Maccabi Tel Aviv 311.
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
There may be plenty of excuses and explanations, but by its remarkably high
standards, Maccabi Tel Aviv will enter Game 1 of its best-of-five Euroleague
quarterfinal playoff series against Caja Laboral Vitoria on Tuesday night
struggling to find top form.
Since a 92-85 overtime defeat to Barcelona
on February 24, Maccabi has rarely found the intensity and tenacity that
characterized its play earlier this season, raising serious concerns over
whether the yellow-and-blue will be able to get back to its best when it matters
Tel Aviv’s five games since the loss to Barca, one in the
Euroleague and four in the BSL, meant little to the team, as it had already
secured second place in Group F of the Top 16 and held a massive lead at the top
of the Israeli league standings.
However, the loss at Lottomatica Roma in
its final Top 16 game and several unimpressive league victories – with the
exception of the thrashing of Hapoel Jerusalem – mean that no one really knows
which Maccabi team will show-up at Vitoria on Tuesday.
Will it be the one
that won 12 of 13 Euroleague games at one stage this season, looking like one of
the favorites to reach the Final Four? Or will it be the one that seemed
uninterested in the games against Roma, Hapoel Holon, Bnei Hasharon and Maccabi
Rishon Lezion, only luckily escaping that stretch with one defeat? Coach David
Blatt has no doubts.
“We know we need to raise our level of intensity and
decision making, but I feel that we’re ready and in good shape,” Blatt said.
“With all due respect to the BSL, we will be playing a completely different game
on Tuesday. We are facing a tough task, but we believe in our ability and know
that we have the weapons to beat Caja.”
Blatt has identified his team’s
play in the early minutes as the key to success in Vitoria, both on Tuesday and
in Game 2 on Thursday.
“I hope we’ll know how to start the game well,” he
said. “Vitoria knows how to open very strongly and many times they put their
opponents into situations that they can’t come back from.
This week we
were able to practice hard and we need to be calm and relaxed.
home court advantage, but on the other hand this is a team we know well, a team
we know how to play against. It’s going to be a real battle, and we will need to
fight. These two teams are among the strongest in Europe.”
the Euroleague this season in scoring (81.9 ppg) and performance index rating
(93.6) and ranks second in assists (16.3 apg) and steals (9.9
However, Vitoria is also one of the better offensive teams in the
competition, being ranked second in scoring (79.8 ppg), while leading the
Euroleague in three-point percentage (39 percent), a known weakness of Maccabi’s
otherwise excellent defense.
The main threats from beyond the arc will be
Fernando San Emeterio, who leads the Euroleague in three-point accuracy with 24
triples from 45 attempts (53 percent) and is also the competition’s leader in
performance index ranking with 20.3 per game, and Mirza Teletovic, who has
attempted (110) and scored (39) more threes than anyone else in the Euroleague
Maccabi and Caja will be meeting for the third time this
season after splitting their first two encounters in the regular season, with
the Spaniards winning the campaign opener 94-78, outscoring Tel Aviv 31-11 in
the first period, and the yellow-and-blue claiming an 81-70 victory at Nokia
With Game 5 also to be played in Vitoria should it be needed, Caja
coach Dusko Ivanovic is confident that two wins over 72 hours will give his team
an almost unassailable lead.
“We are where we wanted to be: in the
playoffs with home court advantage,” Ivanovic said. “Maccabi is one of the most
important teams in European basketball in terms of tradition and their current
We do not want to think beyond the first game. We must stay
focused, play with patience, defend to the best of our abilities and try to
“They are a great team and they have back-ups for each
position, but I think we are ready to face such an important series.
Furthermore, we have the support of a crowd that never fails when the team needs
it. Their help will be very important for us.”
One Maccabi player who
knows all about the Vitoria fans is Lior Eliyahu.
The Israeli forward
helped Caja to the Spanish league title last season before requesting to return
to Tel Aviv last summer. After managing just four points when Maccabi visited
Vitoria in October, he will be eager to prove his worth this time
“This is one of the toughest road games in Europe. They are an
aggressive team that plays hard for 40 minutes,” Eliyahu said. “They don’t just
have big guys, but great shooters as well. They play as a team and follow the
coach’s game plan.
“We will need to be even more disciplined than they
are if we are to win.”