The moment Maccabi Tel Aviv has been waiting for since 2011 will finally arrive on Friday night when the yellow-and-blue faces CSKA Moscow in the Euroleague Final Four semifinals in Milan.
A season which at several stages seemed to promise very little, has transformed into a sensational success, potentially of historic proportions should Maccabi go on and claim its sixth European championship and first since 2005.
After a roller-coaster campaign of highs and lows, Maccabi will be part of continental basketball’s showcase event for the first time in three years this weekend, and it has every intention of making its presence felt despite its underdog status.
CSKA will be a firm favorite on Friday, and not only due to its two wins over Maccabi in recent months, including by 35 points in Moscow.
In the second semifinal on Friday, Barcelona will meet Real Madrid in a classic Spanish showdown.
Barca went 14-2 in the Top 16 before sweeping Galatasaray in the quarterfinals, while Real amassed a 21-3 record throughout the season before requiring five games to overcome two-time defending champion Olympiacos in the playoffs.
Maccabi coach David Blatt admitted that CSKA has advantages over his team in size and experience, as well as financially, forcing Tel Aviv to structure its strategy to draw the Russians out of their comfort zone.
“When CSKA is playing its normal game it is a very hard team to beat,” Blatt told the Post. “We need to take them out of their regular game plan and try to cover up some of our weaknesses.”
Maccabi has fond memories from the Mediolanum Forum, which hosts the semifinals on Friday and Sunday’s final and third place game, after registering a remarkable win over Olimpia Milano in the arena in Game 1 of the Euroleague quarterfinal playoffs last month before wrapping up the series with two home wins.
However, Blatt brushed aside any notion his team has an edge due to its recent experience in Milan.
“Our experience as a club is not just from the quarterfinals in Milan but it also comes from decades of history that we have in international competition and success on many fronts,” he said on Thursday.
Maccabi is still sweating on the fitness of Sylven Landesberg, who tore a tendon in his leg last week, but Blatt will have Joe Ingles at his disposal despite the knee sprain suffered by the Australian forward in Monday’s BSL win over Hapoel Gilboa/Galil.
Apart from Landesberg and Shawn James, who was ruled out for the season several months ago, the rest of the roster is fit for Friday, although center Sofoklis Schortsanitis is bound to be rusty having not played since Game 4 against Milano three weeks ago due to the BSL suspension he was handed for storming into the stands in chase of a Hapoel Tel Aviv fan.
CSKA, which ended the Top 16 with a 14-2 record, but required five games to overcome Panathinaikos in the quarterfinals, enters Friday’s showdown on the back of two consecutive home defeats at the hands of Lokomotiv Kuban in the VTB quarterfinal playoffs.
Moscow’s deep and balanced roster led by coach Ettore Messina is hoping to claim its first Euroleague title since 2008 when it beat Maccabi in the final.
Milos Teodosic (14.7 points per game), Nenad Krstic (13.5 ppg) and Sonny Weems (13.4 ppg) were the team’s vocal points in the Top 16 and will be looking to make up for the disappointment of the past couple of seasons when CSKA fell short in the Final Four.
“I have no idea how the last two defeats to Kuban will affect us,” claimed Messina on Thursday.
“But I know most of you in this room are thinking that we are a bunch of chokers because we choked two years ago in Istanbul and also last year. Hopefully this time we choked at the right time before the Final Four and will be ready for the real game.”