By: George Rowland / @georgerowland
As the lights went down, the raucous yellow crowd welcomed Maccabi Tel Aviv and jeered CSKA Moscow. When the lights rose the yellow and blue Star of David flag spread across the Maccabi Ultras. A hush grew across the crowd during a moments silence for the victims of the Turkish mining disaster, which proved to be the eye of the storm, as the Maccabi fans were back to their loudest quickly after.
The first quarter began with CSKA using one of their biggest starting line-ups of the season so far, against a typically small Maccabi team. Immediately from the tip both teams looked to attack the basket with Ricky Hickman and Sasha Kaun trading layups to start the game. It was Kaun who proved himself dominant early on as he scored 10 of CSKA’s first 12 points as both Andrija Zizic and Alex Tyus were unable to stop him around the basket. However Kaun’s biggest impact was drawing Devin Smith’s second foul within the first two minutes of the game, forcing the sharp shooting American to the bench. Coming out of a timeout down 14-8 Maccabi went to their talismanic Greek centre on two consecutive possessions for scores, as Kyle Hines couldn’t compete with Sofo’s size and strength. A few possessions later Ricky Hickman made a tough layup in transition through contact to tie the scores at 14. CSKA stretched their lead out at the end of the quarter to 19-16 after Sonny Weems split a pair of free throws.
The energy of Aaron Jackson pushed CSKA ahead at the start of the second quarter as the guard put-back a missed shot before forcing a steal. But a three from David Blu put a halt to any CSKA run and pulled Maccabi back within two. With Kaun back on court Maccabi once again struggled to use Schortsanitis, but were kept in touch by some hot perimeter shooting as Yogev Ohayon knocked down a three to put them back within two, before Milos Teodosic answered with a four point play to push the lead to six. When Sofo picked up his third foul with three minutes left in the second quarter things took a turn for the worse for Maccabi, as CSKA stretched the game out to an eight point lead, after Maccabi had drawn close again.
It was a sloppy half for both teams, which was marred with turnovers. CSKA seemed to be able to dictate the pace of the game and Maccabi’s rotations had consistent errors. But bad turnovers stopped them from ever stretching the game out in the way they deserved. On the other hand Maccabi’s offense seemed lost when Sofo could not take advantage of his size. His biggest thorn being Sasha Kaun, who despite going scoreless in the second quarter, was primarily responsible for forcing Sofo to pick up fouls defending the pick and roll.
It was a tepid opening of the third, as teams spilled the ball, picked up fouls and missed some shots with only seven points being scored combined in the first 4:30 minutes. With CSKA unable to grow their lead past 11 the game was set in limbo with Maccabi unable to score to put them back into the game, and CSKA unable to go on a run to stomp on Maccabi’s throat. As CSKA began to push their lead again, the majority of the Maccabi support began to quieten down and when a Kyle Hines offensive rebound and lay in pushed the lead back to 11, the CSKA fans began to make themselves heard over the Maccabi fans. The lead was reduced to 10 at the end of the third as Ricky Hickman hit a three with the seconds ticking away.
With Maccabi facing a tough road back at the start of the fourth, they slowly began to draw close. With Alex Tyus flushing home a dunk to put them within six at 57-51,a Victor Khryapa three on the ensuing possession undid the hard work. This did little to phase Maccabi, who once again brought the lead back down to six with David Blu knocking one down from behind the long line. Maccabi had the lead down to five a few possessions later as a Milos Teodosic mid range jumper was quickly answered by a Ricky Hickman three, pushing the score to 62-57 with 3:53 remaining and reawakening the Maccabi faithful.
After Aaron Jackson limped off with an ankle injury, Milos Teodosic was unable to contain Tyrese Rice as the diminutive guard skipped past him for a layup d to reduce the lead to just three points with with minutes remaining on the clock. It remained a three point game until Sonny Weems was on the free throw line after a Tyrese Rice foul facing a cacophony of boos and whistles. Weems converted on just one of two pushing the lead to four, allowing Devin Smith to cut it back to two after posting up Milos Teodosic. With the game back in the balance CSKA fell back onto to their safety valve play, a Sonny Weems isolation at the point, which the American duly turned into a made mid range jump shot, leaving Maccabi four adrift at 67-63 with just under 20 seconds remaining.
Staring defeat in the face the Israelis turned to their old hand, David Blu, who curled from the corner to the wing to catch and knock down a crucial three, leaving them down just one, with 13.5 seconds left in the game. Needing a foul or a steal Maccabi, Victor Khryapa spilled the ball, which was quickly picked up by David Blu, outletted to Tyrese Rice, who hung in the air for an eternity, taking contact from Milos Teodosic and kissing the ball on the rim. Time stopped as the ball hung on the rim, the hearts of both CSKA and Maccabi fans skipped a beat, the ball rolled in. 5.5 seconds left. With no timeouts left CSKA rushed down court and Sonny Weems fired a three as time expired. Long. The Maccabi crowd explodes. Down by 10 at the start of the fourth they came back to win 68-67.
Ultimately this was the result many people expected, CSKA’s wheels have fallen off once again in the most spectacular fashion, this time falling to a team who many people doubted would even make the Final Four. They have no one else to blame but themselves, as they completely failed defensively and offensively in the fourth quarter. Where they were disruptive early on in the game, their perimeter defense fell to pieces in the second half, especially when backed up by Nenad Krstic. On the other hand all credit must go to David Blatt. Despite facing long odds, being down ten at the start of the fourth quarter, he kept his players motivated and Maccabi slowly tracked back into things.
In the post game press conference coach Messina was despondent, at once again his team throwing the game away at a crucial moment. He noted how CSKA controlled the tempo and rebounding through three quarters but completely lost that in the fourth, and that small errors were compounded by the fact that they happened consecutively.
“This is painful, this is different” -Messina
Coach Blatt couldn’t find the words to express his happiness, but felt that he had beaten a better team today. Also mentioning that he would remember this game forever. He said:
“To win on Sunday we will have to beat a better team again. When David Blu stole the ball my eyes went black, I could see nothing and I don’t know what play Tyrese Rice made, we had the ball and I knew we were going to win the game. “