(photo credit: Blake-Ezra Cole [file])
The Euroleague confirmed Monday what fans in Tel Aviv have known for weeks - that Maceo Baston is the hottest player in Europe.
Armed with the freshly crowned MVP of the Month for March, Maccabi Tel Aviv takes aim at Olympiacos Piraeus in Game 1 of their bestof-three Euroleague Quarterfinal Playoffs series Tuesday night at Nokia Arena.
Baston averaged 15.6 points on 68 percent shooting from the field and 86.4% from the line, six rebounds and 1.5 blocks as Maccabi went 5-0 in the month to claim the honor, which is voted upon by the Euroleague Board.
Although Maccabi is the clear favorite to win the series and advance to the Final Four in Prague starting April 28, coach Pini Gershon suggested that fans not book their tickets to the Czech Republic just yet.
"The road to the Final Four will be hard," Gershon said after Monday evening's practice. "I have a feeling that this series will go three games."
Much of the talk after the practice surrounded Baston and his matchup with Olympiacos big man Sofoklis Schortsanitis, affectionately known as "Baby Shaq."
The 2.06-meter, 140+ kilogram Schortsanitis, took his place in the paint and punished Maccabi for 13 points on 4-of-5 shooting and five rebounds in just 18 minutes to help his team to an 83-78 win over the two-time defending champs in November. He was limited to 11 minutes due to foul trouble when Maccabi beat Olympiacos 101-95 in January.
"He's a powerful guy, but we can expose his weaknesses, like fatigue and [lack of] quickness," Baston said of Schortsanitis. "We'll try to make his weight a weapon against him."
Gershon agreed. "He's dangerous when he's playing and they're playing on him. It's not easy to play against him, but he has weaknesses... We'll try and limit his damage."
The best-known visiting player in uniform on Tuesday will be Quincy Lewis, who spent the 2002/03 season with Maccabi, in place of Anthony Parker. That season was the only one since 2000 in which Tel Aviv failed to reach the Final Four. Lewis has averaged 10.9 points per game this season.
Olympiacos also boasts the MVP of the Month for February, point guard Tyus Edney, but Gershon didn't seem concerned with Olympiacos's stars as much as their depth.
"It's a good team that uses 10, sometimes 12, aggressive players," he said. "We'll need to use all of our bench because they use all of their bench."
Olympiacos coach Jonas Kazlauskas's rotation features 11 players averaging at least 10 minutes per game. Edney, who leads the team with 13.1 points and 4.7 assists per game, is the only player averaging more than 30 minutes.
By contrast, Parker (35:17), Will Solomon (31:35) and Nikola Vujcic (30:46) all top that mark for the yellow-and-blue.
"The refereeing will be important," Gershon added as he laid out his keys to victory, "because if they only whistle 25 percent of the fouls [Olympiacos] commits, it'll be a problem."
Gershon put that statement in context by claiming that usually 40-50% of all fouls committed are called.
Maccabi has no worries about the shape of its players. Nikola Vujcic, who was limited to five minutes with a stiff back in Thursday's win over at Ulker Istanbul, practiced and is fit for the game.
About Solomon, who struggled with 1-of-10 shooting in that game, he said, "I hope he'll play tomorrow like he practiced today."
And regarding the reserves, "Our bench is in better shape today than two months ago."
Olympiacos arrived in Israel on a charter flight Monday evening and will not practice at Nokia Arena until the morning shootaround, but Gershon did not feel that would necessarily work in his team's favor.
"Home-court advantage is about the fans, not the court. The floor and the baskets are the same everywhere," he said.
Maccabi is only four wins from matching the great Jugoplastika Split dynasty of Toni Kukoc and Dino Radja by winning three Euroleague titles in a row. The Yugoslavian side accomplished the feat from 1989-91.
And Baston doesn't see any reason why that won't happen. "We're the champions until we're dethroned. Don't underestimate the heart of a champion."
On TV: Maccabi Tel Aviv vs Olympiacos (live at 8:45 p.m. on Channel 1).