Basketball / Change for the Better

Though Passover isn't here yet, one can answer the question as to why Maccabi Tel Aviv is different in the Euroleague Top 16 games from all the other nights it played in the regular European season. During the regular season, the team limped through the final four games; last Thursday night, it scored 43 points in the final quarter to beat Siena.

Tonight Maccabi visits Real Madrid, where they will compete for first place in their Group F division and for home court advantage in the upcoming quarterfinals, not to mention the prospect of avoiding Barcelona. Many would claim the difference in Tel Aviv's play is related to the fact that the point guard position no longer belongs solely to Andrew Wisniewski, but is now shared with Doron Perkins.

"Each one of us on the team put our egos aside and the things which had bothered us personally," explains Perkins, who says he'd had an issue with not getting enough playing time.

"At first we played as individuals, we didn't play tough defense, we didn't make enough fouls," he says. "In the second stage we came together, strengthened the chemistry. We relied more on one another. We gained confidence from [Coach] Pini Gershon and realized that we're too good to score less than 20-25 points a quarter. And on defense we're too athletic to make stops. During team meetings we told Alan Anderson that as far as we're concerned he's our main scorer, so he can take as many shots as he needs."

Perkins, who contributed 14 points, five rebounds and stalwart defense at the Siena win, refrained from any self-congratulation after the game and focused on crediting his teammates.

Perkins says he still finds it hard to start games on the bench, but that he's also discovered its advantages. "I sit on the side and see the opponent's weaknesses, and this makes it easier for me when I enter," he explains. "I want to be one of the team leaders. Maccabi needs players to take responsibility, and I need to get more [playing time] so I can do that. I also need my teammates to rely on me, even if I make mistakes and lose the ball sometimes."

But you said this was Anderson's team.

"Anderson and I are similar in [terms of] talent. At practice we're always guarding one another, and this basically turns into a kind of war between us. We never reach that energy level against opponents. At games we get to play better in the second half, when Anderson is already hot, and I set up situations for him and save him from having to set them up himself, like against Siena. Anderson is the go-to guy, but he almost never speaks. He's not a vocal leader."

Who is a leader?

"Derrick Sharp. He goads, encourages and listens. He's a kind of mental coach. By the way, I didn't really like him before I came to Tel Aviv because we'd had a run-in at a Maccabi Haifa-Maccabi Tel Aviv game last season. I was really afraid to meet him, but I discovered he's the nicest guy out there."

Have you spoken with Gershon about your playing time?

"I never hold personal discussions. I only talk to coaches on the parquet during practice."

What does Gershon contribute?

"Gershon didn't change things substantially, but made more successful adjustments than the rest of the teams - like accepting that [D'Or] Fischer doesn't post up even though he's a center, but rather scores from half the distance and grabs the alley-oop. Gershon also understands that Anderson and I sometimes turn over the ball, and you have to live with that."

Are you beginning to taste the Final Four?

"The moment you reach the last eight you want to reach the Final Four, and the moment we get there we'll want to come out champions. No one remembers who played in the final four or even who finished second."

But if you lose to Madrid, Barcelona will probably be awaiting you.

"I want to beat Madrid because we haven't won away in a long time, and it would give us some confidence. Maybe I don't have the authority to say this because it's my first season in the Euroleague - and I don't know Barcelona well - but Partizan [Belgrade] or Maroussi could be a trap. Besides, I think that precisely a premier team like Barcelona would bring out the best in us. And if that's how we show up, we can beat any team."

Still, no one wants to play Barcelona.

"And no one wants to play us."

T.A. must beat road-weariness

While Maccabi Tel Aviv has garnered a lot of praise for its marked improvement in the Euroleague Top 16, it still cannot ignore the fact that its overall home record stands at a stellar 7-1 while its away record is an anemic 2-5.

The only two road wins came against Rome and Ljubljana, two teams that failed to advance from the group stage. If it fails to defeat Real Madrid in Spain tonight, it will have to win at least one other road game to make it into the Final Four. (Arie Livnat)