Maccabi Tel Aviv will limp into one of its most important games of the season on Friday, with an injury crisis stifling its chances of beating CSKA Moscow in Russia.
Maccabi would have entered the Euroleague Top 16 clash as a clear underdog even in the best of times, not to mention with star swingman Devin Smith out with a knee injury and center Alex Tyus questionable.
Fellow big-man Shawn James is likely out for the rest of the season with a back injury.
Smith was ruled out for around a week after undergoing treatment on his gimpy knee last Friday and didn’t even fly to Moscow.
Tyus injured his ankle during Maccabi’s 66-64 win over Bayern Munich last Thursday and hasn’t practiced with the team since.
New center Andrija Zizic made his debut for Tel Aviv in the BSL victory at Hapoel Eilat on Monday, but will only be able to play for the team in the Euroleague from the start of the second round of the Top 16 next week.
As a result, Sofoklis Schortsanitis could be the yellow-and-blue’s only available center on Friday, leaving coach David Blatt to try and come up with unorthodox small-ball lineups which could see perimeter sharp-shooters David Blu and Joe Ingles play under the baskets.
“I don’t know if there could be a worse game to be without two bigmen,” said Blatt ahead of the team’s departure for Moscow. “I hope Alex can give us something, but Devin won’t even travel with us.”
Blatt admitted that Maccabi’s decision to treat Smith at this time was made also due to the coaching staff’s assessment that the team was always likely to struggle in the Russian capital.
“We decided that this would be the right timing to rest Smith as we needed him to make sure we won the State Cup. We are also in a good position both in the Euroleague and BSL,” Blatt explained.
“We had to decide between a bad option and an even worse one.
You never want to play without Devin, but we needed to give him a week to heal at some stage.”
Maccabi and CSKA are currently tied with Real Madrid with a 5-1 record in Group F, with the Russians suffering a stunning defeat at Partizan Belgrade, but bouncing back to hand Madrid its only loss of the season to date, beating the Spaniards 85-71 in Moscow.
CSKA leads the Euroleague by allowing just 68.2 points per game while holding its opponents to a league-low 44.9 percent from two-point range.
Four-time Euroleague title-winning coach Ettore Messina, helped by Israeli assistant Dan Shamir, has assembled arguably the best roster of players in continental basketball.
Serbian center Nenad Krstic has led the pack in the Top 16 with 17.7 points and 5.2 rebounds per game, while Milos Teodosic (11.8 ppg), Sonny Weems (11.5 ppg, 6.3 apg) and Vitaly Fridzon (11.0 ppg) all also average double figures.
Messina also has the likes of Victor Khryapa (8.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 4.3 apg), Kyle Hines (7.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg) and Sasha Kaun to fall back on.
CSKA’s roster is so deep that Jeremy Pargo, who was named to the All-Euroleague Second Team after leading Maccabi to the Final Four in 2011, sees less than 13 minutes of action per game in the Top 16, averaging two points.
Maccabi and CSKA will be meeting for the 32nd time in the competition on Friday, but the first since 2009.
CSKA has had the upper hand in the past decade, beating Maccabi in the 2006 and 2008 Euroleague finals and the 2007 playoffs.
Blatt is hoping Maccabi can triumph on Friday, but is far from optimistic.
“Facing CSKA is always an historic and intriguing affair,” he said.
“This game is important from every angle and will have implications on the Top 16. CSKA is one of the best teams in Europe, not just this season, but throughout the past decade. Even with a full roster it would have been a massive challenge to face them.”