Maccabi hoping for something special

Defending champs to face Olympiacos on Thursday for place in Final Four.

maccabi tel aviv 298 88 (photo credit: AP)
maccabi tel aviv 298 88
(photo credit: AP)
In an ideal world, a deciding game against Greek power Olympiacos Piraeus for a right to reach the Euroleague Final Four would take place during Hannuka. But Pini Gershon and co. will have to do with Pessah this year. Two-time defending Euroleague champion Maccabi Tel Aviv will host Olympiacos on Thursday night in the third and final game of their Euroleague Quarterfinal Playoffs series for a berth at the Final Four in Prague later this month. Maccabi pushed back tip-off 15 minutes to 9 p.m. to allow its religious fans more time to reach the arena after the holiday ends and head coach Gershon insists that that will be the only major effect the holiday will have on his team's preparations. "We're practicing on Wednesday before the seder and everything is normal," Gershon said after Tuesday's practice. But clearly everything isn't normal. Olympiacos is scheduled to arrive Wednesday evening and the team helped arrange special non-kosher meals for the Greeks at a Tel Aviv restaurant so that they can eat bread. Maccabi's Tuesday practice ran a half-hour longer than scheduled and afterwards, the players preferred not to conduct standard interviews on the sidelines and instead continued to shoot around as Gershon called the reporters to the press room. "There's a feeling of an important game in the air," Gershon said. "If we look back eight months ago to the start of the season, this is where we wanted to be... the third game at home in front of our fans." During his 20 minutes in front of the cameras, Gershon said very little about the game itself, instead focusing on his players' experience in these situations. But he did admit that Maccabi's biggest problem is rebounding. "It's been a problem for years. Even when we had [Nate] Huffman and [Dallas] Comegys," he said. "The fact that [Anthony] Parker is our leading rebounder says it all. We're not a team without weaknesses. I hope that [rebounding] will be our only one." Olympiacos has outrebounded Maccabi by 10 in the series so far and has taken 22 offensive boards. That's something Gershon sounds ready to live with. "Teams that crash the boards against us run the risk of giving up easy points on the other end." The attitude among the players about what it would take to win the game was different. "Everyone on this team can score 20 points," said Will Solomon, whose 35 points so far have led Maccabi in the quarterfinals. "If we play our transition game and get easy baskets... everything is in our hands." "We gotta play defense from the first guy to the 15th and that will bring the win," power forward Maceo Baston offered. "I think that the best offense is a great defense." "We gotta focus more on rebounds," reserve big man Jamie Arnold said. Team captain Derrick Sharp felt "at this point, it's just effort and focus. Our best is enough to beat them." While that may be true, Maccabi hasn't played its best against Olympiacos this season. Thursday night will be the fifth meeting between the teams this season and they have split the first four. Working in Maccabi's favor is the fact that it has won both games at home and overall has a seven-game home-court winning streak in the Euroleague. Despite everything, Maccabi had little to say about Olympiacos, instead believing that the game depended on how it played. The reds are coming off a demoralizing 90-71 loss to domestic rivals Panathinaikos on Sunday, only hours after Maccabi was stunned by Bnei Hasharon in BSL play. Center Sofoklis Schortsanitis had only five points in 15 minutes for Olympiacos in that game, numbers the yellowand-blue would be thrilled if they can limit "Baby Shaq" to on Thursday. Schortsanitis has been a thorn in Maccabi's side all season, and when he's resting, Croatian center Andrija Zizic has been just as effective. The duo is averaging 19.5 points on 82.3 percent shooting and 9.5 rebounds in the quarterfinals. But Gershon isn't planning to battle the Olympiacos big men in the paint. "I don't have rough players," Gershon summed up. "So we must win our way." On TV: Olympiacos Piraeus at Maccabi Tel Aviv (live at 9 p.m. Thursday on Channel 1)