Maccabi Tel Aviv will be fighting for its honor if not for a spot in the Final Four when it faces Panathinaikos tonight in Greece in the second game of their Euroleague quarterfinal playoff series.
The Goal News, Greece's most popular sports newspaper, described Tuesday's game in Athens as nothing less than an "orgy." Panathinaikos made a 22-0 run spanning the first and second quarters and built up a 34-point lead as it trounced Maccabi 93-73.
It was reported in Greece that Zeljko Obradovic, Panathinaikos' head coach, deliberately took his foot off the gas so as not to humiliate Maccabi ahead of tonight's contest. But Maccabi was still embarrassed; the team was outplayed in every respect.
Vassilis Papandreou, of Greece's G.R. Gazette, said it looked as if high school players were guarding Panathinaikos. He said all of Greece was expecting a well-played series. The Greeks have a lot of respect for Maccabi, but part of that was lost Tuesday, he added.
The Goal News reported that Pao looked like a typhoon that devastated Maccabi, and that the hosts were already on an express train to Istanbul, where the Final Four will be held in six weeks.
In the big picture, the loss is just one in a best-of-five series. Plenty of teams have been beaten badly in the opener only to come back and take the series. But it seems Maccabi doesn't believe that line.
The hysteria that enveloped the team after the loss didn't bode well. Despite Euroleague regulations, the team didn't open the locker room to the press. No player talked after the game, and it was reported that coach David Blatt was screaming at the players.
On Wednesday, in practice Blatt worked mainly on defense, which was absent Tuesday. Blatt wants a lot more "action" - quick legs, traps, but without unnecessary switches on pick-and-rolls that Dimitris Diamantidis can take advantage of. Diamantidis, who killed Maccabi in last year's final in Barcelona, scored 15 points, shooting four-of-six from the field on Tuesday.
The problem for Maccabi is that if it tries to contain Diamantidis, it still has to contend with Mike Batiste, Nick Calathes, Aleks Maric, Romain Sato and Steven Smith. Any of those players are capable of running Maccabi ragged as they did two nights ago.
Papandreou, the Greek journalist, says it's clear Panathinaikos is deeper and plays better as a team, but still everyone in his country expects a team coached by Blatt to play much more intelligent and committed basketball. So he says he doubts we'll see a repeat of the series opener.
Even Obradovic said in the postgame press conference that everything that happened should be forgotten immediately. It's doubtful, though, that he'll change his game plan, which in different variations has worked so well over the years.
He will leave running the game to Diamantidis, who using the pick-and-roll operates the battery of big men in Batiste, Maric and Tsartsaris, or the shooters in Calathes, Sato and Smith.
Opposite this depth, it will be very hard for Maccabi to compete, so Blatt will probably try to go with his relative advantages - mainly speed - by giving extra minutes to Lior Eliyahu, Yogev Ohayon and Richard Hendrix. Devin Smith, who is relatively quick and strong, should end up guarding Diamantidis.
Blatt also has to deal with Sofoklis Schortsanitis, Maccabi's key player whose shooting has been off and who always disappears against Pao. He has failed to score in double figures in his last 20 games against Panathinaikos. In this series, Blatt won't get past Pao without his big Greek man.
Another question is whether Blatt will ask more of Theodoros Papaloukas, who knows the meaning of big games and still has the brains to deal with the visitors.
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