Mac TA faces tough opening European test in Vitoria

Blatt and company to face first real challenge vs. Spanish powerhouse.

Baby Shaq 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Baby Shaq 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
After beginning the Israeli hoops season by brushing aside its local opponents, David Blatt’s new-look Maccabi Tel Aviv faces its first true challenge on Thursday night when it visits Caja Laboral Vitoria in Spain in its Euroleague opener.
Maccabi won its three games on the way to the BSL League Cup by an average 20.5 points per game last week before opening its regular season campaign with a 102-75 thrashing of reigning champion Hapoel Gilboa/Galil.
However, none of Tel Aviv’s encounters to date will have prepared it for the intensity and hostility of Thursday’s showdown at the Fernando Buesa Arena.
Vitoria beat Maccabi both home and away last season, and even though it has gone through some changes over the summer, it is still coached by Montenegrin authoritarian Dusko Ivanovic and has held on to several key players from last term.
“This is an extremely difficult game,” Blatt told The Jerusalem Post.
“It’s a hard away game at a hard away court. Vitoria has played more official and high level games than we have up to this point and that defiantly has an impact on the readiness of the team. They also have a roster with more continuity from last year and it’s going to be a real tough first game for us.”
Vitoria won two of its first three Spanish league games before going on a short NBA tour last week, which included defeats to Memphis and the San Antonio Spurs.
The Spanish champion’s biggest off-season loss was the departure of Tiago Splitter to San Antonio. The Brazilian was the star of the side, but after turning down the NBA time and again, eventually chose to join the Spurs this summer.
However, even without Splitter and the injured Marcus Haislip, Ivanovic has got plenty of weapons at his disposal.
Playmaker Marcelinho Huertas will dictate Vitoria’s offense, looking to create openings for such players as David Logan and Mirza Teletovic.
Teletovic is perhaps the Spaniards most dangerous player, something Maccabi should know very well after he led Laboral to a 91-82 win at Nokia Arena last season, hitting eight of 14 three-pointers on his way to 28 points.
“We hope to get our European season off to a good start,” Blatt said.
“Caja Laboral is an extremely good team, especially at home, and we’re working hard to arrive for the game in the best possible condition. We’ll see on Thursday if we’re ready for the highest levels. During the preseason we played mostly away games, and perhaps that will help us a bit, though Vitoria is one of the strongest teams in Europe.
“We’ve worked hard, and we’re coming into this game in reasonably good shape and with confidence that every player knows what his role is. We’re not yet in top form, it will take us another month at least, but we’re definitely headed in the right direction.”
Ivanovic is also expecting an especially tough time.
“Maccabi is a very difficult opponent because this year they have a very long roster, with fast and athletic players, without doubt a team with the highest aspirations,” he said. “This is the first game of the competition, and even though we are playing at home, it will be quite a challenge for us.”
Thursday’s game will be a particularly special occasion for Lior Eliyahu.
After three campaigns at Maccabi, the 25-year-old forward played for Vitoria last season, and despite struggling under Ivanovic’s system, he scored 18 points in the win that clinched the Spanish league title against Euroleague champion Barcelona.
However, one year on the continent was more than enough for Eliyahu, who gave up a lot of money to return to Tel Aviv on a five-year contract.
“The truth is, I’m not very excited yet, but when we enter the arena and I see the people there the memories will come flooding back, including that of the great championship I won with Vitoria,” Eliyahu said. “I think the crowd will give me a warm welcome but even if they don’t, I’ll just put that aside as any professional player would do.
“Vitoria always presents a tactical team, and it’s always tough to play there, especially so with them being coached by Ivanovic.”