Euroleague Basketball: Mac TA looks to reverse Spanish slump in must-win
In past four meetings this season, Maccabi has lost to teams hailing from Spain.
By ALLON SINAI
Maccabi Tel Aviv will have to end its Spanish hex on Thursday night at the Nokia Arena if it's to have any realistic chance of advancing to the Euroleague quarterfinals.
In four meetings against teams hailing from Spain this season, Maccabi has lost each and every time and has done so by an average 17 points per game.
In its last continental outing two weeks ago, Tel Aviv was humbled 98-79 at Real Madrid and the team will need to avenge that defeat on Thursday night if it's to avoid its earliest Euroleague exit in six years. Maccabi will also be hoping to claim the tiebreaker over Real based on head-to-head competition by winning by more then 19 points.
But considering Tel Aviv's performances against Spanish teams this season, and Real's perfect 3-0 Top 16 record, coach Pini Gershon is determined to first and foremost win the encounter, even by the slightest of margins.
"Obviously it's a very tough game, between two good teams. When such teams meet anyone can win," said Gershon.
"We first of all need to focus on winning. The margin of victory is something to think about in the last five minutes of the game, and we hope to be in a situation that the 19-point difference from the first game will be attainable."
Two weeks ago at Real, and in Barcelona the previous week, Maccabi pace with its opponents in the first half, trailing by just six points at the break in both games.
However, in the second half of the encounters, Tel Aviv was outscored by a combined 27 points, something Gershon will be desperate to reverse at the Nokia Arena.
The key to Real's win two weeks ago, and to its chances on Thursday night in Tel Aviv, will be its shooting proficiency and ball handling. In Madrid, the Spaniards hit 21 of 33 two-point attempts and turned the ball over just eight times to Maccabi's 17.
Real can secure its place in the last eight with a victory in Tel Aviv and coach Joan Plaza is confident that his team will not make the same mistake as last season, when it failed to qualify for the quarterfinals after an excellent start to the Top 16.
"We have a big chance and we don't want to let it slip away. Last year, we learned the lesson and we reach this game with the right mentality and we trust our abilities," Plaza said. "Our goal is to win the game and not to lose by a slender margin. We haven't been to the Final Four in years and it's very important to us to do so this season."
Interestingly, the last time Madrid beat Maccabi in Tel Aviv was in 1996, which was also the last year Real reached the Final Four.
Carlos Arroyo, Lior Eliyahu and D'or Fischer, who have been Maccabi's top three players throughout the season, combined for 63 of the team's 79 points in Madrid, and Tel Aviv will need several others to step-up on Thursday night to win by any margin, not to mention the 19 points that would ease its path ahead.
"Everybody knows what a game between Maccabi and Real means," said Tal Burstein, who is one of those who will need to be at his best on Thursday. "This time it's even more important, because it could be the game to decide our Euroleague season. We must stay calm, play tough on both ends and put pressure on them.
"We want to become the first team to beat Real in this group, and hopefully avenge the 19-point loss in Madrid. Maccabi has a lot of great moments in its history, especially in this arena, and I hope we will get to witness another one on Thursday night."
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