Welcome to the Real World, Maccabi

Maccabi Tel Aviv’s quarterfinal series against Real Madrid gets underway in Spain on Wednesday, where the Israeli champion will meet a team with a deep roster and players capable of winning games single-handedly.

Of the 29 categories of player statistics on the Euroleague Basketball website, there are only three in which a Real Madrid player outperformed his Maccabi Tel Aviv counterpart and only one in which a Real Madrid player has a place in the top five: Felipe Reyes was fifth overall in the competition in fouls committed per minute. This statistic speaks volumes about the Spanish side.

In the Top 16 of the competition Maccabi came up against teams that relied mainly on one star player – Siena’s Bobby Brown, Olympiacos’ Vassilis Spanoulis, Khimki’s Zoran Planinic and even Barcelona's Juan Carlos Navarro. But Real Madrid’s strength lies in its depth.

The Spanish roster contains several excellent players, any one of whom is capable of leading the team single-handed. But while not one of these were in the starting five of all of the team’s EuroLeague games, both Yogev Ohayon and Ricky Hickman were in coach David Blatt’s starting lineup for all of Maccabi’s games.

Eight Madrid players averaged more than 17 minutes on court per game, compared to six for Maccabi. An additional three Madrid players had more than nine minutes per game. On the Madrid roster Rudy Fernandez had the most minutes per game, 26.6. Over at Maccabi, Hickman and Devin Smith each racked up more court time.

In the best-of-five quarterfinal series between the two teams, which gets under way in the Spanish capital on Wednesday, these statistics could play to Madrid’s advantage.

The Madrid coaching staff knows that in order to win it must draw fouls from Shawn James, prevent Smith from taking three-point shots so freely, stop Hickman’s drives to the basket and hope that Lior Eliyahu does not reproduce some of his great form.

Had Maccabi beat Barcelona in the final Top 16 game, Blatt would be focusing on former Los Angeles Lakers and Maccabi player Jordan Farmar, who now plays for Efes Istanbul. Instead, the Maccabi coach doesn’t know where the main threat will come in any given game or at any time during the game.

In each of its past four games a different player was Madrid’s top scorer. This factor will be particularly significant in the event the series goes to all five games, as will the questions of how fresh the players' legs are and what rabbits the coaches can pull out of their hats.

Real Madrid’s budget is much bigger than Maccabi’s, yet it is only one game up on the Israeli champion in Euroleague play this season. It scores, on average, two points more per game than Maccabi, but has conceded 42 more points in total.

Real’s strength lies in its offensive rebounds, which average of 12 per game, making it the top team in the competition in this category. For Maccabi, which is ninth overall in offensive rebounds, this could be cause for concern.

Maccabi and Real are first and second, respectively, in steal to turnover ratio. So whichever team steals more, or forces the opposition into turnovers, will have the better chance of winning the series.

Real draws fouls from its opponents more than any other Euroleague team. This could also be a problem for the Yellows, who must ensure that certain players remain in the game until the final buzzer.

The fact that Ohayon, Hickman and James all reached four fouls in the final quarter of the defeat to Barcelona was the main reason Maccabi was unable to grab the win, in a game in which it was at least as good as its opponent.

While Maccabi is built mainly around players who are trying to prove that they belong among Europe’s elite, such as James, Ohayon, Hickman, Smith, Darko Planinic and even David Logan. Real Madrid, in contrast, has several players, such as Fernandez and Sergio Rodriguez, who have already tasted the big time in the NBA and returned to Madrid to earn the big bucks. Nikola Mirotic and Sergio Llull were selected in the NBA draft, while Reyes, Carlos Suarez and Mirza Begic have been top players for several years.

Another advantage Real enjoys is in the guard position, where Fernandez, Rodriguez, Jaycee Carroll and Llull all excel. Similarly, Suarez and especially Mirotic are top-rate forwards.

Real’s centers, however, could be the weak link. Begic may be a skyscraping 2.16 meters tall, but he is too soft in defense; Marcus Slaughter, the former Hapoel Jerusalem player, is a good blocker but he only manages 37 percent from the foul line; and Brazilian-born Rafael Hettsheimeir did not score a single point in Real's last three games. Shawn James should be able to get along fine with any of them.

Two years ago Blatt had an easier time against Caja Laboral head coach Dusko Ivanovic. Last year he gave the legendary Zeljko Obradovic a run for his money in the series against Panathinaikos. In the matchup against Real Madrid’s Pablo Laso, however, the Israeli-American coach would appear to have the upper hand.

Laso, a former player for Real, became head coach 18 months ago after coached a series of small teams in the Spanish league. He has won just one trophy with Real so far, lifting the Copa del Rey last season. This season he is the top-ranked coach in the Spanish league, with an unprecedented 25-2 win record, but he lost to Barcelona in the quarterfinal of the Copa del Rey.

Three consecutive defeats in the Euroleague – two of them at home – prevented Real from taking top spot in Group 5, which would have set up a quarterfinal series against a team that is not only inferior to Maccabi but which Laso knows much better – Caja Laboral. Last season, despite a fantastic 12-4 record in the Euroleague, he team failed to progress beyond the Top 16.

Real still holds the Euroleague championship record, but it has been disappointing in recent seasons. The only time in the past 16 years the Spanish giant make it to the Final Four it was beaten by 21 points in the semifinal by Maccabi and by 18 points in the third-fourth place playoff against Siena.

The Spanish team's current roster is far more talented than Maccabi’s but the Yellows are in better physical condition, which should even out the contest.

Whereas in each of the past two years Maccabi grabbed a road victory in Game 2, this time it must hit the ground running and beat Real in Spain in Game 1 if it wants to break the negative momentum of the defeat to Barcelona and not find itself having to halt a two-game slide.

The fact that it has a tradition of playing above itself in key games – including games against Real Madrid – gives Maccabi the psychological edge, but it will not be easy to get the better of players such as Fernandez, Rodriguez and Mirotic in close-run games.

AFP
Javier Sorano/AFP
Javier Soriano/AFP
Javier Soriano/AFP