Maccabi Playtika Tel Aviv had its most impressive game so far this season on Thursday in hammering Zalgiris Kaunas 85-57. The Israeli champs excelled on both ends of the floor, but the biggest difference came after some lineup changes that saw Maccabi play smaller.
The absence of Othello Hunter caused Coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos to rethink his rotation. He would need to use Dragan Bender at the '5' position whenever starter Ante Zizic was resting, so he slid Angelo Caloiaro over to the starting power forward slot and handed swingman Sandy Cohen his first-ever EuroLeague start at the '3'. Regular starters Scottie Wilbekin and Elijah Bryant rounded out the starting five.
This lineup was smaller and quicker than what the team opened with the past two weeks and it took a while to get going with Zalgiris center Joffrey Lauvergne standing out in the opening minutes as the visitors grabbed a 2-8 lead. However, with Caloiaro and Oz Blayzer at power forward, Maccabi played most of the game with a three-guard lineup.
Shortly after Sfairopoulos started to send in his reserves in the first quarter, everything clicked. Maccabi scored the final 8 points of the first quarter and the first 12 of the second for a 20-0 run that made it 36-14 and the visitors never got within 20 the rest of the way. Chris Jones scored the first 5 points of the run, Bender the next 8, then Blayzer hit a three-pointer and Tyler Dorsey finished it off with a pair of baskets.
Those four players combined for 45 points, while the starting five had just 38. Another backup, Dori Sahar, played the final 2 minutes and added a layup. Dorsey led the way with 16 points, Jones had a season-high 15 and Bender also set a personal-best with 11.
For more than half the game, Maccabi played a three-guard lineup as it rotated Wilbekin, Bryant, Dorsey and Jones, all of whom played more than 20 minutes. With three ball-handlers, the offense looked great and Sfairopoulos pointed it out after the game.
"We played all together with high energy and on offense, we had great rhythm, we moved the ball, we made always the right pass, the extra pass and we found open books with patience," Sfairopoulos said.
His counterpart agreed, "Defensively we had big problems keeping people in front, they were driving the ball and kicking the ball out, getting good high percentage shots and making those shots," Zalgiris's Martin Schiller explained.
Those extra passes led the team to an absurd 9-of-11 three-point shooting (81.8%) in the first half and a season-best 64.7% on two-pointers for the game. And with the offense flowing, the smaller quicker lineup also frustrated Zalgiris, which entered the game with a league-best 81.6 scoring average. The 57 points were new lows for the Zalgiris attack and the Maccabi defense.
With Hunter expected back soon, it will be interesting how the Maccabi lineup shakes out. But the entire league learned on Thursday that when Maccabi plays small ball, it can be tough to match up against on both ends.