When the undefeated Turkish Airlines EuroLeague runner-up comes to town, tactics alone are not enough to win. So Maccabi Playtika Tel Aviv used everything it had, from tactics to hustle to fan support to a good luck charm. Together they led to an 85-68 romp, which was the Israeli champs' most-lopsided victory over Barcelona since an 84-59 victory in December 2004, when the current Barcelona head coach, Sarunas Jasikevicius, contributed 10 points and 6 assists as Maccabi's starting point guard.
There seemed to be a special feel in the air at Menora Mivtachim Arena on Thursday night long before the game started. Even though Scottie Wilbekin said after the game he was not aware of the fact that FC Barcelona had not won in Tel Aviv since 2016, it was clear that the fans were and wanted to keep it way.
The raucous atmosphere, which included loud whistling the first few times Barcelona star Nikola Mirotic, was no surprise to Saras, who led Maccabi to back-to-back EuroLeague crowns in his time in Tel Aviv. But as much as he tried to warn his players, they were taken aback by the energy from the crowd and how it inspired the Maccabi men.
"You know how much I love and appreciate this place and how much I understand this place. It was a classic way to lose the game in Tel Aviv," Jasikevicius said. "We tried to prepare the guys that in the first quarter it's better to foul out than to give Maccabi confidence. So in the first quarter, we barely get to the bonus and we give up 31 points. We continue like this with 25 points in the second quarter. It's very clear that we came a couple of hours late to the party."
One of the many things that led to that fast Maccabi start was the play of center Jalen Reynolds. In addition to his 10 points, 4 rebounds and 4 steals off the bench, Reynolds had a pair of assists in each of the first two quarters that caught the Barcelona defense flat-footed. The increased use of Reynolds as a playmaker was something Coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos had ready for the game – and we may see more of it in the future.
"We know that Jalen is a very good scorer, but we know also that he is a very good passer," the Maccabi coach confirmed. “When he had mismatches inside the paint and they trapped him, he passed the very well and he found the best option, the open player to give him the ball. This is why we brought Jalen back because we believe in him, we know what he can do and he is improving and he is getting into his game rhythm and I think that he will perform even better in the future.”
Of course, playing hard and smart at home are good reasons to expect to win, but the Maccabi players had another. It seems that ever since first-year guard Keenan Evans started growing his hair into an Afro, Maccabi has been winning.
“I've been trying - along with a lot of the other players - to get him to keep it because I think he's a better player and overall we're a better team when he has the Afro,” Wilbekin told reporters after the game. “I hope he keeps it, but I can't control him.”
Evans, who contributed 9 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists and 1 steal while playing a team-high 31:48 minutes, tried to deflect the attention his hair was getting.
“I don't know. That puts a lot of pressure on me,” Evans said.
Wilbekin, though, plans to keep the pressure up. Don’t be surprised to #keepthefro start to appear on Wilbekin’s and his teammates’ social media accounts soon. Because when you find a winning recipe, you stick to it.