BOLOGNA - Maccabi Tel Aviv takes another step in its quest for more European glory when it enters the fray at the Final Four, European basketball's showcase event, which begins in Bologna, Italy this evening.
Maccabi faces Panathinaikos Athens at 7 P.M. (live on Channel 1), and the team will be hoping the momentum which it picked up during its last European outing, when it crushed Spanish outfit Tau Vitoria by 29 points two weeks ago, continues.
Panathinaikos is a familiar opponent for Maccabi. The Greeks, with the help of Oded Katash, who left Maccabi one season before, beat Maccabi in the final of the 2000 Final Four in Thessalonika. Last year, Maccabi got its revenge in the SuproLeague Final Four in Paris.
Maccabi is the favorite for tonight's game mainly because of its players' dominance under the baskets.
Coach David Blatt looks set to open with his tall duo of Nate Huffman and Husein Besok in order to take full advantage of Panathinaikos's young Lazarus Papadopoulos and veteran Darrel Middleton.
"We expect to have the advantage on the rebound, and we will try to utilize this on fast breaks," Blatt said yesterday.
"Huffman is a crucial component for us in the game, for the third season in a row, and it is vital for all the players, including Nate himself, that they reach their peak at the right time," he said.
Wily Panathinaikos Coach Zelimir Obradovic will do all that he can to make the opening minutes of the game particularly difficult for Maccabi, and he will rely on his danger man, Dejan Bodiroga, who will open in the power forward position, to attract a double press to allow one of the outside players, Ibrahim Kutuali or Molmerovic, to get a free shot at the Maccabi basket.
In such an event, the Greeks will also open with Sanchez and Kalaitzis, which will mean that they will have three top-class marksmen on the court.
Nadav Henefeld, Maccabi's veteran captain, will be charged with stopping Bodiroga. "He may not be particularly quick, but Bodiroga is the type of player who can play with his back to the hoop and face it with exactly the same effectiveness, and he can beat a block to find an opening for a shot at the basket," Henefeld said. "I think that double teaming him will be dangerous, because if we do this we will allow their marksmen too much freedom," he said.
The Greeks looked relaxed after their training session yesterday, and shooter Kutuali said he would be pleased to face his compatriot Besok - one of the two will become the first Turkish players to play in a Final Four championship game.
"The key to victory for us lies in good defense and fast breaks and fast-breaking moves," Obradovic said. "We will try to play as fast as possible and perhaps with a short lineup."
Obradovic reminded reporters that his team has a disadvantage in the paint area. "We will have to move the action elsewhere, but I don't think that Maccabi's back line is any less good than ours is," he said.
In the second semifinal, two Italian clubs, Kinder Bologna, which will be playing on its home court, will face Benetton Treviso at 9.30 P.M. The game will also be shown live on Channel 1.
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