Blatt set to meet his nemesis in Obradovic

The one title still missing from his resume, the one he desires most, is the Euroleague championship.

Maccabi Tel Aviv coach David Blatt 390 (R) (photo credit: Reuters )
Maccabi Tel Aviv coach David Blatt 390 (R)
(photo credit: Reuters )
David Blatt has little left to prove in his career.
For over a decade he has been regarded as one of European basketball’s top coaches, winning titles in Israel, Italy and Russia, including the gold medal at the 2007 European Championships with the Russian national team.
However, there is one man with whom he has unfinished business.
The one title still missing from Blatt’s resume, the one he desires more than any other, is the Euroleague championship.
Blatt has twice come within touching distance of his holy grail and both times it was Zeljko Obradovic’s Panathinaikos that denied him the chance to lift the trophy.
The 52-year-old Serbian beat Blatt’s Maccabi in the Final Four semifinals in 2001/02, his first season as head coach of the yellow-and-blue, and did so once more last year when Panathinaikos defeated Tel Aviv 78-70 in the title game.
The two teams meet once more this season, this time in a best-of-five quarterfinal series, which gets underway in Athens on Tuesday.
For Blatt, this presents a golden opportunity to prove beyond doubt that he is on his way to being mentioned in the same breath as one of the greatest coaches in European history, one who already has eight Euroleague trophies on his resume.
For a second straight year, Maccabi is entering the quarterfinals without home-court advantage, meaning it will need to win at least once in Athens to reach the Final Four for the sixth time in the past nine years.
Panathinaikos has undergone minor changes since last season, with Antonis Fotsis and Drew Nicholas leaving for lucrative offers from Olimpia Milano.
Last season’s Euroleague MVP and Final Four MVP Dimitris Diamantidis (10.2 ppg, 4.9 apg, 3.3 rpg this season) is still around, as is American Mike Batiste (9.9 ppg, 5.1 rpg), Nick Calathes (7.4 ppg, 2.6 apg) and Romain Sato (9.2 ppg, 6.1 rpg).
“I’m not sure where people get the impression that Pau is any weaker than last season,” Blatt said. “They have superb big-men as well as three power forwards with excellent qualities. This is a great team, just as good as last season’s. We will need to excel to win.”
Perhaps it is Pana’s relative struggles at home this season that have got people thinking that this is not a team capable of repeating last year’s triumph.
The Greeks lost two of their three Top 16 home games, falling to Unics Kazan as well as the mediocre Milano.
However, Tel Aviv has encountered real difficulties on the road this season, dropping three of its five regular season games away from home, while also losing in two of its three in the Top 16.
Making matters even more worrying for the yellow-and-blue is the fact that Pau is 5-0 in Game 1s at OAKA Arena in Athens, although Obradovic claimed in typical fashion that having home-court advantage is not necessarily such a big plus for his team.
“It’s the playoffs, the games that can lead us all the way to the Final Four,” he said. “We respect Maccabi very much. I believe that we must understand that playing in OAKA is not an advantage for us. It means nothing if we don’t concentrate. We have to play how we normally play away from home this year, because until now we haven’t played well in OAKA.
“It’s time to change this. We are in the playoffs for the second time in a row, but it’s a completely different situation than last year, because last year Barcelona was the clear favorite in the series. Now, there is no favorite in this matchup between us and Maccabi. Nobody can say that there is a favorite.”
Despite Obradovic’s best efforts, there should be little doubt that Maccabi enters the series as an underdog, especially if its big-men perform as they did in last year’s final against the Greeks.
Batiste, Aleks Maric and Kostas Tsartsaris dominated Maccabi’s Sofoklis Schortsanitis and Richard Hendrix in the paint last season, holding Big Sofo to a season-low four points and keeping Hendrix without a basket.
Hendrix has shown much improvement this season, averaging 13.0 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in the Top 16, and while Sofo has struggled with injury in recent months, he is desperate to prove his worth against Panathinaikos, starting with what will be his first game back in Greece on Tuesday since leaving his homeland for Maccabi.
“I think we have the answers for Panathinaikos,” Sofo said. “It is time to prove what we can do. We must give our best. I am confident. I do not want to lose. It’s my first game in Greece since I left. I expect a good atmosphere, the fans are very enthusiastic.
“We have bad memories from Panathinaikos and want to avenge last year’s Euroleague final loss.”