give Madrid the first lead. After Rice knocked down a three from the same spot where he had missed at the end of regulation Bourousis went to the line himself to give Real the lead again. Rice yet again proved himself to be heroic for Maccabi, first drawing a foul to eliminate Marcus Slaughter, and hitting the free throws to give Maccabi the lead again, then pulling up from three to stretch the game to 81-77 in Maccabi’s favour, and after Nikola Mirotic brought it within two again Rice lobbed to Alex Tyus for a slam that restored the four point lead. After Rice knocked down another two free throws to put Maccabi up 6 Rickey Hickman knocked the ball free but was fouled by Sergio Llull preventing the made basket. Maccabi’s lead was 7 after Hickman split the free throws. With Alex Tyus splitting another pair of free throws, the old head David Blu came up with an offensive board, and as Sergio Rodriguez fouled Tyus again, the MVP headed to the bench on five fouls with Real down 8 and a minute left to go. With 8000 jubilant Israelis in the Mediolanum Forum bouncing along to the Maccabi drum the yellows cruised home on the back of Rice’s free throws.
Real coach Pablo Laso was obviously despondent in the post game press conference:
“But like I told my players, you should be proud of what we did all year to be here and play in this game. After that, we have to recover quickly. We have a game on Tuesday. We have to swallow this and be ready to come back and play in this game again. “
On the other hand Maccabi coach David Blatt was jubilant and at his talkative best:
“This is a great, great day for our players, for our club, for our fans and I think for basketball in general. What you saw was a team that definitely wasn’t the most talented on an individual level. I don’t say that we don’t have any talent. We have talent, but it wasn’t the most talented as a group of individuals. But as a team we were the best team. The result proves it and the way we did it proves it.”
Joe Ingles was quick to praise the travelling Maccabi fans
“It was like a home game, when we are down they stick with us, when we’re up they stick with us, they are the best fans in Europe.”
Devin Smith was full of praise for the coaching staff
“Coach Blatt and his assistants always prepare us very well, and having played them close twice already we were confident that there wasn’t really that much we had to change, all we had to do was fight a little bit more.”
For Real the absence of Dontaye Draper certainly played a massive part in this game, all season long he has been the best defensive guard in the Euroleague, and were he to have been fit it is unlikely that Real would have been torched by Tyrese Rice and Ricky Hickman in the manner that they were had Draper been on the court. It seems baffling to many that Felipe Reyes played such a small role in the second half of the game, having had a massive impact in Real’s early leads. Reyes was easily able to outmuscle whomever Maccabi had guarding him at the 4, yet Laso opted for the struggling Nikola Mirotic for much of the second half.
Maccabi had a great match up against Madrid, they played them incredibly close in both Tel-Aviv and Madrid, as Real thrive from live ball turnovers and open court opportunities, and today through their offensive performance Maccabi were able to limit both. Firstly was a fantastic rebounding performance on the back of Alex Tyus and his 5 offensive boards, having been dominated by CSKA in this respect through three quarters last game the Maccabi squad needed to grab their lunch pail and get to work, and they did just that. Other than Tyus, both Ricky Hickman and Devin Smith grabbed three offensive boards as Maccabi bested one of the top rebounding teams in Europe (Maybe if Real had played their best rebounder a little longer, huh). Secondly was the way Maccabi took care of the ball, committing just 7 turnovers in 45 minutes of play, with their isolation, guard driven offence turnovers they have been impressive all season in this regard (11.9 TO’s per game) but with the championship on the line they went one step further in this regard and all but stopped any chance of Real fast breaking.
Ultimately for Maccabi David Blatt deserves the majority of the credit for his team’s victory, they were incredibly motivated, and fought for every loose ball and tipped rebound and ran with Madrid to limit their fast break options. The level of heart displayed by the Maccabi players staff and supporters bears repeating and repeating, they have shown incredible ability to continue to perform regardless of opponent or deficit, and fully deserve the reward they have received.