Sherf aiming high against Barcelona

Maccabi Tel Aviv hosts Spaniards tonight in 1st of three-game Euroleague quarterfinal series.

Maccabi TA 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Maccabi TA 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Exactly three months to the day since he replaced Oded Katash as Maccabi Tel Aviv coach, Tzvika Sherf can remarkably take the team to within a single win of the Euroleague Final Four on Tuesday. Maccabi hosts Barcelona in Game 1 of the best-of-three quarterfinal playoff at the Nokia Arena and the extraordinary turnaround the team has gone through under Sherf is illustrated by the fact that Tel Aviv will be entering the tie as a clear favorite. The only thing Maccabi management wanted from Sherf when he took charge was to steady the ship, which at that stage seemed to be heading to the depths. The veteran coach, however, injected a new spirit into the previously despondent side and has got the Final Four within his sights after winning nine of 11 continental games and finishing first in Top 16 Group F. "We're the favorites, we're playing at home and we know exactly what's expected from us," Sherf said on Monday. "Seven of the eight teams to have reached the Final Four in the last two years did so with home court advantage. We must defeat Barcelona, nothing else matters." ' Of Barcelona, Sherf said: "We know exactly what Barcelona's strength is. It's not true that Jaka Lakovic is their only dangerous player. They will obviously try to lower our score as we were the best offensive team in the top 16 and they were far from that." Barcelona finished its Top 16 group in second position behind CSKA Moscow, winning all three of its home games, but losing three times on the road. The Spaniards will be guided in Tel Aviv by the relatively inexperienced Xavier Pascual, who replaced Dusko Ivanovic after the Montenegrin was sacked hours before the start of the Top 16. Pascual has maintained Ivanovic's defense orientated style, with Barca only allowing a top 16 best 63.8 points per game. The team, however, scored a mere 65.5 ppg in the top 16, an amount it will have to better if it has any intention of leaving Tel Aviv with the win. Maccabi led the top 16 with 86 ppg, but did allow 82.6 ppg. Another significant difference between the teams is in in the three-point shooting department. Tel Aviv was first in the top 16 with 48 percent, while Barcelona could only manage a top 16 worst 25%. "Maccabi is a team that likes to play the fastbreak. We need to stop it, control the offensive rebound and play the fastbreak too, because they are not especially fast on transition in defense," Pascual told the Euroleague Web site. "Their three-point shooting can be a factor, as well as Nikola Vujcic. We have to prevent him from scoring points from the low post, but especially stop him from making his teammates better with his assists. Terence Morris is another important factor, because he opens the floor a lot." Barcelona, which is fourth in the Spanish league after defeating Leon by 21 points in its last game on Saturday, is led by outstanding playmaker Jaka Lakovic. The Slovenian leads the Catalans in minutes (26 mpg), points (13.1 ppg) and three point shooting (39.3%) and is the barometer of the team. "We didn't have a lot of time to prepare for the first game because we had a busy schedule. I think Maccabi is the favorite here in Israel because they have a big home advantage and it means a lot to them," Lakovic said upon his arrival in Israel on Monday. Helping Lakovic in the backcourt will be Roger Grimau (9.6 ppg, 3.7 rpg), Gianluca Basile (8.4 ppg, 2.6 rpg), Pepe Sanchez (3.8 ppg, 3.5 apg) and Alex Acker (5.7 ppg, 2.1 rpg). Barca's frontcourt is extremely deep as well, with Mario Kasun (9.8 ppg, 3.7 rpg), Jordi Trias (7.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg), Fran Vazquez (6.5 ppg, 2 rpg), Ersan Ilyasova (5.7 ppg, 4.8 rpg) and Denis Marconato (3.6 ppg, 3 rpg) all at Pascual's disposal. Maccabi captain Derrick Sharp has played reduced minutes so far this season, but will likely have a major role to play on Tuesday and in game 2 on Thursday, as he's one of the men who will have the responsibility of slowing down Lakovic. "We've worked all season to get to this situation. We have home court advantage, but that doesn't guarantee us anything," Sharp said on Monday. "I'll be dreaming of Lakovic tonight. I hope it won't be a nightmare."