Maccabi tifo

Rarely has a title game at any level seen so many lead changes as Maccabi Tel Aviv and Real Madrid served up a thriller at the Assago Forum in Milano. Emmet Ryan reports on an all-time classic Euroleague final.

It took them a little longer to fill the arena than Friday night but once again Maccabi Tel Aviv’s supporters made sure this was anything but a neutral site game. Real Madrid’s players were greeted with a chorus of boos for warm-ups and it only got louder when the players were introduced. Once more Maccabi sought to pull off an upset but this time they had to contend with an offensive force that has dominated the continent all season.

Rudy Fernandez kicked off the scoring with a three. Sofoklis Schortsantidis opened Maccabi’s account. Sofo takes down Rudy hard up the other end and the battle was on. Yogev Ohayon gave the Tel Aviv club it’s first lead of the game and it was oh so physical. Maccabi’s plan was to punch Real in the nose and keep punching. Both teams struggled from the field early but Maccabi had no desire for this to be a shootout. At 8-5 with just over 5 minutes gone, the first timeout was called. A chance for Real’s players to catch their breath and re-focus. Ioannis Bourousis immediately ran into a double team. He drew the foul but did it the hard way. Maccabi weren’t letting up. Every stop by Maccabi was cheered like a three up the other end. Devin Smith stretched the lead to 6 with a mid-ranfe jumper before Rudy finally responded from deep. Sergio Rodriguez sat ready to come in as Felipe Reyes put Madrid back in front. Chacho returned to his seat. The Euroleague MVP wouldn’t see any action in the first quarter. Real ahead by the narrowest of margins, 16-15, going into the second frame.

Chacho came in to start the second quarter. Rudy leapt in like a madman for a board. He was nowhere near it but he sent the message, if Maccabi were going to be physical so would he. Fernandez picked up two boards either side of a bucket before Chacho landed a three. Real were now up 6 and Maccabi called timeout. Felipe Reyes started to have his way with Maccabi’s D, the faster pace of the quarter suiting his game. Maccabi’s offence had no answer and Real knew they had a chance to make a dent in the Tel Aviv team’s confidence. Marcus Slaughter pushed the lead to double digits briefly before David Blu finally opened Maccabi’s account in the second quarter after nearly four minutes. Reyes hurt Maccabi again on the inside, pausing to make room before hitting the lay-up, then adding another in similar style on Real’s next possession. Blu was the one man keeping Maccabi in it and the veteran reeled Real in again. It could have been a bloodbath at the break, instead Blu nailed a three on the buzzer that meant Maccabi only trailed 35-33 at half-time.

Rudy started the second half as he did the first with a three. The question for Maccabi was how much they had left in the tank. Devin Smith, their lone reliable presence on the boards, only sat for two minutes in the first. Sofo responded but once more it felt like Maccabi were playing catch-up. If Smith was tired, he wasn’t showing it early in the half as his three cut the deficit to one. Finally the Israelis reclaimed the lead for the first time since the opening quarter. Psychologically this was vital, they needed to get their noses in front to put some pressure back on Madrid. It didn’t last long. Nikola Mirotic, anonymous from the off, finally got off the mark with a lay-up and Tremmell Darden’s three pushed Real into s 45-41 lead. Timeout Maccabi.

After a wild scramble it was Blu once again who settled things down before Ricky Hickman made a three. Smith stepped up once again. Another three but Chacho responded in kind. Real were fine with a tit for tat game but Maccabi needed it. Real held a 55-53 advantage going into the fourth.

Smith levelled matters immediately with a dunk before the tit for tat resumed. Tyrese Rice got a lucky bounce of the rim to restore Maccabi’s lead with a three. The final, which hadn’t gone to overtime since 1969, hung in the balance. Mirotic and Blu exchanged threes and the lead. With 6.35 left Sofo fouled out, Blu sent Mirotic to the line. He only made one but Real were up by 2 with under five to play. Darden doubled there advantage and finally there was more than a possession in it. Not for long, Maccabi tied it up within two possessions. With 3.07 to play it was 67-67.

Blu pushed Maccabi back in front after Tyus and Mirotic exchanged scores. Real, immune to the din from the blue and gold horde, faltered in their next possession and Rice made it 73-69 Maccabi with 58.5 on the clock. The fight Maccabi had shown all weekend was finally proving telling. Now we would learn if Madrid had the heart for this fight. Chacho had ice in his veins at the line to cut it to two. Bourousis went to the line with a chance to level it with 21.4 seconds left and made both. The final possession for Maccabi fell short. At 73-73 the title game of Europe was headed to overtime for the first time in 45 years.

A lone Maccabi fan tried to distract Mirotic at the line before being hurried back to his seat. He made both but Rice responded with a three. The tit for tat was back in session. Rice stepped up again, keeping Maccabi ahead with a pair from the line. Rice again from deep as Maccabi moved 81-77 ahead. Real, still without a score from the field, were staying alive with their frees, Mirotic making them 6 of 6 in OT. No matter, Rice with the alley-oop to Tyus and it was a two possession game entering the final two minutes.

With Rice going to the line again, Hickman hugged him with a headlock, whatever he said seemed to work as he made both. Hickman then forced a turnover near mid-court and forced Real to foul. The underdogs of the Final Four were on the verge of being the top dogs of Europe. He only made one but Maccabi led 86-79 with 1.31 to go. Tyus shut down Chacho with a block. Rice went to the line and made two more. Real’s chance was gone.

David Blatt had pulled off a master class in coaching. Save for that wobble in the second quarter, his charges were always within touching distance of Real. Rice saved his best for overtime to carry the veterans over the line. Milan was the Nokia Arena for two nights in May. Maccabi earned their title the hard way but the sweetest way too.

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