As usual, Thursday in Israel means its time for another Maccabi Tel Aviv Euroleague game. They faced Lottomatica Roma, one of 4 Italian teams to play in the Euroleague this season. Maccabi plays at Nokia Arena, which holds a crowd of around 11,000 people. Nokia Arena was constructed in 1963, but basketball was played there without a roof until 1973. Maccabi is the pride of Israeli basketball, and one of the better known international teams in the Untied States. The atmosphere at the games is amazing. Maccabi has some of the most die hard fans, and they are unique because they dont display a lot of the violent acts that some of the other Euroleague fans do. At one of their games, you can expect loud chanting, various types of noisy devices, and an incredible atmosphere.
Maccabi was favored to win the game by 8 or 9 points, but there was kind of an uneasy feeling around the team after they fell apart against Partizan last week. Throw in a new coach, new players, and developing chemistry, and the elements were right for an interesting game.
The game was very close in the early going, with Vlado Ilievski pacing Roma, and Lior Eliyahu keeping Maccabi close. After Eliyahu tied the game at 14 with a dunk, Ilievski quickly scored 5 points in a row on a 3 pointer and breakaway layup. Nikola Vujcic countered with a layup, cutting the Roma lead to 19-16 at the end of the first quarter. Forward Dejan Bordiroga started to heat up in the second quarter, but Maccabi made a surge about halfway through the second quarter behind the play of Rodney Buford and Will Bynum. Eliyahu made a layup late in the second quarter off a steal to increase his first half point total to 14, but he then picked up his third foul with 3 seconds left. At halftime, the score was 36-30 in favor of the Israeli team. Will Bynum started off the third quarter with a nice make from the three point line, and Buford then made a hook shot in the paint. Vujcic made a pair of free throws after being fouled on a move in the paint, and Bynum made another three to cap off a 15-0 run by Maccabi to start the second half. Loukas Mavrokefalidis broke the drought for Roma with a tip-in at the hoop, but Bynum drained another three, followed by one from Rodney Buford. Bodiroga was able to help his team go on a little run late in the third, and the period ended with Maccabi up 58-46. In the fourth, Bodiroga displayed some of the magic that his made him a 3 time Euroleague champion, and was able to cut the lead to single digits. Eliyahu came back into the game however, and made some timely baskets to allow Maccabi to cruise to a 78-65 win.
Lior Eliyahu, whose draft rights belong to the Houston Rockets, played an excellent game despite foul trouble. Most people thought Eiliyahu would have to play small forward in the NBA, but the Rockets want him to play power forward in the NBA. He moves very well off the ball, and scored his first 4 points of the game on open dunks off of cuts from the weak side. Eliyahu has been known to have the tendency to only drive to the right side of the floor, and early on, he did drive from above the three point line on the left to the right side of the hoop for a layup. Later in the game, he did drive to the left on three different occasions, and he was able to finish twice. Eliyahu has two main weaknesses which will need improvement before he tries to make the jump to the NBA. His defense needs a lot of work, as evidenced by the foul trouble he struggled with throughout the game. He misses a lot of rotations playing help defense, and is a liability against quicker players who beat him off the dribble. The other thing that must improve is his outside shooting. He didnt take any shots in the game outside of 15 feet. He missed his first two free throw attempts, and his shooting mechanics need a lot of work. These two weaknesses will be less of a problem for Eliyahu if hes playing as a face the basket 4, but he needs to bulk up first if this will happen in the NBA. He has a good frame for adding weight, but his body is undeveloped. Eliyahu finished the game with 18 points on 8/9 from the field, and 5 rebounds in 25 minutes.
Yotem Halperin, a 2006 draft choice of the Sonics, displayed flashes of good potential. Unfortunately, he may not have the confidence to be an NBA player. He understands the game, and passes the ball very well. Halperin is also a pretty good shooter, as he displayed with a 17 foot jumper off the dribble. He uses good coordination and craftiness to get into the lane, and once there, he can find the open man without a problem. Halperin might lack the first step and lateral quickness to play in the NBA, but he needs to gain the confidence to play to his potential all of the time if he is going to make it. He hasnt played well for most of this season, and youd expect a player with so much talent to show better results than he does on the court. Halperin finished the game with 4 points and 4 assists in 27 minutes.
