Battle for the lead 21  february  2014

This week will change the situation in the Euroleague Top 16 Group F where three teams share the lead. Our team hosts co-leading Maccabi and the winner will keep his status for at least another week.
“We did a good job in our previous games by winning some on the road and now we have a very important game where we need to protect our home court and validate our current result,” CSKA head coach Ettore Messina said. “We know that Maccabi can create a lot of problems for us with their switching defenses, matchup zone and talent of the players they have. We have a lot of respect to coach Blatt and his team and we will work hard to try to win this game.”

The Army Men practiced in their regular mode with one exception: the morning of Monday was dedicated to video-analysis of Suanday’s loss to Krasny Oktyabr. The team practices in full strength.

Maccabi also was careful in its preparations. The Israelis came to Moscow on Wednesday and practiced in USH CSKA on Thursday.

Some David Blatt magic is needed

By Arale Weisberg, Israel Hayom – for
CSKA and Maccabi have a long history of interesting games on the highest level. It is surprising that the teams did not meet in official games for more than 4 years! That’s why the story about today’s opponents will be useful.

Blame Russians?

The Israeli league is not considered to be the toughest nor the most competitive in European basketball. Here’s one good way to illustrate it: CSKA, the most powerful, dominant in successful club in the history of Russian and Soviet basketball, had won 44 championships; but the red army is only second to Maccabi – which have gained no less than 50 titles in the Israeli league in only 59 seasons.

But in the last six years, things have changes. Israel was one of the only leagues to crown four different champions; Russia had one champion, Italy also had one, Spain, Lithuania and Greece had two different champions. Turkey, like Israel, had four champions and only France had five.

The situation is getting even weirder this season: Maccabi controls the Euroleague since day one. David Blatt and his players finished the regular season ranked first in group D with eight wins and only two losses. They almost beat Real in Madrid, and they are neck-to-neck in Top 16 group F along with CSKA and Real – two clubs with much higher budgets – as all of these three have five wins and only a single loss. But in the local league, things are much different. It’s been the weakest start of the season for the yellows since 1957! They had lost four of their first nine games, and even after getting back in track, they are yet to gain the first position.

So what’s the big difference? Some people say it’s a mental problem. Maccabi’s main interest is in the Euroleague, so they come a little off to the local league games. Other say it’s the “Russian rule” – which commits the teams to have at least two local players on the court at every moment, and Maccabi is not as strong as it used to be in the local market: It has only two Israeli-born players (Guy Pnini and Yogev Ohayon).

Woken up by David

The fact that Maccabi is no longer superior in the local market is very unusual. In the home loss to Laboral Kutxa on November 21st, was historical, because for the first time ever, the Israeli-born players didn’t play at all. The club was criticized in every possible media, including by the biggest fans and former players. It never happened again, and now the Israelis have a much bigger role in the rotation.

At that point, after losing to archrival Hapoel Tel Aviv and getting beaten at home by Baskonia, Blatt had almost lost his job. But then the change came. Maccabi ran to a 17-win streak between December and January, and gained the Israeli cup for the 41st time two weeks ago. The magician coach, who is well known for the Russian fans, did it again. And now it seems again like he is taking the best of his players. As always.

Maccabi is facing some severe injury problems now. The season is over for captain Shawn James, while Sofoklis Schortsanitis is not at his best form lately. Team’s main star, small forward Devin Smith, is facing knee issues since the beginning of the season, and he will miss tonight’s game – and if that’s not enough, even rising center Alex Tyus in now in the injured list.

The yellows made a quite surprising move last week by signing veteran center Andrija Zizic, who will be back to the Euroleague next week for the first time since 2008. Zizic met CSKA just five weeks ago, when his former team Astana lost 69-88 in VTB League. The Croat center finished with five points (0 of 5 in FGs) and four rebounds in 17 minutes of playing.

Familiar faces

Coming to this season, Maccabi went for experienced forces in the European basketball. Joe Ingles came from Barcelona, Sofo returned from Panathinaikos, Tyus moved from Cantu, Rice was brought from Bayern Munich and Blu came back from retirement. These four joined Smith, James, Ohayon, Pnini, Hickman and Landesberg, who led the team to the Euroleague quarterfinals last year.

Former all-Euroleague center, Nikola Vujcic, returned to the club after a five-year absence, and this time as the team manager. But above everyone stands coach Blatt, who is in his sixth season in the position (fourth in a row).

Maccabi will meet some familiar faces tonight in Moscow. Ettore Messina’s Israeli assistant coach, Dan Shamir, was at the same position for the yellows when they won their latest Euroleague crown – in 2005. Point guard Jeremy Pargo led the Israeli club to the Euroleague final three years ago. Five members of CSKA roster – Victor Khryapa, Sasha Kaun, Vitali Fridzon, Aleksey Zozulin and Andrey Vorontsevich – had played for Blatt in the Russian national team.

It’s been ten years since Maccabi’s last win over CSKA outside of Nokia Arena in Tel Aviv. On February 12th, 2004, Anthony Parker scored a buzzer-beater, giving his team a 83-80 win. At the end of that season the Israelis lifter the Euroleague trophy. Since then, the Russians prevailed on two Euroleague finals (2006 in Prague and 2008 in Madrid) and beat the Israelis three times in Moscow. Who’s gonna win the two veteran clubs first meeting in four years?