By Zoran Milosavljevic
BELGRADE (Reuters) - With coach David Blatt taking over at NBA title contenders Cleveland Cavaliers, European club champions Maccabi Tel Aviv start their defense with a team missing some of last season’s key players.
Having lost to the Cavaliers and the Brooklyn Nets in pre-season friendlies, Blatt’s successor Guy Goodes knows he faces a tough task to emulate last term’s success although Thursday’s opener at home to French side Limoges should be a straightforward task.
“We will look for the good things but we have to check our level of aggressiveness, although we played against a team at the highest level in the world,” former Israel guard Goodes said after a 107-80 defeat by the LeBron James-led Cavaliers.
“We will do everything to be as ready as possible for the Euroleague,” he added.
Playmaker Tyrese Ryce, instrumental in a shock 98-86 Euroleague final win over Real Madrid in May, joined Russian side Khimki during the summer break while forward Joe Ingles signed for the Los Angeles Clippers.
Guard Ricky Hickman joined Fenerbahce Istanbul and stalwart David Blu retired, leaving Goodes with an uphill task to introduce new arrivals Marquez Haynes, Brian Randle and Nate Linhart into a much-changed outfit.
There is little doubt that Maccabi’s passionate fans will turn up in numbers against Limoges but the match of the week in which Red Star Belgrade entertain Galatasaray is likely to generate the biggest crowd and the most fervent atmosphere.
Regularly sold out for Euroleague games hosted by Red Star and city rivals Partizan, the Belgrade Arena is one of the most intimidating away courts with its capacity of 22,000.
Red Star have bolstered their ranks by signing American playmaker Marcus Williams, as well as the local duo of Stefan Jovic and Nikola Kalinic, who helped Serbia to last month’s runners-up finish in the World Cup in Spain.
Jovic and athletic forward Kalinic are looking forward to a spectacular baptism in Europe’s premier club competition on Thursday, which is uncharted territory for them after moving from Serbian domestic league side Radnicki Kragujevac.
“You hope throughout your career that one day you will be a part of such an event and we have no stage fright at all,” Kalinic told Belgrade daily Sportski Zurnal on Monday.
“It drives you and the pressure of playing at that level brings the best out in a player so we are all raring to go.”
The marathon competition, whose preliminary group stage includes four sections of six teams each, starts on Wednesday when Spaniards Laboral Kutxa Vitoria meet Lithuanian debutants Neptunas Klaipeda.
The other standout fixtures of the opening round include Friday’s clash between Real Madrid and Zalgiris Kaunas as well as Alba Berlin’s home game against CSKA Moscow.
The German side will be especially fired up against one of Europe’s top teams after a stunning 94-93 warm-up win over NBA Champions San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday.
(Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic, editing by Sam Holden)