If their Top 16 battle is anything to go by at the Nokia Arena in March, then Real Madrid and Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv could produce one of the Euroleague’s great finales.
The Liga Endesa side won that battle 77-76 due to a missed free throw from Alex Tyus but the battle itself was one of this season’s most closely fought encounters. Full of intensity, and a game decided in the last seconds. Many in Milan hope that Sunday’s game will live up to the expectations set by these great competitors in Tel Aviv just two months ago.
Real Madrid will start as favourites and they have the upper hand on Maccabi, by beating them twice already in the Top 16. But CSKA Moscow were in that same position on Friday and even though Maccabi trailed for almost the entire game, the last five seconds proved to be the most important and the most telling. Maccabi completed a comeback that had all of Milan talking. Now Sunday’s final could have the same feel. Like Tel Aviv coach David Blatt said in his post-game press conference, “the monkey is on their back”, but the preparation for this game, as opposed to Friday semi-final is much shorter. Blatt though is confident that is research will be enough.
“We are the underdog in most games but we made it with effort and belief,” Blatt said. “Preparation is short, but the advantage that we have is that we have scouted each other.”
“It’s quite the opportunity to reach this level and compete,” said Maccabi’s David Blu, who will be appearing in his third Euroleague title game, more than any of the players in tomorrow’s final.
“Personally it’s an honour to play this game at this level for as long as I have and to be here at this time of my life and I look forward to this process today and tomorrow and not thinking much further than that. This is where we all want to be.”
It is up to Real Madrid to not fall into the same category as CSKA on Sunday night. Their 100-62 demolition of Barcelona was a statement in itself. They need Eurolegaue MVP Sergio Rodriguez at his best, much like his 21-point effort in the last meeting in Tel Aviv, and Real have to be aggressive but smart throughout in order to live up to their name. But despite their favoured nametag – Real Madrid are not considering themselves favourites – coach Pablo Laso never has.
“The game [title game last year] against Olympiacos was past us 10 minutes right after it was finished,” Laso said. “My team had a great, unbelievable season last year. “It is funny that you say we were favourites last year; nobody said that at the beginning of the year. It made us proud and I am proud that you think we are the favourites tomorrow. We respect Maccabi and I don’t see them as underdogs.”
Barcelona vs CSKA Moscow for third place
Before Sunday’s final clash, Barcelona and CSKA Moscow will square off in a game that while has little to no meaning, will be a chance to at least finish the Euroleague season with a win.
Past third place games are quickly forgotten but have produced some entertaining clashes, with CSKA Moscow at the focal point, recording a 90-88 overtime win over Partizan in Paris in 2010 and just last year, they overcame their 2014 opponents Barcelona 74-73 thanks to game-winning free throws from Aaron Jackson with 26 seconds left.
Barcelona has had the unfortunate distinction of now being involved in the last three third place games. Something that guard Kostas Papanikolaou, who has won the last two Euroleague crowns with Olympiacos isn’t happy with, but admits that his side has to show character.
“I know that for everyone this is a tough moment to play this kind of game, but we have to show character,” the Greek international said. “This is how the competition is and we have to be professionals first of all for ourselves and then for our fans.”
CSKA look to repeat last year’s accomplishment. Something they don’t want, but have no choice but to.
“We play for our fans and to show that we deserved to be in the final, that is motivation enough,” said CSKA’s Kyle Hines.
TalkBasket’s George Kioussis, also present in Milan contributed to this report.