Mac TA looks to recapture early-season magic

Yellow-and-blue must beat Bennet Cantu by at least nine points to have hope of prolonging Euroleague season.

Maccabi TA's David Blu 311 (photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Maccabi TA's David Blu 311
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
It really is quite simple: Either Maccabi Tel Aviv beats Bennet Cantu by at least nine points at Nokia Arena on Thursday night or it is left with little more than prayers in the hope of prolonging its Euroleague season.
Last week’s 82-74 road loss to Cantu seriously complicated Maccabi’s situation, with the yellow-and- blue now in danger of being eliminated from the Euroleague with two games still to play in the Top 16 should it lose to Cantu on Thursday and Barcelona beat Zalgiris Kaunas.
Just two weeks ago Maccabi was rolling confidently, winning 18 straight games in all competitions.
However, a 71-57 home defeat to Barcelona was followed by a BSL upset at the hands of Maccabi Ashdod and Tel Aviv looked completely lost for much of last Thursday’s setback in Cantu.
Maccabi bounced back with an 83-63 win over Olimpija Ljubljana in the Adriatic League on Saturday, but far more important, it had a bye in the BSL this week, allowing it to rest aching muscles and turn its full focus to Thursday’s showdown from which there is likely no return.
“We have our backs against the wall, which is something we haven’t experienced in a while,” Maccabi coach David Blatt said. “We are in a tough and stressful situation, but I was happy with our performance in Ljubljana. We have stopped the bleeding and now we face the crucial game.”
Maccabi has lost center Shawn James for up to six weeks to a back injury, but considering he plays the second-least amount of minutes on the roster, averaging less than nine minutes a game, his absence should not be of too much consequence.
Far more worrying for Blatt has been Sofoklis Schortsanitis’s recent struggles and the yellow-and-blue’s difficulties on the offensive end.
Sofo has averaged just 6.7 points and 4.0 rebounds in 13.7 minutes so far in the Top 16, with his painful knee clearly hampering him.
The Greek center’s injury has also resulted in general disorientation in Maccabi’s offense, with the team passing a meager 13 assists, while committing 26 turnovers, in its last two Euroleague encounters.
"It was a combination of things that led to our recent losses,” Blatt said. “Keith Langford was suddenly ill, Sofo was struggling to recover from his injury and there were also several other small things. It is always tough to play in Cantu and we didn’t play that well on the night. But as I told my guys, one week will not erase everything that we have accomplished this season and we will get back to our best.”
Cantu improved to 6-1 at home in the Euroleague with last week’s win over Maccabi, but it has won only one of six road games this season, averaging just 69.1 points away from home.
Cantu added former Maccabi guard Doron Perkins to its roster this week, but he will not play on Thursday night.
“With the great victory last week we maintained our chances to reach the playoffs,” said Cantu coach Andrea Trinchieri, who has built a balanced roster which has lost only two Euroleague games this season by more than seven points.
“Maccabi can’t afford to lose on Thursday, so we have to take advantage of the pressure that they are surely under. The key to the game will be our capacity to move the ball in offense and to create good openings against their matchup zone defense while limiting the impact or their big men.
“We did a good job in Italy and I know that to repeat it will be more difficult, but we don’t want to give up our dream.”
One of the players suffering most from Maccabi’s recent erratic play is David Blu, who can only flourish when the team is firing on all cylinders.
Blu has averaged a mere 6.3 points, hitting just one of nine three-point attempts, in the Top 16 to date, and he knows that the only way he can thrive and Maccabi can defeat Cantu is by playing better as a team.
“It’s going to be a completely different story from our game against them in Cantu,” he said. “We’re the home team and we’ll be getting great support from our fans, something that could give us that extra push to win by more than eight points.
“We just have to come focused and run our plays both on offense and on defense like we know how to do. The most important thing is to stay unified and to keep playing as a team, then good things will happen for us.”