Nikola Vujcic is one of the best big man in Europe, and one of the better passing big men in any league. The plan for Maccabi was to attack Roma inside, but he was doubled for much of the game, and responded with a number of phenomenal passes. Vujcic sees the entire floor and is very unselfish when he doesnt have a shot. He also has a lot of patience in the post, and was able to draw 6 fouls throughout the game. Vujcic finished up with 8 points, 9 rebounds, and 7 assists. He was offered a contract from the San Antonio Spurs this past summer, but he took more money to stay with Maccabi.
Will Bynum played like his usual self for Maccabi. He made some very nice finishes inside, and his three point shot was falling very nicely. His penetration also led to some nice looks for his teammates as well. Bynums main problem continues to be the out of control play that led to 6 turnovers in the game (compared to his 3 assists). When he starts scoring a lot, as was the case against Roma, he gets into these zones where he feels he cant miss. This leads to a lot of bad shots and out of control turnovers attacking the hoop. Many critics dont think Bynum can adjust to the European style of play, but you can tell he is really making the effort right now. There were several times in the game where he was ready to make a drive inside, but decided to move the ball around instead, and he made the decision to pull back and run the offense a few times on fast breaks. Bynum ended up with 19 points on 6/10 from the field, 6 turnovers, and 3 assists in 30 minutes.
Rodney Buford has been the most criticized Maccabi player this season, and had some trouble adjusting to the style of Euroleague play. There was even a media report last week that said Buford was already released by Maccabi. Buford responded to the criticism by having a good game, and using his size well inside. He made a couple hook shots throughout the game, and was able to produce very efficiently despite the fact that his outside shot was off. Buford still doesnt understand the concept of ball movement over here, but he played well enough to make it worth it for the team to put the ball in his hands. Buford finished the game with 14 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, without any turnovers.
Loukas Mavrokefalidis, whose draft rights are held by the Minnesota Timberwolves, logged 23 minutes for Roma. He did very little to prove that he was worth a selection in the draft. On the offensive end, Mavrokefalidis was unable to get a shot off unless he was wide open. He tried to create in the post on a couple occasions, but he lacked the footwork and lift to do anything against Vujcic. He does appear to have good range on his jumper, but he is unable to get it off without a good amount of space. Mavrokefalidis is a good rebounder, and uses his body very well to box out. He lacks the length and elevation to go up and get rebounds against more athletic players, however. Overall, his moves are very predictable on the court, and he is very robotic with his moves. He struggles a lot on the defensive end to properly use his body, and it leads to a lot of fouls. Loukas finished the game with 6 points 7 rebounds, 2 turnovers, and 4 fouls in 23 minutes. Though he did show a lot of improvement in the last year, Id be very surprised if he makes it in the NBA.
Dejan Bodiroga is known as one of the top players in Europe whos never tried to play in the NBA. His clutch play has led him to being a 3 time Euroleague champion. Though he has been slowing down over the past 2 years, the 33 year old still has the ability to play at a high level. During key points of the game when Roma needed a basket, Bordiroga was the one to get it. He really stepped up in the fourth quarter, and made the game interesting after most people had assumed Maccabi would cruise to victory. Bodiroga can play either forward spot, and is very unselfish. He serves as the primary playmaker for Roma at times, and is not afraid to play physical. There are certain players who are just born with ability to do what it takes to win games, and Bodiroga is one of those players. He finished the game with 19 points on 6/11 shooting, 7 rebounds and 6 assists.
Vlado Ilievski has the potential to be one of the top point guards in Europe in the future. He is a good playmaker off the dribble, and has vastly improved his shooting over the past 2 years. He carried Roma during some points of the game, and did a great job controlling the flow of the offense. To become one of the top points in Europe, Ilievski will need to prove he can be more of a leader on the court. He has yet to prove that he can step up at the most key moments in the game, and lead his team to victory.