Although it had already qualified for the playoff quarterfinals, Maccabi Tel Aviv held on for an 83-75 home win over Cibona VIP to keeps its perfect record in Group D on Thursday. Maccabi is now 5-0 and the only undefeated team in the Top 16, while Cibona fell to 1-4 and was virtually eliminated for any chance of grabbing the group's second playoff spot. Cibona will need to beat Ulker at home next week by 53 points at the same time that Maccabi defeats Montepaschi in Siena. Cibona rallied from 15 points down in the third quarter to lead Maccabi by 5 with just over 5 minutes left. But Maccabi finished with a 14-2 run to win without any more drama. Nikola Vujcic led five Maccabi scorers in double figures with 17 points, to which he added 9 rebounds. Anthony Parker and Sarunas Jasikevicius popped in 15 points each, Maceo Baston 12 and Tal Burstein 11. Branimir Longin led Cibona with 20 points, while Marko Popovic had 19, Josko Poljak 13 and Jurica Zuza 10.
A sloppy start to the game saw 7 turnovers committed in the first 3 minutes alone, but Baston's presence in the middle on defense and Vujcic's quickness on offense helped Maccabi jump out to a 7-2 lead. Ill-advised shots and fancy passes that failed to meet their target continued, perhaps because the players were trying to impress basketball legend Larry Bird, who was on hand to scout for the Indiana Pacers. Six straight points from center Josko Poljak turned the momentum Cibona's way and gave the visitors a 7-10 lead. Maccabi went back to the basics and regained the advantage when Tal Burstein stole the ball and fed Baston for a thunderous one-handed fastbreak slam. Cibona's attack struggled when Marko Popovic went to the bench for a breather and Maccabi strolled to a 16-10 lead at the end of the period.
The second quarter began in bizarre fashion, as Maccabi big man Deon Thomas accidentally tipped the ball into Cibona's basket. He immediately made up for it, however, with 2 free throws on the other end. Thomas then took a behind-the-back pass from Jasikevicius for a fastbreak layup. Branimir Longin got hot and made a few jumpers to keep Cibona in the picture, but alone he couldn't match Maccabi's firepower. The lead reached double digits on a pair of Parker free throws midway through the quarter. Jasikevicius and Popovic breathed new life into the game when they got into a three-point shooting contest that ended with each player sniping twice from behind the arc as Maccabi retained a 44-35 lead at halftime.
Jasikevicius threw up an alley-oop to Parker as Maccabi scored the first 6 points of the second half and took a 15-point advantage. With its back to the wall, Cibona slowly clawed back, riding the savvy play of Jurica Zuza in the paint to get back in the game. As the Cibona defense put the breaks on Maccabi, the veteran forward scored half his team's points during a 2-16 run as the visitors closed the gap to 52-51. Parker found a Burstein cutting to the basket for a slam to ignite the sleeping fans, but soon a Popovic steal and layup gave Cibona the lead back at 54-55. On the last shot of the quarter, Jasikevicius took back the advantage for Maccabi with a three-pointer from the corner that made it 59-57 after three quarters.
The Parker-to-Burstein connection worked again for Maccabi with a three-point play to start the fourth quarter. A triple from the arc by Longin kept his team close before Popvic put Cibona ahead again, 62-63, with a layup-plus-free throw. The lead switched hands twice more before Popovic and Longin teamed up to put Cibona up 64-69. Maccabi coach Pini Gershon called a rare timeout, with 5:25 remaining, that wound up halting the Cibona run. Burstein was fouled on the next play and made 2 free throws. Popovic then missed on the other end from deep, after which Parker dove to tip a loose ball to Derrick Sharp for a three-pointer that tied the score at 69-69. A Cibona timeout didn't change much as Longin and Popovic each missed while Vujcic scored 4 points for Maccabi. From that point on, Cibona didn't make another field goal until Andrej Stimac scored with a minute to go. In all, Maccabi outran Cibona 14-2 down the stretch - with Cibona's only other points coming from Popovic free throws. A few more Parker free throws ended the scoring as Maccabi kept its record perfect in the Top 16.
Thursday, March 24, 2005