maccabi derrick sharp.
(photo credit: AP)
"We don't have to worry about them, it's all about us. It's just a question of which Maccabi will show up - Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde."
In those words Maccabi Tel Aviv captain Derrick Sharp summed up his team's chances in Thursday night's crucial Euroleague Top 16 game against Climamio Bologna.
Maccabi dominated Bologna the last time the teams met. Then going by the name Skipper, coach Jasmin Repesa's side was embarrassed by Maccabi at its best in the 2004 Euroleague final in Tel Aviv.
However today's Maccabi is not the same as that version, which won the game 118-74. Among the main contributors to that game, Sarunas Jasikevicius is in the NBA, David Bluthenthal is playing in Italy and Tal Burstein will miss his first Euroleague game ever after suffering a sprained ankle in last week's victory over Ulker Istanbul.
But beyond the players, Maccabi hasn't been consistently good this season. Big wins have been accompanied by inexplicable defeats. A loss at Bologna wouldn't end the team's chances of advancing from Group E into the quarterfinals, but it would be an uphill climb if Maccabi fell to 1-2 at the halfway point of the round.
Only the top two teams from the four in each Top 16 group qualify for the quarterfinals.
Bologna is also a very different team from the one that lost the 2004 final. Its youngsters from that game are now full blown stars. Shooting guard Marco Belinelli (13.6 ppg.) is the team's leading scorer and big man Erazem Lorbek (9.1 ppg.) was crowned Euroleague young player of the year last year. Small forward Stefano Mancinelli has also become a key player, but he broke his nose in domestic action and is unlikely to play this week.
"Every time you say Maccabi, I remember that incredible final against us," Belinelli told the Euroleague Web site, "That's still an unforgettable moment for me, even though my team was overwhelmed. Maccabi was unstoppable that night...
"Two years ago, they were probably unbeatable, especially in Tel Aviv. Now, they don't have Jasikevicius, but they do have Will Solomon and he's a very dangerous player."
Belinelli believes in his team's chances. "After winning two Euroleague titles in a row, [Maccabi] could be less hungry... We are ready to face them."
Climamio boats numerous role players, but few stars. Guards Sani Becirovic (10.6 ppg.), Kiwane Garris (9.8 ppg.) and Nate Green, who played four games for Bnei Herzliya in 2001, make up a deep backcourt and power forward Travis Watson and center Dalibor Bagaric (9.8 ppg.) team with Lorbek to make up a powerful frontline.
Belinelli said that the key is "to feed the ball inside like we did in Madrid, because every team struggles in handling Bagaric, Watson or Lorbek. Then, we have to play tough defense, put pressure [on the ball handlers], and surprise them to get fastbreaks."
Bologna's home court - the Paladozza - has been a fortress in recent seasons. The team has won 22 straight Euroleague games there dating back to February 2004, when it lost to CSKA Moscow. Maccabi took a 111-104 overtime win in its last visit in November 2003.
"A team that hasn't lost at home for such a long time says something about their ability at home, but it also says that sooner or later the home loss will arrive," a somewhat confident Pini Gershon said.
"If we want to make it to the quarterfinals we must win on the road, something we haven't done in a long time, and we don't have many options left.
"It's not going to be an easy game for us, but not for them as well," he added.
Sharp, who is sure to see more playing time in Burstein's place summed up: "To win, we need to play our game, nothing else."
On TV: Maccabi Tel Aviv at Climamio Bologna (live at 9:45 p.m. on Channel 1)