Euroleague: Maccabi faces CSKA in battle for Final Four

"This is the most important game of the season. We must believe in ourselves, be strong and fight from the first second."

Maccabi TA 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Maccabi TA 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
After a tumultuous season and six months of erratic play, Maccabi Tel Aviv remarkably finds itself on the brink of a seventh Euroleague Final Four in eight years. Tel Aviv visits CSKA Moscow on Thursday night in the decisive Game 3 of the quarterfinal series, and is just 40 minutes away from turning a disappointing season into a resounding success. Maccabi was humbled 80-58 by CSKA in Game 1 in Moscow. But a dramatic improvement in Game 2 last Thursday helped the perennial Israeli champion win at Nokia Arena 68-56 and tie the series. Tel Aviv ended the reigning European champion's 18-game Euroleague winning streak last week. But in order to advance to the Final Four on Thursday, the team will need to cut short yet another CSKA streak. The Russians are undefeated at home this season, winning 11 games in Moscow by an average of 17 points. Maccabi has only won three of its 11 Euroleague road games to date, but coach Neven Spahija is confident that if the side plays in similar fashion to the way it did in Game 2, it could reach the Final Four. "To win we must first of all play like we did in Tel Aviv," he said at Ben-Gurion Airport before boarding the flight to Moscow. "We can't let them do what they want and give up after the first 10 minutes." "In order to win, we'll need to fight and stay focused for 40 minutes," Spahija said. "This is the most important game of the season. We must believe in ourselves, be strong and fight from the first second." The key to Maccabi's stunning improvement in Game 2 rests in the defensive adjustments made by Spahija. After allowing CSKA to shoot 51 percent from the field in Game 1, Tel Aviv raised it intensity in defense and restricted its opponent to a mere 32% from the field. "We thought that it was enough to come to Yad Eliyahu and play with the same game plan as we did in Moscow," CSKA coach Ettore Messina said after losing Game 2. "But sometimes it's not what you do, but how you do it. Maccabi had more desire and was first to every loose ball." The successful Italian coach is still confident ahead of the game and believes he knows what his team needs to do to advance to its fifth straight Final Four. "Every time my team has lost in the last two years, we've come back with a strong effort," Messina said. "We need to keep positive things from the first two games and to correct the negatives. We have to be steady and patient." The amazing transformation in Maccabi's play from Game 1 to Game 2 is typified by the numbers put up by forward Lior Eliyahu in each game. In Moscow, the Israeli matched a season-low with two points, failing to hit a single field goal all night. But at Nokia Arena, Eliyahu was crucial to his side's effort, with 13 points and 10 rebounds at vital moments. "I think the pressure is on CSKA because they're playing at home," he said. "We have to fight and play the same kind of defense we did at the Nokia Arena. It's not fun to return to Moscow after what happened in Game 1, but our victory in Tel Aviv gives us the confidence and belief that we can win." On TV: CSKA Moscow vs Maccabi Tel Aviv (live at 7:15 p.m. on Channel 1).