After advancing to the Euroleague quarterfinals against all odds,
Maccabi Tel Aviv will have to prove it can win as a favorite when its
hosts Partizan Belgrade in the teams’ quarterfinals series opener at
the Nokia Arena on Tuesday night.
Maccabi entered the Top 16 with little hope of making it through to the
last eight, but ended it with a stunning 66-64 road victory over Real
Madrid to finish first in Group F and secure home-court advantage in
the best-of-five last eight playoffs.
Tel Aviv’s home form was the key to its Top 16 success, with the
perennial Israeli champion winning all three of its games at Nokia.
Pini Gershon’s men defeated Madrid, Efes Pilsen and Montepaschi Siena,
but needed a late surge in each of the encounters to secure the victory.
Thanks to its home-court advantage and superior roster, Maccabi enters
Tuesday’s game, and the series as a whole, as a clear favorite.
However, Gershon has no intention of taking Partizan lightly and
squandering a superb and unexpected opportunity to reach the Final Four
“Partizan has already beaten Barcelona and Panathinaikos and we haven’t
proven that we can beat teams at that level yet, so I don’t see how we
can underestimate them,” Gershon said. “We worked hard to get the home
court advantage and we’re not going to give it up easily.”
Partizan is playing in the quarterfinal playoffs for a third straight
season, but hasn’t reached the Final Four since 1998. This is mainly
due to the fact that the eight-time defending Serbian champion is
forced to reinvent itself almost every season after selling-off its top
talents to Europe’s biggest clubs.
This campaign has been no different, with Partizan coach Dusko
Vujosevic – who has been at the club since 2001 as well as coaching it
between 1985 and 1989 – once again managing to assemble a talented
roster built around homegrown players.
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Partizan seemed to have no chance of making it this far after being
drawn in a Top 16 group with defending champion Panathinaikos and title
However, the Serbs, who ended the regular season with a mediocre 5-5
record, stunned Europe by defeating Panathinaikos on the road in their
Top 16 opener before handing Barca its only loss of the Euroleague
season to date the following week.
Belgrade has rarely convinced on the road this season, winning just two
of eight games away from the Pionir Arena. However, Maccabi will be
wary of the fact that those two wins came against a strong Unicaja
Malaga team and the reigning champion.
“Our fans have helped us to find energy during the season and we’ll
especially need that against such a difficult defensive team as
Partizan,” said Gershon.
“It’s not going to be a walk in the park and even if we win the first
game by a big margin, in 48 hours we’ll need to bring the same efforts
and energies to make it happen once again. A win in Game 1 is important
but far from a reason to celebrate.”
Maccabi hosts Game 2 on Thursday before visiting Belgrade for Game 3 next Tuesday and a possible Game 4 on Thursday.
If necessary, the fifth and decisive encounter will be played back at Nokia the following week.
Several of Partizan’s players are set to become big stars in the coming
years, but one who is already being courted by many of the continents
top clubs is 2.11-meter center Aleks Maric. The 25-year-old has
averaged 14.9 points and 9.6 rebounds this season, amassing five
double-doubles along the way.
Just as Maric is the key to Belgrade’s play under the baskets, Bo
McCalebb is the vocal point of its backcourt. The aggressive point
guard, who has averaged 13.0 points and 3.3 assists, is one of only two
American players on the roster, with forward Lawrence Roberts another
important member of the team, averaging 9.3 points and 7.1 rebounds.
“Maccabi has a stronger team, with more quality players than we have,”
said coach Vujosevic, whose side led the Top 16 in rebounding.
“But hope is a real thing. If we did not have hope, we would never have
reached the last eight. We started this season’s Euroleague competition
with a lot of new players. We had bad luck at the draw for the first
phase and for the Top 16. Nobody believed we could reach the playoffs.
This is a real big success.”
Maccabi big man Stephane Lasme will be facing his former team for the
first time since he left in the summer and will be hoping to continue
his recent improvement on Tuesday night.
Lasme has averaged 11 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in Tel Aviv’s
last two games, teaming-up superbly in the paint with D’or Fischer.
Another player who has seen his role grow with every week that has
passed is Doron Perkins. While Andrew Wisniewski continues to start for
Maccabi, Perkins has taken over the playmaking responsibilities in the
closing stages of Tel Aviv’s recent games, averaging 11.0 points, 6.4
rebounds, 3.7 assists, but also 3.0 turnovers in the team’s last three
“We’re coming to the game against Partizan in good spirits and very
focused,” Perkins said. “Since I came to Maccabi, every game has been
‘the most important game,’ but it’s clear that now we are at the
money-time. There is pressure, but we are coming to play our game and I
hope we continue to play well and win.”
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