Euroleague Basketball: Maccabi Tel Aviv faces tough battle

Quarterfinal series against CSKA Moscow begins on Tuesday.

Maccabi Tel Aviv 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Maccabi Tel Aviv 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Maccabi Tel Aviv is a massive underdog in its best-of-three Euroleague quarterfinal playoff series against CSKA Moscow, which begins Tuesday night in Russia. Despite reaching six of the last seven EL Final Fours and even though the Israeli club was only edged 73-69 by CSKA in last year's title game, Maccabi is now looking up to the Russian club in every facet of the game. Tel Aviv embarked on a complete rebuilding process after last year's final, with the team replacing its entire coaching staff and adding five new players. More players have since come and gone, and erratic play has ironically been the only constant for coach Neven Spahija's team. CSKA, on the other hand, has gone from strength to strength since becoming European champions for the first time in 25 years 11 months ago. The Russian club retained almost its entire title-winning roster and has also benefited this season from the return of center David Andersen, who missed almost all of last season due to injury. CSKA, which is gunning for its sixth consecutive Final Four, has only lost once in 20 Euroleague games this season and has won its last 17 games in the competition. In contrast, Tel Aviv hasn't even managed to string together a three-game winning streak during the Euroleague season and has only won three of its 10 road games in European basketball's premier competition. To make things even worse, the squad appears to be at its lowest point of the season. Maccabi has lost its last two BSL games in demoralizing fashion to Hapoel Galil Elyon-Golan and Hapoel Jerusalem. "We had a very difficult week, losing two games by one point," Spahija said at Ben-Gurion Airport on Sunday. "But the attitude of the players since [the losses] has been excellent and I'm very pleased with that. "CSKA and Panathinaikos are the best teams in Europe. We've prepared a lot of things for this game and we must pay attention to the small details and if we do that, we have a chance to win the game." CSKA, which holds its opponents to just 64.4 points per game, is the epitome of a well-balanced team. Eight players average between 20 and 30 minutes on court, and the team's leading scorer, Matjas Smodis, averages 13.6 points per game. The Russian club turns the ball over less than any other team in the competition and is also the best three point shooting side in the Euroleague. Theo Papaloukas (9.3 ppg, 5.1 assists per game) is one of the best playmakers in Europe and is complemented in the backcourt by the consistent duo of Trajan Langdon (13.1 ppg, 4.3 rebounds per game) and J.R. Holden (10.3 ppg). Swingman David Vanterpool (7.2 ppg) will menace Maccabi on defense and will also be able to assist with scoring should it be required. Coach Ettore Messina's frontcourt is dominated by one brilliant player, who is surrounded by a group of hardworking big men. Smodis can score from anywhere on the court and Tel Aviv will struggle to match up against the versatile Slovenian. Andersen (9.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg), Aleksey Savrasenko (7.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg) and Thomas Van Den Spiegel (4.3 ppg, 3.1 rpg) will take care of the dirty but crucial work under the baskets and will give CSKA a distinct advantage in the paint. Nikola Vujcic (15.5 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 4.1 apg) will have to be at his absolute best for Maccabi to mount a serious challenge and will also need plenty of help from his teammates. Lior Eliyahu (11.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg) and Derrick Sharp (11.3 ppg) will need to continue on Tuesday their surprising good play this season, with Tal Burstein (8.2 ppg) certain to play a vital role should Maccabi succeed in Moscow. "We know that CSKA is a superior side, but this is basketball and any team can win," Burstein said. "We will have to cut our mistakes to a minimum, because they punish you for every error you make. We need to be focused and determined because in a game like this, we need everybody to be at their best."