TEL AVIV (Reuters) - When the National Basketball Association’s Cleveland Cavaliers take the court for their preseason opener next month it will be more than a ho-hum exhibition.
Not only will the Oct. 5 game mark the highly-anticipated return of LeBron James to a Cleveland team that are a favorite to win it all, but it is the first of nine preseason contests featuring a top international team as the Cavaliers will host reigning Euroleague champion Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Adding further spice to what would otherwise be a rather bland tip-off to the NBA’s 2014-15 season, Maccabi went 225-55 over the last five seasons under the leadership of current Cavaliers head coach David Blatt.
“Hopefully, he will have some mercy,” said Maccabi head coach Guy Goodes, who was Blatt’s assistant the past four years. “If it gets to a 20-point gap, I hope he doesn’t make it 40.”
Players aren’t so sure, given Blatt’s nature to win.
“He is going to want to win and he is going to want to win big,” said Maccabi forward Alex Tyus. “He wants to get the best out of his players.”
Maccabi guard Sylven Landesberg agreed: “If we’re getting at them a little bit, (Blatt) is going to push the tempo. But we’re not afraid of it. We don’t back down to anybody.”
Games between European and NBA teams are nothing new and serve as a win-win since they give the NBA added international exposure while European teams get to play against much tougher competition.
In 2005, Maccabi became the first European team to beat an NBA team in 27 years when they beat the Toronto Raptors 105-103 during a preseason game in Canada.
The Cavs-Maccabi tilt was scheduled in April, two months before the Israeli-American Blatt signed a four-year deal with Cleveland and prior to James opting to come home and the trade that landed Kevin Love and instantly turned the team from a sub-.500 team into a contender.
“It should be fun. Cleveland has a great fan base, a great arena and they really get behind basketball,” said Jeremy Pargo, who briefly played for the Cavs during the 2012-2013 season. “With the return of LeBron it will be that more fun in the building.”
Pargo, who rejoined Maccabi this season after a stint on the club in 2010-2011, said he was looking forward to playing in an NBA arena again.
“It’s not often you get the opportunity to play a game of this magnitude even though it is a first preseason game of the year,” said Pargo.
Maccabi players expect Blatt, who was a point guard at Princeton University from 1977-1981, to be successful in the NBA despite it being a far faster game than in Europe.
Given that Maccabi Tel Aviv has won 45 of the last 51 Israeli league championships, fans and the media feel a season is a failure without raising the trophy. Last season, the team started slow and was all but written off before a late surge.
They also carries the country’s hopes on its backs when playing Euroleague contests. The team has won a total of six Euroleague championships.
Blatt “has been dealing with this, and that will help him in the NBA to handle the pressure,” said Tyus, who added Blatt’s success in Tel Aviv and coaching in Russia stemmed from minimizing mistakes.
“He is a great defensive-minded coach,” added Landesberg. “Every team is a different challenge and he found a way to counteract every team we played against offensively.”
Editing by Frank Pingue