Gut-check time for Maccabi Tel Aviv as Belgrade comes to town

With Red Star looking like one of Tel Aviv’s main rivals for a place in the top eight, opening a three-game lead over the Serbian side with a victory on Thursday could prove to be crucial.

Maccabi Tel Aviv coach Neven Spahija (sitting) (photo credit: UDI ZITIAT)
Maccabi Tel Aviv coach Neven Spahija (sitting)
(photo credit: UDI ZITIAT)
Two days after what coach Neven Spahija described as his team’s worst game of the season, Maccabi Tel Aviv hosts Red Star Belgrade at Yad Eliyahu Arena on Thursday night knowing it can scarcely afford anything other than a win.
Maccabi is still licking its wounds from a 94-64 thrashing at the hands of Olympiacos in Athens on Tuesday, with the yellow-and-blue once more being outplayed on the road.
Since defeating Khimki Moscow in Russia on November 16, Maccabi has lost five straight continental games away from home, all by double digits.
After falling at Barcelona, CSKA Moscow, Panathinaikos and Real Madrid by an average 15.5 points per contest, Tel Aviv suffered its heaviest defeat of the campaign in Greece, and Spahija admitted that he turned his focus to the showdown with Red Star long before the final buzzer.
“Only one team existed tonight.
It was our worst game this season,” said Spahija. “Whatever we tried we couldn’t do. We were soft while they were very, very aggressive. And they deserved to win like they won.”
Maccabi dropped to a 9-9 record, but remained two games ahead of Belgrade in the battle for a playoff spot, with Red Star falling 79-70 to Khimki Moscow earlier Tuesday.
With Red Star looking like one of Tel Aviv’s main rivals for a place in the top eight, opening a three-game lead over the Serbian side with a victory on Thursday could prove to be crucial.
Maccabi will also be hoping to win by more than three points in order to claim the head-to-head tiebreaker against Red Star after losing 87-84 in Belgrade earlier this season.
With only five of its remaining 12 regular season games to be played at Yad Eliyahu, Maccabi needs to make the most of every home encounter, especially against a direct rival for a playoff berth.
Red Star (7-11) has lost its past two games and four of its last six.
But unlike in previous campaigns, almost half of its wins have come on the road, with the Serbs triumphing in three of their last five trips, including to Real Madrid and Valencia.
Former Maccabi guard Taylor Rochestie is the focal point of Red Star’s offense, averaging 14.7 points and 5.1 assists this season. Rochestie scored 27 points in Tuesday’s loss to Moscow and had 22 points, including the go-ahead basket with 15 seconds to play, in the victory over Maccabi back in October.
Deshaun Thomas scored a season- high 28 points for Maccabi in that defeat, but missed a difficult three-point attempt in the team’s final possession. After missing two Euroleague games through injury, Thomas is working his way back into form, playing a team-high 24 minutes in the loss to Olympiacos. Maccabi also welcomed back Norris Cole from injury and is hoping the decision to leave Jonah Bolden in Israel to recover from a sprained ankle will result in his return to action on Thursday.
“Olympiacos played really well. We tried to come in and fight and compete, but they are a very good team and they came and made big shots,” said Thomas. “There’s always another chance and another day.”
Maccabi already returned to the court on Wednesday morning for a light session at Yad Eliyahu and Spahija was confident his team would be able to bounce back against Red Star.
“Our fans didn’t deserve such a loss like last night. But it happens to everyone and happened to Maccabi not for the first time,” said Spahija. “But I don’t need an excuse. It was one bad day for the coach first of all, as well as the players.
“I don’t think I gave up on the game,” he added. “I just realized the need at the moment. To play such a difficult competition with injured players and so much physicality and the problem we faced in that game, maybe I did more rotation than usual thinking about our next game.”
Spahija bemoaned his team’s lack of practice time.
“We are not good enough to do what we want,” he noted. “Maybe the players are tired from a lot of games. I find so many mistakes and normally I used to fix it in practice, but in this format we really have no time to practice.
What we are doing is talking and watching film, which is definitely not enough for us.
“We have to be much more aggressive,” he explained. “We have to control the defensive rebound because we are one of the best rebounding teams in Europe. To sum it up, we have to be better.”