(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Maccabi Tel Aviv got the Euroleague Top 16 off to a winning start on Thursday night, but its Final Four credentials will only truly be tested in the next couple of weeks.
Tel Aviv thrashed Alba Berlin 96-65 at the Nokia Arena in what will surely prove to be its easiest game of the Top 16. However, its hope of making an eighth Final Four appearance in 10 years will in all likelihood rest on the outcome of its next two European encounters.
Maccabi visits Barcelona next week and goes to Real Madrid seven days later in two very tough road games. Both will be crucial in determining if the team finishes among the top two in Group F as needed to progress to a best-of-five quarterfinal series.
On Thursday, Maccabi made sure it would be entering next week's game on the back of a dominating performance, albeit against a weak Alba side.
The hosts all but clinched the victory by halftime, opening a 17-point margin (49-32) by the break after scoring 17 of 24 shots from two-point range against a hapless Berlin defense.
Despite the level of its opponent, Thursday's easy win was exactly what the doctor ordered for a Maccabi team struggling with its confidence, especially after the 23-point drubbing at the hands of Unicaja Malaga in its last Euroleague game.
The comfortable early gap also allowed coach Pini Gershon to hand new signing Dee Brown his debut, and the speedy guard didn't disappoint.
Brown ended his dream debut with 11 points and displayed the perimeter shooting and ball handling Maccabi has desperately been lacking this season.
Lior Eliyahu led Maccabi once more, scoring 22 points (8 of 11) and grabbing eight rebounds.
"We're facing two very difficult games and it was important for us to win at home and do so by a significant margin," Eliyahu said.
D'or Fischer added 21 points (9 of 11) and eight rebounds, with Omri Casspi and Marcus Brown scoring 12 and 11 points respectively.
Carlos Arroyo settled for just eight points, but passed 10 assists.
Immanuel McElroy led Alba with 17 points.
Alba began the game well and Ansu Sesay's second three-pointer of the night gave the team a 9-4 margin.
An 8-0 run, however, gave Tel Aviv the lead for good and the hosts ended the first period with a seven point gap (27-20).
Maccabi continued to take advantage of the Germans' poor defense in the second quarter, with Marcus Brown and Arroyo combining to score the team's first eight points of the period to open a 35-22 lead.
Gershon introduced Dee Brown in the second period and the American scored eight points in the final six minutes of the first half, hitting both his three point attempts, and Tel Aviv cruised to an unassailable 49-32 lead by the break.
The second half was no more than a Maccabi procession, with the hosts doing as they pleased against Alba.
Tel Aviv continued to score at will, and with 10 minutes to play led by as many as 26 points (68-42).
The visitors didn't even manage to rescue some of their pride in the final quarter and Maccabi claimed the big win ahead of its next two crucial games.