David Blatt has little left to prove in his career.
For over a decade he
has been regarded as one of European basketball’s top coaches, winning titles in
Israel, Italy and Russia, including the gold medal at the 2007 European
Championships with the Russian national team.
However, there is one man
with whom he has unfinished business.
The one title still missing from
Blatt’s resume, the one he desires more than any other, is the Euroleague
Blatt has twice come within touching distance of his holy
grail and both times it was Zeljko Obradovic’s Panathinaikos that denied him the
chance to lift the trophy.
The 52-year-old Serbian beat Blatt’s Maccabi
in the Final Four semifinals in 2001/02, his first season as head coach of the
yellow-and-blue, and did so once more last year when Panathinaikos defeated Tel
Aviv 78-70 in the title game.
The two teams meet once more this season,
this time in a best-of-five quarterfinal series, which gets underway in Athens
For Blatt, this presents a golden opportunity to prove beyond
doubt that he is on his way to being mentioned in the same breath as one of the
greatest coaches in European history, one who already has eight Euroleague
trophies on his resume.
For a second straight year, Maccabi is entering
the quarterfinals without home-court advantage, meaning it will need to win at
least once in Athens to reach the Final Four for the sixth time in the past nine
Panathinaikos has undergone minor changes since last season, with
Antonis Fotsis and Drew Nicholas leaving for lucrative offers from Olimpia
Last season’s Euroleague MVP and Final Four MVP Dimitris
Diamantidis (10.2 ppg, 4.9 apg, 3.3 rpg this season) is still around, as is
American Mike Batiste (9.9 ppg, 5.1 rpg), Nick Calathes (7.4 ppg, 2.6 apg) and
Romain Sato (9.2 ppg, 6.1 rpg).
“I’m not sure where people get the
impression that Pau is any weaker than last season,” Blatt said. “They have
superb big-men as well as three power forwards with excellent
qualities. This is a great team, just as good as last season’s. We will
need to excel to win.”
Perhaps it is Pana’s relative struggles at home
this season that have got people thinking that this is not a team capable of
repeating last year’s triumph.
The Greeks lost two of their three Top 16
home games, falling to Unics Kazan as well as the mediocre
However, Tel Aviv has encountered real difficulties on the road
this season, dropping three of its five regular season games away from home,
while also losing in two of its three in the Top 16.
Making matters even
more worrying for the yellow-and-blue is the fact that Pau is 5-0 in Game 1s at
OAKA Arena in Athens, although Obradovic claimed in typical fashion that having
home-court advantage is not necessarily such a big plus for his
“It’s the playoffs, the games that can lead us all the way to the
Final Four,” he said. “We respect Maccabi very much. I believe that we must
understand that playing in OAKA is not an advantage for us. It means nothing if
we don’t concentrate. We have to play how we normally play away from home this
year, because until now we haven’t played well in OAKA.
“It’s time to
change this. We are in the playoffs for the second time in a row, but it’s a
completely different situation than last year, because last year Barcelona was
the clear favorite in the series. Now, there is no favorite in this matchup
between us and Maccabi. Nobody can say that there is a
Despite Obradovic’s best efforts, there should be little doubt
that Maccabi enters the series as an underdog, especially if its big-men perform
as they did in last year’s final against the Greeks.
Batiste, Aleks Maric
and Kostas Tsartsaris dominated Maccabi’s Sofoklis Schortsanitis and Richard
Hendrix in the paint last season, holding Big Sofo to a season-low four points
and keeping Hendrix without a basket.
Hendrix has shown much improvement
this season, averaging 13.0 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in the Top 16,
and while Sofo has struggled with injury in recent months, he is desperate to
prove his worth against Panathinaikos, starting with what will be his first game
back in Greece on Tuesday since leaving his homeland for Maccabi.
think we have the answers for Panathinaikos,” Sofo said. “It is time to prove
what we can do. We must give our best. I am confident. I do not want to lose.
It’s my first game in Greece since I left. I expect a good atmosphere, the fans
are very enthusiastic.
“We have bad memories from Panathinaikos and want
to avenge last year’s Euroleague final loss.”