Maccabi’s strong finish buries Zalgiris
Maccabi Playtika Tel Aviv escaped from Zalgirio Arena with a hard-fought 81-88 victory over Zalgiris Kaunas on Thursday night. The visitors trailed 79-72 with less than 4 minutes remaining, but only allowed a bucket by Rokas Jokubaitis in that span in a 2-16 run that sealed the outcome. Dragan Bender had career-highs in points (16) and PIR (15) to lead the winners, who improved to 12-17. Chris Jones followed him with an all-around performance of 13 points, 3 rebounds, 6 assists and 4 steals, good for a career-best in PIR of 21. Scottie Wilbekin and Elijah Bryant netted 12 points each and Ante Zizic posted 10 and 6 rebounds for the Israeli champs. Nigel Hayes scored career-high 24 points on 8-of-11 field goal shooting, also registering his best mark in PIR (30). Marius Grigonis knocked down 14 points and dished 6 assists and Jokubaitis scored 11 in defeat.
Four different Zalgiris players scored on a 9-2 opening run. Maccabi called for a timeout, right before Angelo Caloiaro and Wilbekin accounted for a triple and a three-point play, respectively, to make it 12-8. Hayes showed up then to score 7 points in a row, giving the hosts a double-digit lead, 19-8. The visitors struggled to keep the ball safe in offense, which allowed Hayes to extend the margin to 23-10 after another steal. Omri Casspi took over for the Yellows with 6 points in a row and Jones followed with a jumper to reduce the deficit, even though Jokubaitis drilled a corner three to close the first quarter with Zalgiris ahead, 26-18. Maccabi had a strong start in the second, going on a 2-10 run that got it all square after 12 minutes. Zalgiris tried to stop it with a timeout, but Bender scored a layup to complete the comeback and put the visitors in front, 28-30. The hosts found some relief from behind the arc as Thomas Walkup, Paulius Jankunas and Hayes connected on a three each to recover a 37-33 edge. Hayes and Augustine Rubit kept delivering from the line, but a timely corner triple by John DiBartolomeo helped Maccabi reach halftime trailing 40-38.
Walkup and Grigonis got Zalgiris going with a three-point play and a three-pointer early in the third that returned a comfortable 46-38 advantage to the hosts. Oz Blayzer held the guests with a strong block and a three, as Jones followed with a pair of jumpers to bring Maccabi within 48-45. Both teams traded baskets until Bryant showed up with a three and a couple of free throws to tie it again, 55-55. Dorsey got Maccabi ahead again, 57-58, as the lead switched 6 times for the following 2 minutes until a bucket by Bryant closed the third with the visitors leading 63-64. Lauvergne took over on the offensive glass for Zalgiris, but Bender replied in style with back-to-back triples that kept the Yellows up, 69-70. The hosts reacted with a 7-0 run capped by a difficult bucket by Hayes to make another turnaround, 76-70. Maccabi didn’t panic, though, as Zizic delivered a couple of buckets inside, Wilbekin connected from deep and Jones scored free throws to tie it again, 79-79, entering crunch time. Jokubaitis hit a jumper that brought the lead back to Zalgiris, but he missed the next two as Maccabi found first Bryant from behind the arc, then Zizic inside to get an 81-84 edge. A turnover by Walkup was followed by a layup by Wilbekin with 22 seconds to go that sealed the visitor’s victory.
Dragan Bender had to play a different role for his team in this game, as Othello Hunter missed it because of an injury. Bender filled in the center position for several minutes and he didn’t look uncomfortable. He drilled 2 key threes early in the fourth quarter to prevent Zalgiris from escaping and ended up tallying career-high 16 points to lead Maccabi.
Close end, strong finish
Maccabi had played several tight games in the Turkish Euroleague regular season so far but had not very good memories from most of them. The Israeli champs had lost 10 games decided by 5 or fewer points, winning just four. But on this night, Maccabi showed no panic when the game was tied, 79-79, entering crunch time. The visitors allowed only 2 points in the last 4 minutes of the game and signed off a 2-16 run in that span to take the win.
The visitors had five scorers in double-figures, but it was even more remarkable that they had six different players - playing different positions - with double-digits in PIR. They got three guards (Elijah Bryant, Scottie Wilbekin and Chris Jones), two forwards (Dragan Bender and Omri Casspi) and one center (Ante Zizic).
In Round 32 next week Zalgiris Kaunas will remain in Kaunas to host ALBA Berlin on Wednesday, March 31. Maccabi Playtika Tel Aviv will also play at home. It takes on current Turkish Airlines Euroleague leader, F.C. Barcelona, the same day.
Thursday, March 25, 2021