Early in the fourth quarter of Maccabi Playtika Tel Aviv's victory over Panathinaikos OPAP Athens on Tuesday night, Nemanja Nedovic was heating up again. He had already scored 20 points in the first three quarters and netted another 5 in the first 2 minutes of the fourth. Coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos decided it was time for a move and called on Yovel Zoosman to replace Elijah Bryant.
Ultimately, the move did not work the way Sfairopoulos hoped. Zoosman, who missed the first 12 games of the season to injury, could not stop Nedovic. The Panathinaikos guard, who would finish with a career-high 39 points, was unfazed by Zoosman's presence and added back-to-back three-pointers – including a four-point play in which Zoosman fouled him – to narrow the gap to 3 points.
When Zoosman returned to the bench, Bryant came back in with 4:11 remaining. However, he was fresh and it would show as he helped Maccabi avoid Panathinaikos's press in the final minutes and sank 3 free throws to help secure the victory.
The story of Maccabi's win on Tuesday and its recent return to form – the Israeli champs have won four of their last five games – is, in the words of Sfairopoulos, "because we have a bigger rotation now. When we have all the players, we have more effort, more energy until the end. Having all the players in my roster is completely different than what was say one month ago."
Zoosman wasn't the only player to miss the start of the season. Team captain John DiBartolomeo didn't make his first appearance until Round 11 and Omri Casspi's first game was in Round 12. With those three available, it's a different Maccabi team.
"I think we have a different energy and different way of playing the last couple of weeks," big man Dragan Bender said after the game. "They had a difficult summer, playing late and then coming back early with no real offseason, no real preseason. Me coming in late and some pretty key players injured. Like you see tonight, Zoos and Casspi contributing and being able to play high-value minutes. And that gave us a little boost. We changed our energy. We changed the way we act on the court. As long as we keep doing that, I think we’re going to have games like this every night."
Eleven different players saw action against Panathinaikos and all 11 scored and grabbed a rebound. Only DiBartolomeo did not play and Sfairopoulos said it was because of matchup reasons. For the coach, the presence of healthy bodies on the bench makes all the difference for a team that has lost six games by a single shot.
"When you have less players to rotate, that means the players that you use are fatigued at the end," the coach explained. "Now we have players that we could rest them and at the end, they are more fresh, also mentally, and they keep their concentration until the end. This is the reason we are concentrated now and we don't make the mistakes that we used to do, two months, one month ago."
Scottie Wilbekin led the way with 22 points and Bryant and Othello Hunter added 13 points apiece. But after the game, Sfairopoulos was focused on other players, including Casspi, who contributed 4 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals in 11:27 of playing time; and Bender, who turned in a second-straight strong performance with 9 points, 6 rebounds and 3 blocks.
"Dragan I expected would have these performances. I told you that he was out of rhythm [early in the season]," said Sfairopoulos. "I expect also other players, like [Ante] Zizic, like Zoosman, like [Tyler] Dorsey, like DiBartolomeo – I didn't use him of course today, to play better. I think also Omri played his best game today so far. Slowly, slowly everybody will get into the rhythm and we will play even better."