Mac TA in pivotal position against Zalgiris

Yellow-and-blue hosts penultimate Top 16 game needing a victory and Barca W to move on.

Lior Eliyahu 390 (photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Lior Eliyahu 390
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Maccabi Tel Aviv can book its place in the Euroleague quarterfinals on Thursday night, but it could just as easily find itself all but out of the competition should results not go its way.
A Maccabi victory over Zalgiris Kaunas at Nokia Arena combined with a Bennet Cantu loss to Barcelona will secure the yellow-and-blue’s place in the last eight for the eighth time in the past nine years.
However, a Cantu win at home over the still perfect Barca will seriously complicate Maccabi’s situation regardless of its result against Kaunas.
Tel Aviv visits Barcelona in an extremely difficult final Top 16 game next week and it will likely have to defeat the Catalans to secure its progress should Cantu win on Thursday.
But to keep its fate in its own hands it will first need to overcome Kaunas, which has lost all four of its Top 16 games to date.
“We are facing another critical game and there’s little doubt that we are under pressure,” Maccabi coach David Blatt said.
“Zalgiris has yet to win a game in the group, but they were close to winning in three of their four encounters. This is a dangerous and talented team. They will give us a real fight.”
Blatt admitted that he is worried about Cantu complicating matters for his team with a win over Barca, but he has stressed to his players that they must focus on their job and only turn their attention to Italy once they have beaten Kaunas.
“There is no point in thinking about Cantu until we beat Zalgiris,” Blatt said. “We are experiencing a long and exhausting season, but I tell my players that they are like the gladiators and need to know how to compete every day and come out as winners.”
Maccabi beat Kaunas 84-76 in Lithuania in its Top 16 opener, toughing out a tight fourth quarter.
Tel Aviv held Zalgiris star Sonny Weems to a season-low two points, with the American, who is averaging 16.0 points and 5.2 rebounds for the season, to return to the lineup on Thursday after missing the Euroleague loss to Barcelona.
Croatian guard Marko Popovic (12.6 ppg) will also be back in action in Tel Aviv after recovering from a hamstring injury, a welcome boost for coach Aleksandar Trifunovic, who believes his team can win on Thursday if it cuts out silly mistakes.
“Looking back at our last four Euroleague games, we had three of them in our hands, but we gave them away,” Trifunovic said. “The quality of our game is there, but we commit too many mistakes, which we can’t afford on Thursday in Tel Aviv.”
One of the surprises of the season for Maccabi has been the play of Yogev Ohayon, who at one stage last summer even tried to get out of his contract with the club due to its congested backcourt.
However, against all odds, he has carved out a significant role for himself and is entering Thursday’s game after arguably his best performance of the season, scoring 20 points and dishing out eight assists in Maccabi’s 104-100 overtime win at Hapoel Jerusalem on Sunday. “This is our most important game of the season,” Ohayon said.
“Kaunas will come to fight because this is their last chance. We too must win so it promises to be a tough game. I believe we are ready for the game. Now we just have to show up and implement what the coaching staff has preached to us in the past few days.”