Maccabi opens Top 16 at Barcelona

After dominant reg. season, TA hopes to make a statement vs Rubio & co.

Pargo 311 (photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Pargo 311
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
After exceeding all expectations in the Euroleague regular season, Maccabi Tel Aviv can make a real statement on Thursday night.
Maccabi visits reigning European champion Barcelona in its Top 16 opener, knowing a victory would not only be a significant step towards qualification for the quarterfinals, but would also send out a message that this season’s team has every intention and capability of going all the way.
Tel Aviv won nine straight continental games to end the regular season with a Euroleague best 9-1 record, but it has yet to face a team of the quality of Barca.
The Spaniards only finished in third place in Group C of the regular season with a 7-3 record, but have arguably got the best roster on the continent, even without the injured Pete Mickeal and Gianluca Basile.
“We worked hard to reach a 9-1 record in the regular season, coming focused and motivated to every game,” Maccabi coach David Blatt said. “Barcelona is a great team, but not one that is impossible to beat.
We’ve made progress since the start of the season and we mustn’t forget our situation just a few months ago.
We’ve already played tough games on the road, but Barcelona at home in the Euroleague will be perhaps the toughest game we’ll play.”
Maccabi led the Euroleague in twopointers made (237) and was second in steals (10.8 pg) in the regular season, while committing the fewest turnovers (11.2 pg).
The yellow-and-blue was also fourth in points scored (79.9 pg) and third in assists (15.6 pg), but swingman Tal Burstein knows that the Top 16, and especially the game in Barcelona, are a completely different story.
“This is our biggest test so far and we are facing an extremely tough game at the European champion,” Burstein said. “At this level it is difficult to put your finger on the one thing you need to do to stop your opponent. We will all have to play to potential for 40 minutes. You have to play at a very high level to beat Barca, especially in their arena.”
Burstein revealed that Blatt has placed an emphasis on the way the team starts the game.
“David has stressed that we must maintain our focus from the first minute,” Burstein said. “We must be ready for their intensity and make sure we don’t experience what happened to us in the first period in Vitoria.”
Tel Aviv was outscored 31-11 by Cajasol Vitoria in its regular season opener, falling to a 94-78 defeat, its only European loss to date.
After steamrolling its way to the Euroleague title last year, Barcelona has relatively struggled this season.
It ranked next-to-last in three-point accuracy (28.3 percent), but led the competition in two-point percentage at 59.1% and was third in free throw accuracy (79%).
Despite suffering numerous injuries, coach Xavi Pascual has still got countless weapons at his disposal.
Ricky Rubio and Juan Carlos Navarro are two of the best guards in Europe, with talented Slovenian Jaka Lakovic contributing off the bench.
Sharp-shooter Alan Anderson, who played for Maccabi last season, joined Barca ahead of the Top 16 and will be hoping to prove Tel Aviv was wrong to not extend his contract.
“I’ve only just joined Barcelona, but unlike last year I feel welcome and I’m quickly acclimatizing,” Anderson said.
As strong as Barca’s backcourt is, Maccabi’s biggest problem will probably be coping with the Catalans’ numerous big-men.
Former Maccabi forward Terrence Morris and centers Erazem Lorbek, Boni Ndong, Kosta Perovic and Fran Vazquez will be looking to dominate Sofoklis Schortsanitis, Lior Eliyahu, Richard Hendrix and Milan Macvan, who is still settling in his new surroundings.
“This game will be the most important test we’ve faced so far,” Maccabi forward David Blu said.
“Barcelona is an excellent team, but we’re setting out for the game with confidence and the key to victory will be to play our game. A win will not guarantee us a place in the Final Four, but this is certainly a key game. “Every game in the Top 16 is important, but to beat a team like Barcelona will give us a lot of confidence for the rest of the season.”