Despite a season of ups and downs, Maccabi Tel Aviv’s campaign will be remembered as a success or a failure depending entirely on the results it records over the next two weeks in the best-of-five Euroleague quarterfinals series versus Olimpia Milano, starting with Wednesday’s Game 1 in Italy.
Progress to the Final Four for the first time since 2011 will crown the yellow-and-blue’s campaign as a triumph regardless of what it achieves in European basketball’s showcase event.
However, an exit in the quarterfinals for a third straight year will give coach David Blatt’s enemies, both in and out of the club, more ammunition in their battle to oust him at the end of the season.
Maccabi beat Hapoel Jerusalem 83-79 on Saturday to move into pole position in the race to claim the No. 1 seed in the BSL playoffs. However, Tel Aviv rarely convinced in the Euroleague Top 16, losing six of 10 games after winning four straight contests to start the second group stage.
Maccabi scored between 85 and 90 points in its four consecutive victories to start the Top 16, but has netted more than 77 points only twice in its 10 continental games since.
Last week’s 81-76 defeat to CSKA Moscow at Nokia Arena saw the yellow-and-blue end the Top 16 with an 8-6 record and qualify for the last eight from third place in Group F.
Milano advanced to the quarters from second place in Group E with a 10-4 record, claiming seven straight victories before last week’s meaningless loss to Unicaja Malaga. Milano overcame two-time defending Euroleague champion Olympiacos and fellow Greek giant Panathinaikos during its recent streak, as well as handing Spanish powerhouse Barcelona a 28-point humbling just two weeks ago.
Nevertheless, Blatt believes Maccabi has what it takes to win at least one of two games in Italy over the next three days before the series moves to Tel Aviv for two games next week.
“I think we have a good match-up against Milano,” Blatt said. “But I don’t think this is an easy team to face or that we are the favorites. Milano has been built to reach the Final Four, which will be played in their home arena. I hope the fact they are hosting the Final Four doesn’t affect the series.”
Milano’s top scorer is a familiar name to Maccabi fans, with former yellow-and-blue guard Keith Langford averaging 17.6 points for the Italians in the Euroleague this season.
Langford, who played for Maccabi in the 2011/12 season, recently missed three Euroleague games through injury, but scored 22 points against Malaga in his return to the court last week.
However, the Italians will have to manage in the series without local star Alessandro Gentile, who is the team’s second- highest scorer with 11.4 points per game.
Another player with Israeli experience is Samardo Samuels (9.4 ppg, 3.8 rpg), who faced Maccabi during his time at Hapoel Jerusalem. With Gentile out, Curtis Jerrells (11 ppg) and Daniel Hackett (9.3 ppg) are both likely to play increased roles.
Maccabi is sweating on the fitness of Yogev Ohayon, but Blatt is optimistic the Israeli guard will be able to play.
Sofoklis Schortsanitis will be back in the lineup after missing the victory over Jerusalem through suspension due to his stampede into the stands in chase of a Hapoel Tel Aviv fan last week.
After a frustrating start to his first season at Maccabi, Tyrese Rice has stepped up his play in recent weeks, posting 16.5 points and 6.0 assists in the team’s past two Euroleague contests compared to his season averages of 8.5 points and 3.1 assists.
Rice also registered 12 points and seven assists in the win over Jerusalem, but equally important, committed zero turnovers, a feat he will be aiming to repeat in Milan.
“We are entering the series against Milano in good momentum,” said Rice. “Apart from the loss to CSKA we experienced a good week. We are ready for the playoffs.”