Scorching Mac TA opens Top 16 at Gala

Blatt’s boys look to maintain Euroleague defensive domination; full BSL slate on tap as well.

Sofoklis Schortsanitis (left) (photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Sofoklis Schortsanitis (left)
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
After winning its past eight games over all competitions and eight of its last nine encounters in the Euroleague, Maccabi Tel Aviv will look to get 2014 off on the right foot when it visits Galatasaray in Istanbul in its Top 16 opener on Thursday night.
Despite failing to score more than 78 points in a Euroleague game since the end of October and passing that mark just once in its current winning streak, Maccabi has found ways to triumph thanks to its defensive proficiency.
Maccabi has held its opponents to 69.7 points per game in its past nine continental contests, while limiting its rivals to an average 65.2 points in its last eight victories in all competitions.
Tel Aviv has managed to do so without defensive centerpiece Shawn James, who will also miss Thursday’s game to rest his ailing back.
Coach David Blatt will, however, have an otherwise full roster at his disposal and is optimistic Maccabi can extend its streak in Turkey.
“This is not an easy place to start the Top 16, but we will be ready,” Blatt said.
“We advanced to the Top 16 from first place in the regular season and that means we have already achieved something in Europe.
“Matters will get a lot more competitive and difficult in the Top 16, but we are coming in on the back of eight straight wins, and other than the fact that Shawn James isn’t with us, we are pretty healthy.
We are not entering the game in an optimal state, but we are in a good position.”
Maccabi will play a total of 14 games in the Top 16, which runs until April 10.
Real Madrid, which was one of just two teams to go 10-0 in the regular season, and CSKA Moscow, that ended Group A in second place at 7-3, are considered the favorites in Top 16 Group F, which also includes Lokomotiv Kuban, Zalgiris Kaunas, Bayern Munich and Partizan Belgrade, as well as Galatasaray.
The top four teams in the group will advance to the quarterfinal playoffs.
“On the face of it, Real and CSKA look to be the strongest teams,” said Blatt.
“However, it is very difficult to tell at this stage as so much can happen over the 14 games and we will have to wait and see who proves to be the strongest side.”
Galatasaray ended regular season Group C in second place with a 6-4 record behind two-time defending Euroleague champion Olympiacos (10-0).
Gala’s only home defeat so far came against Olympiacos more than two months ago and coach Ergin Ataman is hoping the home support can propel his team to a winning start to the Top 16.
“We know we will play against a strong team, but we will stick to our game plan,” he said. “During the Top 16 our fans’ support will be more important than during the regular season. We will do our best to start the Top 16 with a victory.”
Maccabi will be coming up against some familiar faces on Thursday, with former players Carlos Arroyo and Milan Macvan currently playing for Galatasaray.
Arroyo starred at Maccabi in the 2008/09 season, with Macvan playing for the yellow-and-blue in 2010/11.
Pops Mensah-Bonsu, who signed with Maccabi for the 2012/13 season but never played for the team after failing a medical, leads Gala in the Euroleague with 13.4 points and 11.4 rebounds per game, although he played in only five of the team’s regular season encounters.
Arroyo orchestrates his team’s play, averaging 10.7 points and 4.1 assists.
“It is going to be a tough game,” said Arroyo, “Maccabi is an experienced team with great players. We look forward to see how our supporters will come and support us. Hopefully, we will come away with a victory.”
Five BSL games will also take place on Thursday, with league-leader Hapoel Jerusalem (9-3) facing a tough trip to Hapoel Eilat (7-5).
Jerusalem has won nine of its past 10 league games to take sole possession of first place, while Eilat has claimed four games in a row in all competitions.
Also Thursday, Hapoel Tel Aviv (8-4), which won all seven of its games in December, visits Tzvika Sherf’s Maccabi Rishon Lezion (4-8), while Hapoel Holon (6-6) hosts Hapoel Gilboa/Galil (5-7), Maccabi Haifa (7-5) visits Maccabi Ashdod (2-10) and Bnei Herzliya faces Barak Netanya.
The game between Maccabi Tel Aviv (8-4) and Ironi Ness Ziona (7-5) was postponed to January 18.