Maccabi TA looks ahead 'one step at a time'

Before Thursday night's Euroleague regular season finale against Winterthur Barcelona, the only "threepeat" that Maccabi Tel Aviv players were thinking of was to avoid losing their third straight game. But a pair of unlikely losses by Group B powers Efes Pilsen and Lietuvos Rytas Vilnius to lesser opponents (Cibona Zagreb and AJ Milano, respectively) combined with Maccabi's 88-72 home win shot the two-time defending Euroleague champs to the top of the standings and guaranteed a top seed in Monday's Top 16 draw. Maccabi coach Pini Gershon was naturally in high spirits after news of L. Rytas's win broke in the press room at Nokia Arena. "Man makes plans, and God laughs," he said, quoting the old Yiddish proverb. After he finished speaking, Gershon shouted "Let's all get drunk." While pleased with their performances, none of the Maccabi players shared Gershon's sentiments about partying. They are already gearing up for a long ride that they hope won't end until they reach Prague for the Final Four - their sixth in the last seven years. "We've still got a lot of work to do," captain Derek Sharp said, putting the night's events in perspective. "It still doesn't mean anything if we don't go out and perform the way we need to perform. It doesn't matter what place we finish. We need to take control of our own destiny." Sharp's teammates agree with the step-by-step approach. "We've got to focus on us," Anthony Parker said. "Finish first, second, third, or fourth, either way the next group is going to be real difficult. "This game helps us a lot going into the next round, but game to game every one has a life of its own." Parker (13 points, three steals) and backcourt mate Will Solomon (16 points, three steals) were instrumental on both the offensive and defensive ends in the third quarter against Barcelona, when Maccabi seized control of the game by coming out of the locker room on a 24-11 run. Solomon hit a three-pointer to give Tel Aviv a 15-point lead to cap off the run, but the long-distance shot of the night came soon after from an unexpected source, when game MVP Maceo Baston drilled an open three from the top of the key, his first threepoint attempt of the season. "That's when I knew it was over," joked Parker about Baston's shot. "They should've just called the game off when he hit the three." Baston was quick to defend himself, however. "I try to be the inside presence, but I can shoot the three," he said. "Ask the big guys. We hold shooting contests and shoot threes, I hold my own." Baston held his own all night long, establishing dominance down low in the first quarter when he scored 11 of his game-high 19 points. He was a beast on the boards as well, grabbing 14, and emphatically slamming home three of his six offensive rebounds, which caused the sea of yellow and blue at sold-out Nokia Arena to break into a frenzy. "We needed to get a win in the Euroleague in the worst way," Baston said. "We wanted to finish the first round positively. I just got my hands on some good plays." Baston also did a number on the opposition by drawing a game-high six fouls. Maccabi had 10 more free-throw attempts and 11 more freethrow makes than Barcelona, which actually outrebounded Tel Aviv (40-36) and shot the same percentage from the field (46). Maccabi's physical advantage and defensive pressure, which forced Barcelona into 17 turnovers, keyed the yellow and blues' ninth win of the season. "It's good for us to get the win and have some good momentum going into the next round, that's the most important," Baston said. "Mentally, we know we can compete with everyone," Solomon added. All of Maccabi's starters - Baston, Parker, Solomon, Tal Burstein (12 points) and Nikola Vujcic (11 points) - scored in double figures. Although Maccabi could face some familiar foes in the next round - former head coach David Blatt and Benetton Treviso; Zalgiris Kaunas, which Maccabi has met in each of the past three seasons; or even one of the five other teams that advanced from Group B - it doesn't seem to matter to the players. "Either way we're going to have tough teams and we're going to have to be ready and step our game up," reserve guard Kirk Penney said. And like the rest of his teammates, his mindset about the upcoming Euroleague playoffs is a mantra that most championship teams follow. "One step at a time."