Red-hot CSKA visits Tel Aviv in turmoil

Preview: Plummeting yellow-and-blue in search of consistency following coach departure as it hosts Euroleague leader.

December 20, 2016 23:21
3 minute read.
Maccabi Tel Aviv center Sofoklis Schortsanitis

Maccabi Tel Aviv center Sofoklis Schortsanitis (center) and his teammates were helpless against CSKA Moscow at Nokia Arena last night, suffering an 84-61 loss.. (photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)

CSKA Moscow’s trip to Yad Eliyahu Arena on Wednesday night couldn’t have come at a worse time for Maccabi Tel Aviv.

With Maccabi still without a head coach following Rami Hadar’s resignation on Friday and the team losing its past three Euroleague games, a showdown with the reigning European champion, which has won 11 of 12 regular season games to date, is the last thing the yellow-and-blue needs in its current state.

Lior Lubin, who began the season as Erez Edelstein’s second assistant coach, will guide the team against CSKA, and is also set to be on the sidelines for Friday’s game against Darussafaka in Istanbul.

After making the decision that it wants to bring in a foreign coach to replace Hadar, Maccabi looks to have found its man in Latvian Ainars Bagatskis, David Blatt’s assistant at Darussafaka.

Club representatives met with Bagatskis in Istanbul on Tuesday and he is expected to take charge following Friday’s game.

Blatt spoke highly of his assistant when quizzed on the matter by Maccabi officials, with yellow-and-blue players Gal Mekel and Victor Rudd, who both played under Bagatskis at Russian team Nizhny Novgorod, also recommending the signing.

The 49-year-old Bagatskis has just two years of Euroleague experience under his belt, a season with Ukrainian team Budivelnyk Kiev and one with Nizhny.

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.

His first Euroleague game in charge of the yellow-and-blue is set to be against Baskonia Vitoria next Thursday, which will also mark the halfway point of the regular season.

With a 5-7 record to date and games against CSKA and at Darussafaka to come over the next three days, Bagatskis could well end up inheriting a team in a deep hole in the battle for a place in the top eight and playoff qualification.

One of Lubin’s main targets on Wednesday will be to limit the team’s wastefulness, with Maccabi leading the Euroleague with 14.7 turnovers per game, a figure which has soared to 18 during the past three losses. Maccabi still ranks second in two-point accuracy (54.7%), but has averaged just 68.3 points in its recent defeats.

CSKA’s offense leads the competition in points (92 per game), assists (20.8), free throws made (23.9) and three-pointers made (10.2), despite playing without reigning MVP and leading scorer Nando De Colo (21.0 ppg) over its last five games.

Maccabi will be hoping Sonny Weems can finally live up to expectations when he faces the team he played for between 2012 and 2015, with the yellow-andblue’s highest paid player at an estimated $1.3 million a year, averaging 9.2 points and 3.8 turnovers over the last five games.

“We haven’t been playing as a team. It doesn’t matter what coach comes in here, if we don’t have the mentality to build a team and be there for each other, no coach can change that if we don’t change it ourselves,” said Weems following Maccabi’s nail-biting win over Hapoel Gilboa/Galil in the State Cup round of 16 on Sunday.

“I’d be lying if I told you everyone is giving 110 percent in practice. I’m a little frustrated, because we are not playing to our potential. But if we put our heads together we are a Final Four team.

You see the way we play, especially in the Israeli league – games that we’re supposed to win hands down, we’ve been struggling to win,” added Weems.

“I’m worried about the upcoming game against CSKA Moscow and the game after that against Darussafaka. We’re going through a tough season. CSKA is a tough rival and it could be a really ugly game for us if we don’t come to compete.”

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