Yellow-and-blue has a chance to shine

Mac TA set to tip-off against Real, with Panathinaikos and Siena rounding out Final Four.

Maccabi TA 311 (photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Maccabi TA 311
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
A season which promised so little just a few months ago could be remembered as one of the greatest in Maccabi Tel Aviv history, depending on what happens in the Euroleague Final Four in Barcelona this weekend.
Maccabi faces Real Madrid in the semifinals at the Palau Sant Jordi Arena on Friday night, looking to take one more step towards clinching a sixth European title in club history in what was supposed to be a season of rebuilding.
Coach David Blatt, who returned to Maccabi after six seasons abroad, built a roster which was questioned from day one, but quickly gelled into one of the more exciting teams to ever wear the yellow-and-blue.
After exceeding all expectations so far this season, Tel Aviv stands on the brink of a truly unforgettable achievement, but to get to Sunday’s final against the winner of the semi between Panathinaikos and Montepaschi Siena, it will first have to get the better of the Spanish giant from Madrid.
Real brought in illustrious coach Ettore Messina and spent heavily ahead of the start of last season in the hope of regaining its former glory as European basketball’s most successful club, winning eight continental championships between 1964 and 1995.
Madrid failed to fulfill its potential last year, losing in the Euroleague quarterfinals, but it finally returned to the Final Four for the first time since 1996 this season and will be a tricky opponent for Tel Aviv, despite Messina’s resignation just before the quarterfinal series against Valencia, which Real won 3-2.
Sergio Llull leads Real in minutes played (28 mpg) and is the team’s only player to average more than 10 points per game in the Euroleague (11.5 ppg), with Maccabi to keep an especially close eye on his shots from beyond the arc.
Pablo Prigioni (5.5 ppg, 3.3 apg) and Sergio Rodriguez (6.9 ppg, 3.3 apg) will be the main players in charge of dictating Madrid’s play from the backcourt together with Llull, giving the Spaniards three top-quality ball handlers.
Real has also got plenty of weapons under the basket, with Ante Tomic (9.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg), Felipe Reyes (8.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg) and D’or Fischer (6.5 ppg, 6.1 rpg) the side’s biggest threats on the offensive and defensive end in the paint, while Clay Tucker (9.3 ppg) and Carlos Suarez (6.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg) will be especially dangerous off the wings.
Blatt’s goal will be to dictate an up-tempo pace to the game that will suit Maccabi’s Euroleaguebest offense (82.2 ppg) and force Madrid to abandon its defensive game-plan.
In its 11 Euroleague games since the start of the Top 16, Real has amassed an 8-3 record, with its opponents scoring less than 80 points in regulation in all of its wins and more than 80 points in the three defeats.
Maccabi has a 6-4 record since the end of the regular season, topping 80 points in each of its victories, while losing each time it failed to score 80 in 40 minutes.
“We are a young team that hopes to compensate for its lack of experience in these games with a lot of excitement,” said Real’s Molin, who was an assistant coach throughout his career until Messina quit.
“We managed to get here by giving all we have and hope to play good basketball at the Final Four.
Maccabi will need Sofoklis Schortsanitis (12.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg) to return to his early-season form to have a good chance of winning, with Chuck Eidson (8.9 ppg, 4 rpg, 3.8 apg), Guy Pnini (6.8 ppg) and Tal Burstein (4 ppg) to have a crucial role to play in the absence of the injured Doron Perkins.
Lior Eliyahu (11.3 ppg, 3.9 rpg), Richard Hendrix (5.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg) and Milan Macvan will look to hurt Real in the paint, with David Blu’s (8.6 ppg, 43.4 percent from three-point range) performance also to be one of the keys to success for the yellow- and-blue.
However, the one player who likely holds Maccabi’s fate in is hands is Jeremy Pargo (13 ppg, 3.9 apg, 3.5 rpg).
The playmaker has improved as the season’s progressed and was sensational in the 3-1 quarterfinal series win over Caja Laboral Vitoria, averaging 20.7 points, 4.3 assists and 4.0 rebounds, while hitting eight of 14 three-point attempts, in Tel Aviv’s three wins against the Spaniards.
“Jeremy’s really developed over the course of the season,” Blatt said.
“He was good when he came in, but he has really become a top level player and that’s great to see. I just hope he’s able to bring it to the Final Four."
Pargo is confident he can be at his best once more on Friday and is optimistic regarding Maccabi’s chances of making Sunday’s title game.
“We have to come out, be ourselves and do the things that we have done to get to this point,” Pargo said. “If we manage to do that, I think we will have a good chance to reach the final.”