On the back of a record fivegame losing streak in the Euroleague, Maccabi Tel Aviv visits Baskonia Vitoria in Spain on Thursday night in what would be regarded as one of its toughest road games of the season even in the best of times.
It has been over a month since Maccabi last claimed a win in the Euroleague, registering an impressive victory over Olympiacos in Athens.
Five games and two coaches later, the yellow-and-blue goes to Vitoria for its final contest of 2016, hoping to end a bitterly disappointing year on a winning note.
Maccabi will be guided in the Euroleague by its fourth different coach this season, with Latvian Ainars Bagatskis to make his continental debut for the team. Maccabi began the season under Erez Edelstein, who was replaced by Rami Hadar after two Euroleague games.
Hadar lasted less than two months, with assistant coach Lior Lubin guiding the team in two continental contests last week until Bagatskis’s appointment became official.
The Latvian’s first game in charge of the team on Monday ended with a 93-84 victory over Maccabi Rishon Lezion in BSL action.
However, he will be mainly judged by the team’s performance in the European competition, starting with Thursday’s game, which also marks the halfway point of the regular season.
Maccabi had never previously lost five Euroleague games in a row until last Friday, falling four games below .500 (5-9) with the defeat to David Blatt’s Darussafaka in Turkey.
Maccabi slid to 14th place out of 16 teams in the standings, but is still only two games back of eighth position, which will lead to the playoffs at the end of the regular season.
Vitoria is tied for the second-best record in the competition at 9-5, having a four-game winning streak snapped with a dramatic 69-68 setback to Panathinaikos in Greece last week.
Baskonia has put together a 6-1 record at home, with its only defeat at the Fernando Buesa Arena coming against Olympiacos two months ago.
Vitoria has won 19 consecutive home games to teams not named Olympiacos, and Maccabi can expect a harsh welcome from Baskonia’s fans, many of whom are pro-Palestinian.
Baskonia boasts four double-digit scorers in Shane Larkin (13.5 ppg), Rodrigue Beaubois (12.4), Tornike Shengelia (11.0) and Johannes Voigtmann (10.6), and that doesn’t count Andrea Bargnani (12.6), who has missed the last four games due to injury. Voigtmann, at 6.9 rebounds per game, ranks fifth among Euroleague players, while Larkin’s 5.8 assists tie him for the same ranking.
“They are one of the fastest teams in the Euroleague,” said Bagatskis.
“The most important thing for us if we want to be in the game is to play with a lot of discipline. We mustn’t rush anything on offense.
We have to play with patience in offense and from that will start our defense. If we will be disciplined it will be a good game.”
The 49-year-old Bagatskis has a 12-37 record as a head coach in the Euroleague from his time at Lithuania’s Zalgiris Kaunas, Ukrainian team Budivelnyk Kiev and Nizhny Novgorod of Russia.
He has spent almost his entire coaching career in Eastern Europe, also guiding the Latvia national team since 2010. Last season, he led Nizhny to the quarterfinals of the Eurocup, beating Hapoel Jerusalem and Maccabi Tel Aviv along the way.
As well as Bagatskis, forward Quincy Miller is set to make his Euroleague debut for Maccabi on Thursday.
Miller has yet to play for the team after injuring his knee during an off-season scrimmage at UCLA five months ago, with an MRI revealing that he tore his PCL.
“You can see his big potential, but of course he isn’t in the best shape right now,” said Bagatskis.
“Of course I’m excited to play,” said Miller. “I’ve been practicing for two months and it’s been going well. I’m not rushing into things but I hope to play. Of course, it’s up to the coach but the fans can expect someone who plays with a lot of passion.”
One Maccabi player who will be especially looking forward to Thursday’s game is Gal Mekel.
The Israeli guard has scored just six points in total in the Euroleague so far this season, failing to earn significant minutes under either Edelstein, Hadar or Lubin.
“Baskonia is a team that likes to run with Larkin and Beaubois, who I both know from my time in the NBA,” said Mekel. “The key for us will be to slow them down.”