All of a sudden, Mac TA faces must-win

Blatt believes yellow-and-blue ready to deliver Euroleague conquest at home vs Kaunas.

Lior Eliyahu Maccabi Tel Aviv 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Lior Eliyahu Maccabi Tel Aviv 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Euroleague campaign may only be one game old, but the yellow-and-blue already finds itself facing an encounter it cannot afford to lose on Thursday night.
After being thoroughly outplayed and thrashed 94-78 at Caja Laboral Vitoria in its Euroleague opener last week, Maccabi hosts Lithuania’s Zalgiris Kaunas at Nokia Arena knowing a second straight defeat will leave it in deep trouble.
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With road games at Partizan Belgrade and Khimki Moscow coming up, Tel Aviv will be in serious danger of falling to 0-4 in Group A should it fail to get the better of Zalgiris on Thursday, something coach David Blatt clearly understands.
“This is an extremely important game,” Blatt said. “Zalgiris has got the season off to an excellent start and has quality players, including some from the Lithuanian national team. They also have effective foreigners and a very good coach, meaning this is not just an important game, but a very tough one.”
Blatt believes Maccabi is far better prepared for this week’s game compared to its encounter in Vitoria.
“We have had a good week of training and we are much more prepared than we were last week,” he said. “I thought we were ready for Caja, but I was wrong. We will have to play much better defense than we did last week. We are extremely motivated to win our first home game.”
Kaunas began its continental season with a 73-62 victory over Partizan, with Marty Pocius leading the team with 17 points.
The Euroleague’s all-time leading scorer and former Maccabi player Marcus Brown missed last week’s game due to injury and Zalgiris is expected to be without the American guard for Thursday’s game as well.
Serbian coach Aco Petrovic has built a strong local core at Kaunas, which includes the likes of Paulius Jankunas, Arturas Milaknis and Tomas Delininkatis, strengthened by four Americans, including Travis Watson and DeJuan Collins.
“Maccabi is a great team with high class players and it’s always hard to play against them, especially in Nokia Arena,” Petrovic said. “They have not only the MVP of last week Chuck Eidson, but also good local players in Eliyahu, Burstein, Pnini. Their newcomers Pargo and Schorsanitis are also hard to stop. They are very good at attacking basketball and we will try to do our best to control the game. We can’t let them play a fast, attacking game.
“We have to concentrate for the entire 40 minutes – it’s our only key to success. I believe in my players and I hope that we will claim the victory in Tel Aviv.”
Zalgiris forward Dainius Salenga is confident the Lithuanians can clinch a key road victory.
“Maccabi is a very strong team,” he said. “They prefer more offensive basketball. As we saw in Vitoria, it’s hard for them to play against a team which likes aggressive basketball. Maccabi players like freedom on offense, and if we allow them to play freely – than it’s all over. But we are ready to fight and I truly believe that we can win.”
Lior Eliyahu was given a five-year contract by Maccabi in the summer in the hope he would become the centerpiece of the next great yellow-and-blue team.
However, his comeback to the club has so far been very disappointing, with the forward scoring just four points in the loss at Vitoria last week.
“We are coming off a poor game, but that happens and we are looking forward to our first home game,” Eliyahu said.
“We’ve been working very hard on our defensive play throughout the week and I hope it shows on Thursday. Zalgiris is a good team with dangerous players and this will be a difficult game.”
On TV: Maccabi Tel Aviv vs Zalgiris Kaunas (live on Channel 10 at 9 p.m.)