Quarterfinal gut-check time for Mac Attack

Yellow-and-blue begins best-of-five series on the road against familiar foe in Vitoria.

Maccabi Tel Aviv 311 (photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Maccabi Tel Aviv 311
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
There may be plenty of excuses and explanations, but by its remarkably high standards, Maccabi Tel Aviv will enter Game 1 of its best-of-five Euroleague quarterfinal playoff series against Caja Laboral Vitoria on Tuesday night struggling to find top form.
Since a 92-85 overtime defeat to Barcelona on February 24, Maccabi has rarely found the intensity and tenacity that characterized its play earlier this season, raising serious concerns over whether the yellow-and-blue will be able to get back to its best when it matters most.
Tel Aviv’s five games since the loss to Barca, one in the Euroleague and four in the BSL, meant little to the team, as it had already secured second place in Group F of the Top 16 and held a massive lead at the top of the Israeli league standings.
However, the loss at Lottomatica Roma in its final Top 16 game and several unimpressive league victories – with the exception of the thrashing of Hapoel Jerusalem – mean that no one really knows which Maccabi team will show-up at Vitoria on Tuesday.
Will it be the one that won 12 of 13 Euroleague games at one stage this season, looking like one of the favorites to reach the Final Four? Or will it be the one that seemed uninterested in the games against Roma, Hapoel Holon, Bnei Hasharon and Maccabi Rishon Lezion, only luckily escaping that stretch with one defeat? Coach David Blatt has no doubts.
“We know we need to raise our level of intensity and decision making, but I feel that we’re ready and in good shape,” Blatt said. “With all due respect to the BSL, we will be playing a completely different game on Tuesday. We are facing a tough task, but we believe in our ability and know that we have the weapons to beat Caja.”
Blatt has identified his team’s play in the early minutes as the key to success in Vitoria, both on Tuesday and in Game 2 on Thursday.
“I hope we’ll know how to start the game well,” he said. “Vitoria knows how to open very strongly and many times they put their opponents into situations that they can’t come back from.
This week we were able to practice hard and we need to be calm and relaxed.
“They have home court advantage, but on the other hand this is a team we know well, a team we know how to play against. It’s going to be a real battle, and we will need to fight. These two teams are among the strongest in Europe.”
Maccabi leads the Euroleague this season in scoring (81.9 ppg) and performance index rating (93.6) and ranks second in assists (16.3 apg) and steals (9.9 spg).
However, Vitoria is also one of the better offensive teams in the competition, being ranked second in scoring (79.8 ppg), while leading the Euroleague in three-point percentage (39 percent), a known weakness of Maccabi’s otherwise excellent defense.
The main threats from beyond the arc will be Fernando San Emeterio, who leads the Euroleague in three-point accuracy with 24 triples from 45 attempts (53 percent) and is also the competition’s leader in performance index ranking with 20.3 per game, and Mirza Teletovic, who has attempted (110) and scored (39) more threes than anyone else in the Euroleague this season.
Maccabi and Caja will be meeting for the third time this season after splitting their first two encounters in the regular season, with the Spaniards winning the campaign opener 94-78, outscoring Tel Aviv 31-11 in the first period, and the yellow-and-blue claiming an 81-70 victory at Nokia Arena.
With Game 5 also to be played in Vitoria should it be needed, Caja coach Dusko Ivanovic is confident that two wins over 72 hours will give his team an almost unassailable lead.
“We are where we wanted to be: in the playoffs with home court advantage,” Ivanovic said. “Maccabi is one of the most important teams in European basketball in terms of tradition and their current roster.
We do not want to think beyond the first game. We must stay focused, play with patience, defend to the best of our abilities and try to avoid turnovers.
“They are a great team and they have back-ups for each position, but I think we are ready to face such an important series. Furthermore, we have the support of a crowd that never fails when the team needs it. Their help will be very important for us.”
One Maccabi player who knows all about the Vitoria fans is Lior Eliyahu.
The Israeli forward helped Caja to the Spanish league title last season before requesting to return to Tel Aviv last summer. After managing just four points when Maccabi visited Vitoria in October, he will be eager to prove his worth this time around.
“This is one of the toughest road games in Europe. They are an aggressive team that plays hard for 40 minutes,” Eliyahu said. “They don’t just have big guys, but great shooters as well. They play as a team and follow the coach’s game plan.
“We will need to be even more disciplined than they are if we are to win.”