Maccabi Tel Aviv has little room for error in Euroleague playoff race

“It’s an important game because we are fighting for our position for the playoffs.”

By
February 7, 2018 23:41
3 minute read.
Maccabi Tel Aviv guard Norris Cole (30)

Maccabi Tel Aviv guard Norris Cole (30) is looking to bounce back from his disappointing display in last week’s loss to Zalgiris Kaunas when the yellow-and-blue hosts Barcelona tonight in Euroleague action.. (photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)

With its breathing room in the battle for postseason qualification being reduced to a single game, Maccabi Tel Aviv is in danger of dropping out of the top eight in the Euroleague standings should it fail to defeat Barcelona at Yad Eliyahu Arena on Thursday night.

Maccabi fell to an 11-10 record and eighth place in the table with last week’s 99-84 defeat at Zalgiris Kaunas, losing for the sixth time in seven road games, all by double digits.

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Baskonia Vitoria, which is one game back of the yellow-and-blue, can leapfrog Maccabi should it defeat Panathinaikos in Greece on Thursday combined with a Tel Aviv loss.

Maccabi has enjoyed far more success at home so far this season, winning seven of its last nine games at Yad Eliyahu. But with only three of its final eight regular season games to come at home, Maccabi can scarcely afford a loss to the struggling Barcelona.

The Catalans are coming to Tel Aviv on the back of the sacking of head coach Sito Alonso on Monday. Alfred Julbe, who has been coaching the Barcelona B team, was named as his interim replacement. Alonso, 42, joined Barcelona last summer on a multi-year deal. He didn’t even complete a single season at the club, with Barca amassing a disappointing 7-14 record so far in Euroleague, while going 14-7 in the Spanish league.

Barca thrashed Maccabi 89-67 when the teams met in Spain earlier this season, but has just a single road win to its name this season, going 1-9 to date.

Barcelona will be without big man Kevin Seraphin (12.1 ppg), but still has plenty of talent on its roster, including Thomas Heurtel, Rakim Sanders, Ante Tomic and Adam Hanga.

“Barcelona is a good team that is in second place in the Spanish league and is coming here with nothing to lose,” said Maccabi coach Neven Spahija, who will guide the team despite watching Sunday’s BSL win over Maccabi Rishon Lezion from home after falling ill with the flu. “Sometimes players have good reactions to coaching changes, sometimes they don’t. There is pressure all the time, it’s not new for us.”

Julbe, 57, led Barcelona’s under-18 team to victory in the 2015/16 Euroleague Next Generation tournament, and also has vast experience at the senior level. Julbe started his career with Joventut Badalona and also coached Cibona, Zaragoza, Caceres and Andorra in Spain, as well as Titanicos de Leon in Mexico. He helped Joventut win the Spanish Cup in 1997, as well as leading it to the Saporta Cup final in 1988, losing against Limoges CSP.

“The team is in a complicated situation, denying it would be stupid on my part,” Julbe said after taking charge of the side. “I will see how I can help the players as individuals. It can be with a conversation, it can be with a technical detail. We have limited time to make changes.”

Julbe didn’t deny he would like to remain at the helm until the end of the season.

“It doesn’t depend on me and I also don’t want to add comments about what I think or do not think,” he noted. “I have been in basketball for a few years to understand all kinds of situations. Right now, I’m thinking in the very short term. But at the same time I think I can do as well as any coach that will follow.”

Barcelona’s victory over Maccabi in November was its fourth straight over the yellow-and-blue. Rakim Sanders and Petteri Koponen combined for 10 three-pointers and 38 points, with Barca taking advantage of one of Tel Aviv’s main weaknesses this season by hitting 15-of-31 shots from three-point range.

One of the players who Maccabi will rely on defensively is DeAndre Kane, who is registering just 6.1 points per game, but averages 21.0 minutes, the sixth most on the team.

“We are looking forward to the challenge. We really want to come out and set the tempo, the way the game is going and really play physical with these guys,” said Kane.

Since missing two games through injury, Norris Cole is averaging 11.3 points and 3.3 assists, slightly below his season averages. He experienced one of his worst games of the season in the defeat at Barcelona, scoring seven points and registering two assists in 19 minutes.

“It’s an important game because we are fighting for our position for the playoffs,” said Cole. “We want to protect our home court. You always want to get payback, but at this time we need to secure our spot. That’s enough motivation for me."


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