There is one thing that stood out above all else when speaking to Maccabi Tel Aviv coach David Blatt ahead of this weekend’s Euroleague Final Four.
One would expect a coach to believe in his team in the lead up to its biggest moment of the season, but the confidence exuded by Blatt entering Friday’s semifinal against CSKA Moscow was somewhat surprising, to say the least.
After all, Maccabi was crushed by 35 points in Moscow when the teams met earlier this season and CSKA also beat the yellow-and-blue in Tel Aviv just last month.
However, that does nothing to dent Blatt’s optimism. He believed in his roster in the toughest of times this season and he certainly isn’t going to lose faith on the eve of the Final Four.
“We are excited and confident that we are where we belong and that we can do something,” Blatt told the Post. “One of the toughest things in basketball is to beat a team three times in a row. We recognize that on paper CSKA is an extremely strong team and they have also had great results in the Euroleague.
“From a size, experience and budget standpoint they have advantages over us, but we also feel we can play with them. We know we may have to play the game atypically but we also recognize that we have the tools to do something.”
Blatt doesn’t feel that Maccabi’s first two meetings with CSKA this season give any real indication of what might happen on Friday, but they have helped him to prepare for the Final Four.
“The first game against CSKA we played without three of our main players so I don’t really consider that a barometer,” he said. “In the second game in Tel Aviv where both teams played hard but for no particular goal because the Top 16 had already been decided we saw some very specific things that we know we have to adjust to and improve on. They took advantage of some of our weaknesses and we did not do a good job covering them up.
“There is a real issue with size difference between the teams in every position. When CSKA plays their normal game, they are a very hard team to beat. We need to take them out of their regular game plan and try to cover up some of our size differences and play a different game.”
After cruising through the Euroleague regular season, winning Group D with an 8-2 record, Maccabi opened the Top 16 with four straight convincing victories. However, it won only four of its remaining 10 games in the Top 16 and faced Olimpia Milano in the quarterfinal playoffs just three weeks after suffering its heaviest home defeat in history, losing to Hapoel Jerusalem by 28 points in BSL action.
Tel Aviv also registered its worst ever start to a BSL campaign this season, losing four of its first nine games. However, Blatt insisted that Maccabi has so far achieved every one of its goals this season, winning the State Cup, ending the BSL regular season in first place and advancing to the Euroleague Final Four after recording a remarkable road win in Game 1 in Milano before wrapping up the series with two home victories.
“I took it under consideration early in the season that we had to develop our team patiently and we prioritized the Euroleague early in the season,” Blatt explained. “We also had a number of injuries and a number of guys that in order to succeed in Europe we had to rest them in the Israeli league and it cost us.
But we didn’t panic and knew what we were doing. Those are times when you have to neutralize all the noise from the outside and believe in your way, plan and system and go forward, and that is what we did.
“So far this season we have achieved every goal we have set out to. We always believed in our team but we had to slowly develop and we did.”
Blatt feels that Maccabi’s Euroleague campaign can already be crowned as a success.
“No doubt the Euroleague campaign has been a big success regardless of the result against CSKA,” he said. “We had the fourth best record in the Euroleague and deservedly made the Final Four and that qualifies as a success without question.”
Blatt has one more year left on his contract at Maccabi, but despite his wish to continue and guide the side, he has no intention of remaining at the club should he not receive an extension this summer.
Both Blatt and Maccabi have the option of opting out of the final year on his contract and the coach claimed after the triumph over Milano that he does not want to be a lame duck again next season. He regrets using the term lame duck, but there is no doubt he felt that way this season and does not want to repeat the experience in 2014/15.
“I think teams need continuity and need vision for today and the future,” he said. “If there is a common vision between us, than things will work out great, and if there is not than there is not. My situation is pretty clear. Basically we will be at a negotiating phase when the season finishes.”
Blatt has long been linked with an eventual move to the NBA, but while he admitted that there has been interest in his services from the best league in the world, he insisted that coaching in the NBA is not his priority.
“Because the season is not finished none of the options are relevant but all of the options are open,” he somewhat cryptically noted. “It could happen and it may not, but either way, it is not my main goal.”
For the time being, Blatt’s only focus is Friday’s game against CSKA, with the hope of having a final to prepare for two days later and claiming Maccabi’s sixth European championship and his first as a head coach.
“We have come to the highest level and we have played very good basketball in the Euroleague the whole season,” he said. “We proved to be one of the top four teams in Europe and with that comes the obvious challenge that the other teams are of the highest level as well. We are excited.”