Maccabi Tel Aviv forward Brian Randle in action.
(photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
Failing to reach the Euroleague quarterfinals has become unthinkable for Maccabi Tel Aviv over the past decade.
It has happened only once in the past 11 seasons, and not since the 2008/09 campaign.
However, European basketball’s defending champion enters Thursday’s showdown with Alba Berlin in the German capital knowing a loss will likely end its campaign far earlier than expected.
Maccabi had a top-two finish and home-court advantage in the last eight in its sights after it won five straight games, including over Barcelona and Real Madrid, to improve to 5-1 in Top 16 Group E.
However, four losses over its next six games, combined with Alba’s recent run have seriously complicated Tel Aviv’s situation.
A victory in Berlin, which has won four of five games to improve to 7-6, will see Maccabi (8-5) advance from third place in the group. A defeat, combined with a Panathinaikos (7-6) loss at Red Star Belgrade (3-10), will also secure the yellow-and-blue’s progress, from fourth position.
However, a defeat against the in-form Berlin, combined with what seems like a likely Panathinaikos win in Serbia, will see Maccabi fall to fifth place and prematurely end its title defense.
What was recently not even a last-resort nightmare has become a real prospect, meaning Maccabi is entering Thursday’s game as if it were the final itself.
“Everything is on the line in this game, but that is nothing new for Maccabi,” said coach Guy Goodes ahead of the team’s departure for Berlin on Wednesday. “We will be as ready as possible and our goal is clear. This is similar to a Final Four game as we will be playing on the road in a hostile atmosphere against a very aggressive team.
“The players understand what is on the line and the team which makes the fewer mistakes will win. We have been through every scenario in the past and know how to play with our backs against the wall. I believe we will have a chance to win this game.”
Sylven Landesberg, who hasn’t played in the team’s past seven Euroleague games due to a stress fracture in his foot, is finally available to return to action, but Goodes is sweating over the fitness of guard Yogev Ohayon, who is also suffering from a foot injury.
Maccabi beat Alba both home and away in the Euroleague regular season, but suffered a shock 66-59 loss at home to the Germans two months ago.
That defeat marked the beginning of a downturn in Maccabi’s form, while Alba has only improved since.
Tel Aviv had won 11 straight games over all competitions to begin 2015 before being handed its first defeat of the year by Berlin, which had lost four of its previous five encounters.
Alba held Maccabi to a season- low 59 points while forcing it into a season-high 18 turnovers.
“We are facing a war of attrition because Alba pressures you from the start of every possession,” explained Goodes. “We will have to be as aggressive as possible.”
Berlin surprised Panathinaikos 68-66 in Athens last week to keep its hopes alive and coach Sasa Obradovic is hoping to make history on Thursday.
“The fact we have a chance to advance to the playoffs is historic for German basketball,” said Obradovic.
“To be the first German team that goes to the Euroleague playoffs would be great. We definitely have to play our game and need our fans’ support. But Maccabi is Maccabi. They always play their best in important games.”
Scoring more than 80 points could be crucial for Maccabi, with the yellow-and-blue holding a perfect record when passing that mark in the Euroleague this season, while Alba is 0-8 when its opponents have managed that many points.
“It is do-or-die,” said star forward Devin Smith, who is set to become Maccabi’s longest serving foreign player after signing a lucrative contract extension until the end of the 2017/18 season on Tuesday.
“Everybody knows the importance of the game and we have to prepare for it that way. We have to come and be ready for a dogfight until the finish.”