Maccabi Tel Aviv Real Madrid 248.88.
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger )
Maccabi Tel Aviv will only begin its Euroleague quarterfinal series in two weeks time, but it can already take a significant step toward the Final Four on Thursday night.
Maccabi visits Real Madrid in its final game of the Top 16, with the winner to finish top of Group F and secure home-court advantage in the best-of-five quarterfinal playoffs.
Perhaps just as important is the likelihood that the winner of Thursday’s encounter will avoid a meeting with title favorite Barcelona in the last eight.
Barca, which is 14-1 in the Euroleague this season, hosts Partizan Belgrade on Thursday and, assuming it wins, will next come up against the loser of Thursday’s game at Madrid’s Palacio Vistalegre.
It was just two months ago, after a disappointing loss to Maroussi BC, that Maccabi coach Pini Gershon seriously doubted his team’s chances of even advancing past the Top 16. However, Tel Aviv clinched its place in the quarterfinals with a game to spare last week, scoring a Euroleague record 43 points in the fourth quarter to claim a 97-82 victory over Montepaschi Siena.
“We got one job done and now it’s time to get another,” Gershon said. “The players showed they can fight and they don’t give up no matter where and who they play. Nobody thinks it’s going to be an easy job, but we never ran away from a challenge.”
For all its surprising success in the past couple of months, Maccabi has still struggled on the road. Tel Aviv has won just two of seven games away from home in continental competition this season, with its last victory coming more than three months ago against a mediocre Olimpija Ljubljana side.
In the Top 16, Maccabi lost at Siena in its group opener before only scoring a meager 56 points in its defeat to Efes Pilsen in Istanbul two weeks ago.
“We already beat Real this season, but when you play in Madrid you’re always the underdog,” Gershon said.
“Maybe it’s good for us that they must win, because nobody wants to play Barcelona before the Final Four. We had some difficulties on the road, and that’s another good reason for us to win. If we do that we might not need another road win until the Final Four in Paris.”
While Maccabi has stuttered on the road, Madrid has yet to lose a home game in the Euroleague this season.
However, after winning all five of its regular season home encounters by double-figures, Real was pushed to the wire in the Top 16, needing fourth quarter runs to get the better of both Pilsen and Siena.
Real is also the only team to win away from home in Group F, beating Pilsen 77-75 last week.
“We already reached our first goal in the Top 16, which was making the playoffs,” Real coach Ettore Messina said. “Now we are going for the second goal which is finishing as group champs and in order to do that we will have to beat a complete team.”
Messina, a four-time Euroleague winner, is expecting a close game on Thursday night.
“Maccabi is very athletic, with great skills on the one on one game,” the Italian said. “It will be a duel in which we will have to show patience as it will be hard for either team to build solid leads, so I expect a close ending. The keys to survive this game will be, as always, strong defense and controlling the rebounds.”
After an erratic regular season, Maccabi swingman Alan Anderson has played out of his skin in the Top 16. The American has averaged 20.0 points per game, hitting 72.7 of his shots from two-point range.
However, Tel Aviv’s second string players have been almost as important to the team’s triumphs.
Doron Perkins and David Bluthenthal have made significant contributions
from the bench, with Guy Pnini becoming the team’s best Israeli-born
player, injecting enthusiasm and passion as a substitute.
“We all know the importance of this game,” Pnini said. “The pressure is
on Real and they are expecting to win after spending so much money in
the summer. We aren’t thinking of Barcelona. We want to win to make
sure we claim home-court advantage in the quarterfinals. Maccabi will
beat any team at the Nokia Arena.”