Having lost back-to-back games and six of its last seven, plus missing center Othello Hunter because of an injury, Maccabi Playtika Tel Aviv faced a tough challenge on its visit to Zalgirio Arena on Thursday night.
Not only was Zalgiris in the playoffs mix and Maccabi all but mathematically eliminated, but the visitors had struggled on the road lately, with their last away win having come back in early January against ALBA Berlin.
So, when Zalgiris Kaunas built a 79-72 lead with less than 4 minutes left to play, it certainly looked like another disappointment for Maccabi.
But this night would be different. Maccabi closed ranks to make resounding plays at both ends of the floor in a remarkable 2-16 finishing run that turned the game upside down and sent the 81-88 victory back with them to Tel Aviv.
"We played good defense and we had also clear ideas of what to do in offense," head coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos explained. "After the timeout, we got concentrated, we didn't let them score easy baskets, and that allowed us to find good options offensively. We did not panic, we played aggressive defense and then found good solutions to execute."
Maccabi not only managed to avoid panicking despite having its back against the wall, but also doubled down on that calmness with the game tied 79-79 entering crunch time. Considering that 10 of Maccabi's previous 16 losses had come by 5 points or less, the odds would have seemed stacked against the visitors at that moment.
"[The key at the end was] being poised, just trying to show to ourselves, to everybody else, that we still have to fight regardless the standings," said guard Chris Jones, who had an all-around performance of 13 points, 3 rebounds, 6 assists and 4 steals, good for a career-best in PIR of 21.
Those statements were just an example of what the whole Maccabi team had in mind both before and after the game, even knowing that their chances to qualify for the playoffs were slim: "Just continue to fight no matter the outcome or the standings, and to build within ourselves," stressed Jones.
In addition to that winning desire, Maccabi relied on a kind of hidden weapon to beat the Lithuanian champs. As Zalgiris head coach Martin Schiller recognized when saying that "there were different challenges throughout the game; it was an interesting game. We faced them for the second time without Othello Hunter, so they played [Dragan] Bender at center, and as I mentioned before the game, that's a highly interesting offensive weapon for them. I think he is better at the 'five' position than at the 'four'."
Indeed, Bender led all Maccabi scorers by netting career-high 16 points and showing up in key moments of the last quarter when Zalgiris tried to escape on the scoreboard. That was when Bender counterattacked with back-to-back triples that put his team up 69-70 and forced Zalgiris to change plans.
"We want to show we are still a good team, still playing hard on both ends of the floor no matter what, and I think we showed that tonight," Bender said.
Maccabi's fate is no longer in its hands. In fact, a win by TD Systems Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz over AX Armani Exchange Milan on Friday can spell the end for Maccabi's minuscule mathematical chances of reaching the playoffs. But against Zalgiris, the Israeli powerhouse sent a message that it will not bow down under any circumstances.
"We showed how to play defense, how to be tough on defense, and everybody showed up on offense," Bender said. "We had five players in double-digits in scoring and that's proof of a team offense, and how to play in the upcoming games."