Euroleague: Tel Aviv begins Final 4 quest against Berlin

"The first game of the Top 16 is very important, and we have to win it, especially in front of our own fans," Maccabi coach Pini Gershon said.

pini gershon 248.88 (photo credit: Channel 10)
pini gershon 248.88
(photo credit: Channel 10)
Maccabi Tel Aviv's quest for an eighth Euroleague Final Four appearance in 10 years begins in earnest on Thursday when the team hosts Alba Berlin in its Euroleague Top 16 opener. Maccabi must defeat Berlin at the Nokia Arena if it has any intention of advancing to a best-of-five quarterfinal series by finishing among the top two in Group F, which also includes Barcelona and Real Madrid. "The first game of the Top 16 is very important, and we have to win it, especially in front of our own fans," Maccabi coach Pini Gershon said. "We have more to lose than Alba in this game, but I believe we're entering the encounter in good shape. "I hope we'll be able to hide our weaknesses and play better than in our last Euroleague game. We don't need to worry about Alba. We just need to play in our style and get the win." In its last European regular season game, Maccabi was humbled 92-69 at Malaga, a severe confidence blow after the team had previously won four straight Euroleague games and seemed to be getting back on the right track. Nevertheless, Tel Aviv should have no trouble getting the better of Alba on Thursday. The Germans finished Group C of the regular season in fourth position with a 4-6 record and averaged just 69.1 points per game, the third fewest among the Euroleague's 24 teams. Alba won just one of its five road games in the regular season and coach Luka Pavicevic has a mediocre roster to work with by Euroleague standards. Immanuel McElroy is the side's unquestionable star, leading Alba in points (13.6 ppg) and minutes played (35 mpg), with Ansu Sesay (9.4 ppg, 4.9 rpg) and Aleksandar Nadjfeji (9.5 ppg, 3.3 rpg) the team's main threats under the basket. "We have to realize that we are the underdog in this group," Pavicevic told the Euroleague Web site. "Basically the role that has been given to us is to influence which of the three other teams advances to the next round." Maccabi's two new signings, Dee Brown and Charles Gaines, are available to play on Thursday, but are not likely to feature much, if at all. One player who definitely won't be playing on Thursday is Marcus Fizer. Maccabi announced on Wednesday that it has decided to cut the American forward in accordance with an option it had in his contract, bringing the total number of foreigners released by the club this season to five (Rodney White, Esteban Batista, Elton Brown and Jason Williams). "By bringing in two additional players like Dee Brown and Charles Gaines it's obvious that, like always, Maccabi aims to fight for the European title," Pavicevic said. "I don't think that the new players will change their game much. They have a certain way of playing and will try to play the game with them according to the way they always play." Tal Burstein will perhaps suffer more than any other Maccabi player from the acquisition of Brown. The Israeli swingman hasn't managed to return to his old self after a serious foot injury, averaging just 5.8 points in 22 minutes on court this season, and Thursday might be Burstein's last chance to prove he deserves to continue to receive so much playing time. "In the Top 16 every game, every possession and every point counts, and we need to be aware of that from the tip-off," Burstein said. "If we want to make it to the quarterfinals, we can't allow ourselves to drop this game. Alba showed in the regular season that it has the ability to put up a fight against any team, and we have to be composed so we don't get in trouble."