On Thursday night, the last round of the EuroLeague regular season begins, with the playoff matchups far from set in stone. Maccabi Tel Aviv (currently 7th) hosts Real Madrid (currently 2nd) at 21:05 IDT / 14:05 EDT, in a matchup which will go a long way to determining the final standings: whether the Yellow & Blue will finish as high as fifth or as low as eighth; and whether Real will be able to edge Olympiacos for first place.
The standings will of course depend on other games, including the results of Olympiacos (current 1st) hosting Baskonia Vitoria (currently 8th), as well as the games of Barcelona (currently 3rd, hosting Valencia on Friday night) AS Monaco (currently 4th, visiting Anadolu Efes on Friday night), Fenerbahçe (currently 5th, visiting Red Star Belgrade on Thursday night), Partizan Belgrade (currently 6th, hosting Panathinaikos on Friday night) and Zalgiris (currently 9th, visiting Bayern Munich on Friday night).
“We have one last regular season game against a very good opponent with size,” Oded Katash said to the media this afternoon. “We have to come with a solid game plan and we want to play well and put on a good show for the fans.”
Maccabi is coming into the game after a bitter-sweet 68-67 loss to Zalgiris last Thursday night after a run of 6 consecutive EuroLegaue wins, which, despite not coming away with the W, guaranteed that Maccabi would see playoff action due to the 1-point margin.
“We have showed that we are playing well with good defense over the past little while and the last game at Zalgiris that we lost by a point was a real miss for us as well,” Katash said. “We played well in the first half, but we missed many shots – although there are a lot of good things to take from this game. But playing Real Madrid will be a very tough test for us.”
Both coach and team have put last week’s loss behind them and they are in preparation mode for Thursday night. Captain John DiBartolomeo – who has made 27 consecutive free throws and leads the league in free throw shooting with 97.3%, said of the upcoming game: “It’s a good test for us and we want to play the best game we can against Real Madrid after the loss against Zalgiris.”
Real, on the other hand, had a solid 79-67 win against Bayern at home to keep their hopes of first place alive.
The teams last met in Madrid in the first game of 2023, in one of Maccabi’s worst performances of the season. Although Maccabi scored 27 points in the second quarter, they only managed 38 points in the other three quarters in the game (7 in the first, 15 in the second and 16 in the last) to go down to Real 98-65. Jaylen Adams (who is of course now out injured) was the top performer for the Yellow & Blue in that game, with 15 points and 4 rebounds, while Josh Nebo (11 points and 7 rebounds) and Lorenzo Brown (9 points, 4 rebounds and 6 assists) provided support.
However, Maccabi was beaten both on the boards (losing the battle 35-42, which resulted in 9 second-chance points for Real) and by their sloppy ball handling (their 14 assists negated by 10 turnovers, which resulted directly in 10 points for Real).
Real will have some added confidence, as they swept Maccabi 3-0 in their quarter final battle last year, including a 87-76 win at Yad Eliyahu to wrap up the series.
However, none of these facts will worry Maccabi in the leadup to this round 34 clash: not only is Maccabi a different team from last season (with a whole new roster of foreign players), but the team has also guaranteed itself a playoff spot after going 7-3 in the last 10 games – something that was far from a sure thing at the beginning of January.
“We are a different team from last season,” Maccabi center Roman Sorkin reflected. “But Real have it all and we have to concentrate on our game plan and what we can bring to the table when we face them.”
“We are a different team now and that game feels like a long time ago,” DiBartolomeo said of the previous game between the two teams. “It was one of the first games we had Lorenzo [Brown] and Wade [Baldwin IV] back together and we have come quite a way since then.”
Maccabi’s Brown and Baldwin, considered by many as the best backcourt in Europe, have both been out with injuries this season, but they have found their rhythm on the court together at exactly the right time. Baldwin, who was the EuroLeague player of the month for March and will mark his 100th EuroLeague performance on Thursday night against Real, is averaging 16.9 points (third in the EuroLeague this season), 4.9 assists (eighth in the EuroLeague) and a performance index rating (PIR) of 16.8 (eighth in the EuroLeague this season). For his part, Brown is averaging 16.3 points (sixth in the EuroLeague this season), 5.7 assists (fifth in the EuroLeague for this season) and a PIR of 16.4.
On the other side of the court, Nebo, Sorkin and co. will have their job cut out for them against all-time EuroLeague blocks leader (359 and counting), Edy Tavares, who has continued to star this season, averaging 10.5 points, 6.5 rebounds (third in the EuroLeague this season), 2.3 blocks (leading the EuroLeague this season) and a PIR of 16.5 (tenth in the EuroLeague this season).
“Real has a very quality roster and they have experience and size,” Katash said of the challenge ahead. “Our advantage is that we are playing at home in front of our fans, otherwise we don’t have much in terms of advantage. We will need to play a real team game.”
Maccabi have only dropped two games at Yad Eliyahu, with an equal EuroLeague best of 14 wins at home for the season. The crowd support will be a boost for the Israelis if they are to take some momentum into the playoffs with a win. For their part, the team is focused solely on the task at hand on Thursday night.
“We don’t know what would be the best series for us and by thinking about it that will just be a distraction – we need to focus on Thursday,” DiBartolomeo said. “We need to do our best to win the game and close out the season well in front of our fans against one of the best teams in Europe. That would have the best effect on us as we go into the playoffs.”