Game of the Week: Sfairopoulos readies Maccabi for bigger things

Jan 24, 2019 by Print
Game of the Week: Sfairopoulos readies Maccabi for bigger things

There is a rich history of classic games between Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv and Panathinaikos OPAP Athens, but recently it's been one-sided. The reason for that lies mostly with one side. While the Greens have reached the playoffs for eight straight years, Maccabi has suffered three straight losing seasons and missed the playoffs in each of them. Accordingly, Panathinaikos has won each of the last five duels between these proud clubs.

In its bid to revive Maccabi from a poor start to the current season and to bring the club back to its honored status among European giants, club management turned to a coach who knows a thing or two about beating Panathinaikos. Ioannis Sfairopoulos spent the previous four seasons with Olympiacos Piraeus, guided the team to the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Championship Game twice, and won a pair of Greek League crowns.

From Day 1, literally, Sfairopoulos brought a fresh, tough mentality to Maccabi, which started with a full practice on the eve of a road game. Aside from tactical changes, he has both pushed his players hard and given them confidence. The results have borne a modest three-game winning streak, which is tied for Maccabi's longest under the current EuroLeague format. And Sfairopoulos has insisted that Maccabi keep its pedal to the metal and not slow down.

"It's no time to celebrate. we haven't succeeded yet," Sfairopoulos said after last week's rout of FC Barcelona. "Yes, we changed a little the momentum. We are going in a positive way. We are still breathing, but we are still sick, still in intensive care. Yes, we are still trying to turn things around. We had some good results, but everything can happen until the end, good and bad. We need to stay humble. We need to continue to work, not to celebrate. If we celebrate now, we will not do anything. So this is what I asked of the players, to keep their heads down and keep working to continue this."

Panathinaikos also underwent a midseason coaching change and hired Hall of Famer Rick Pitino. The results have thus far been mixed, yet promising. The Greens collected impressive home wins over CSKA Moscow and FC Bayern Munich, but have lost all three road games. It is worth noting that Sfairopoulos's record after five games with Maccabi was 2-3, just like Pitino's.

One big difference between what Sfairopoulos has accomplished has been that he has not made a single roster change. The squad he inherited is the roster he has turned into a winning force, one that has already made history by stunning CSKA in Moscow. The lone "addition" has been guard Jeremy Pargo, who has been with Maccabi since last season, but missed the first three-plus months of this season with an injury. Pargo may make his EuroLeague return as soon as tonight. In contrast, Pitino's Panathinaikos has continued to suffer from injuries and he has begun refortifying his team with a pair of new signings, Sean Kilpatrick and Adreian Payne.

Historically, the Maccabi-Panathinaikos rivalry brings back memories of Pini Gershon vs. Zeljko Obradovic. The Greens signed Maccabi's best player, homegrown star Oded Katash, in 1999 and then defeated Maccabi in the 2000 EuroLeague championship game that season in Thessaloniki. The next season, Maccabi avenged that defeat by beating Panathinaikos in the SuproLeague title game with Arriel McDonald, the man who took over point guard duties from Katash, as its star. The Greens triumphed when they next met, at the semifinals of the 2002 EuroLeague Final Four en route to the title, and Maccabi exacted revenge in the 2005 semifinals in Moscow where it captured another crown. Panathinaikos's most-recent EuroLeague triumph came at Maccabi's expense in the 2011 championship game, and the next year, the Greens KO'd the Israeli champs in the 2012 EuroLeague Playoffs.

Most of those recent results may work against Panathinaikos when it walks into Menorah Mivtahim Arena. Three players on the current Panathinaikos roster have worn Maccabi yellow in the past, but none of them were blessed to be a part of a great season. Stephane Lasme played for Maccabi in the 2009-10 season in which the team lost to Partizan Belgrade in the playoffs 3-1 despite having the home-court advantage.

Keith Langford played for an ambitious Maccabi side in the 2011-12 season, but lost to Panathinaikos in an intense five-game playoff series. Three games from that series were decided by a single basket, including the last, which went to the wire. Langford left Maccabi after one season to play for EA7 Emporio Armani Milan and in the second of his two years there was knocked out of the playoffs by Maccabi, which went on to win the title at the Final Four in Milan.

DeShaun Thomas played for Maccabi last season and averaged a career-best 11.5 points per game, which was third-best in the team. Maccabi showed promise and hung around the bottom of the playoff zone for much of the season, but lost its last five games of the season and went out with a thud.

The point is that of the Panathinaikos players who know Maccabi best, coming to Tel Aviv does not stir up the fear that it would have just a few years ago, or that a trip to face the giants of the game on the road would today. And that may work in Maccabi's favor because Sfairopoulos has his team playing different, harder and more confidently than before. If Panathinaikos's players have their guard down, it could be a tough game for them. Conversely, Sfairopoulos, who coached two Panathinaikos players – Matt Lojeski and Ioannis Papapetrou – in the past and knows the Greens well, will not let his team underestimate the Greens.

The arena will be packed, the rosters are stacked, the coaches are brilliant and everyone is highly motivated. This clash has all the makings to be a memorable Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Game of the Week!