Crunch-time begins now for Mac TA

Yellow-and-blue must buckle down as it faces Zalgiris to tip off Euroleague Top 16.

LIOR ELIYAHU 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
(photo credit: Reuters)
With all due respect to the 10 straight wins Maccabi Tel Aviv claimed in the BSL and Adriatic League since its last Euroleague game, even vigilant yellow-and-blue coach David Blatt recognizes that the first real moment of truth of the season will arrive on Thursday night when his team visits Zalgiris Kaunas in its Top 16 opener.
Maccabi thrashed its opponents by 26.5 points per game in its 10 encounters since ending Group C of the Euroleague regular season with a 7-3 record following an 86-69 win at Belgacom Charleroi.
However, it has already had one eye on the start of the Top 16 since that win in Belgium four weeks ago, knowing that its next six Euroleague games over the coming six weeks will make or break its season.
Failure to finish in the top two in Group H and Maccabi’s season will be regarded as a failure. However, progress to the quarterfinals for the seventh time in the past eight years and Blatt will have met the principal target set for every Tel Aviv coach and will be able to calmly plot his team’s return to the Euroleague title game.
“We’ve worked hard since the beginning of the season to be where we are now, and we’re happy the Top 16 is getting underway,” Blatt said. “We’ve waited for this for a long time. The players can’t wait for the game to begin and that’s a very good thing. We are ready.”
Maccabi added playmaker Demond Mallet from Charleroi since its last Euroleague game, but it still remains to be seen how significant a role he will play and if he can fill the big shoes left by Jordan Farmar.
Another question mark hanging over the team as it enters Thursday’s crucial clash is the seriousness of Sofokolis Schortsanitis’s injury.
At his best, Sofo is an unstoppable weapon under the basket, but he has struggled with a knee injury in recent weeks and was visibly hobbling during Monday’s BSL victory over Ironi Ashkelon.
Guy Pnini didn’t even travel to Lithuania for Thursday’s game due to a calf injury, meaning Devin Smith will have an especially critical role to play trying to slow down Kaunas’ Sonny Weems.
The athletic forward averaged 9.2 points per game for the Toronto Raptors last season, but decided to move to Europe due to the NBA lockout and has been one of the Euroleague’s best players so far this season.
Weems has averaged 17.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in the competition and will be a real headache for Maccabi’s defense.
Zalgiris only finished fourth in its regular season group with a 4-6 record, but it won three of its last four games and has improved consistently since Aleksandr Trifunovic took charge of the team at the beginning of November.
“Zalgiris continued to improve as the season progressed,” Blatt said. “They’ve won eight straight games in all competitions. They’ve got a great combination of outside shooters and a good inside game. Their players have a lot of ability, and on top of everything else, they’ve got a beautiful new home court and when it’s full with 15,000 fans it makes our job even harder. But we’re up to the challenge.”
Trifunovic has recently added forward Dainius Salenga and Reeves Nelson to a roster which also includes Lithuanians Robertas Javtokas and Mantas Kalnietis as well as ever-dangerous Croatian Marko Popovic.
With such a squad, the Serbian coach is certain his team has what it takes to triumph on Thursday.
“We will play against a team which has one of the best histories in European basketball,” he said. “If I remember correctly Maccabi has never missed the Top 16. They won their last three games against us, so we have motivation to strike back. Also, it will be the first time we will face Maccabi in this Zalgirio Arena and the crowd here is literally our sixth player.
“But we need to use this home advantage smartly and the key for that is our attitude and our approach to the game. It will be tough to play versus such a strong opponent, but the level of our game is rising and we have every chances to record a positive result on Thursday.”
After visiting Kaunas, Maccabi hosts Barcelona in what is expected to be its toughest home game of the stage before completing the first round of the Top 16 away at Cantu.
A defeat in Lithuania could easily be followed by a loss to the all-conquering Barca, leaving Maccabi with a mountain to climb to reach the last eight after just two games.
Everyone in Tel Aviv knows this, meaning they will approach Thursday’s showdown against Zalgiris as if it were the first final of the 2011/12 season.
“We’ve had some success lately, but of course this is the time when it really counts,” said David Blu, who has accounted for 16 of Maccabi’s 45 threepointers in the competition so far.
“This is the first Euroleague game in a while, so I think that the level of competition that we’ll be facing will be the biggest challenge for us. We’re all excited, I think we’re prepared, and it’s just a matter of going out there and executing now.”