Let’s see what goodies Game 5 holds in store

Quarterfinal series of twists and turns between Panathinaikos, Maccabi Tel Aviv reaches its climax.

MACCABI TEL AVIV’S Keith Langford 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
MACCABI TEL AVIV’S Keith Langford 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
After going back and forth, a series which is already regarded as one of the greatest in European basketball history reaches its climax on Thursday night when Maccabi Tel Aviv visits Panathinaikos in Athens in a showdown from which the winner will advance to the Euroleague Final Four.
Maccabi squandered an opportunity to progress to a ninth Final Four in 13 years last Thursday, leading by a point with 3:20 to play in the game before scoring just a single basket until the end of the night and falling to a 78-69 defeat in Game 4.
One of the reasons this quarterfinal series has been so memorable is due to the fact that each game has unfolded in a very different manner, which also makes Game 5 especially difficult to predict.
Maccabi was crushed by 20 points (93- 73) in the series opener at OAKA Arena before bouncing back to claim an exceptional overtime win (94-92) to tie the series in Greece.
Tel Aviv staved off a Pao comeback to move 2-1 in front at Nokia, but it now faces an extremely difficult do-or-die encounter in front of 18,000 Greek fans in Athens after running out of steam in the closing stages of Game 4.
When taking everything into account, Maccabi will be entering Thursday’s game against the defending European champion as a clear underdog, but the yellow-and-blue does at least have a fresh memory of winning in Athens, giving it some reason for optimism ahead of Game 5.
“The loss in Game 4 is behind us, there’s no point in crying about it,” Maccabi coach David Blatt said. “We are completely focused on Game 5.
It’s crucial that we start the game well, because there’s no doubt that they will come to the game with a lot of enthusiasm – both the team and the crowd.
“Panathinaikos will try to lock the game up from the beginning and pressure us, and we of course will do everything we can to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
One of Maccabi’s biggest problems in the series has been the play of its big men, in particular Sofoklis Schortsanitis.
The Greek giant has been a shadow of himself against Pao, averaging an almost embarrassing 5.5 points and 1.0 rebound in 13 minutes on court.
Sofo was held scoreless in Game 4 for the first time since joining Maccabi, snapping a 49-game Euroleague streak which stretched back to his days at Olympiacos.
Maccabi found a way to win without an effective Sofo in Games 2 and 3, but Blatt will surely be hoping to finally receive a significant contribution from the center in Athens.
“This is the game of the season in the Euroleague,” Blatt said. “It is the fifth game of a series which has had it all. We need to enter the game with an aggressive attitude and with full belief that we can win.
“We were obviously disappointed after the home loss in Game 4, but every day since we have tried to think how we can turn the series in our favor and therefore our belief has grown with every day.
“The knowledge that we have won at OAKA Arena helps us. But I think that everyone of the players and the staff will have to be at their best if we are to win here again.”
On the defensive end, Maccabi’s focus will likely be on Pao’s backcourt, and especially Dimitris Diamantidis, Sarunas Jasikevicius and Nick Calathes.
Reigning Euroleague MVP Diamantidis and fellow veteran Saras are unlikely to disappoint in such a critical encounter, meaning Maccabi will probably put an extra emphasis on stopping Calathes.
The 22-year-old has averaged 14.0 points and 6.0 rebounds in the wins against Maccabi, but just 6.0 points and 3.0 boards in the two losses.
“Everything that has happened in this series has given a lot of people in Europe great entertainment and they are happy for another game,” said Pao coach Zeljko Obradovic.
“There are people that have forgotten that Panathinaikos is European champion. Some people already eulogized us.”
Pao forward Kostas Tsartsaris echoed his coach’s sentiment.
“Even though momentum is on our side we can’t think that we have already progressed,” said Tsartsaris. “If we think that, Maccabi will punish us. We are better than Maccabi, but we need to prove it on our home court in front of our fans and we have 40 minutes to do so.”
Maccabi guard Yogev Ohayon has made a name for himself in European basketball with his performance in the quarterfinal playoffs so far (9.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 3.3 apg, 1.8 spg), but he was benched by Blatt late in Game 4, with the Maccabi coach instead choosing to roll the dice with Demond Mallet, who didn’t even play in Game 3.
Blatt looked like a genius after Mallet hit a three-pointer shortly after he entered the court, but the American guard would miss two relatively open triples in the subsequent minutes and the coach was criticized for not sticking with Ohayon.
The 24-year-old Israeli is set to get all the minutes he can handle on Thursday and his play will be crucial to his team’s chances, as will the displays of fellow Israelis David Blu, Guy Pnini and Lior Eliyahu, who have been largely disappointing in the series.
“We need to start the game strong and stay in the picture, and from there we’ll see how the game develops,” Eliyahu said. “The first minutes are especially critical.
“Obviously, they will try to pressure us and they have incredible support from their fans, but we simply need to stay focused. In this fifth and deciding game we have to stay focused for the full 40 minutes.”