In its debut Eurocup campaign, Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv faces a do-or-die game when it plays for survival at home against Nizhny Novgorod on Wednesday. The winner will advance and face Zenit St. Petersburg in the Eurocup Eighthfinals, while the losing team will leave the competition. Nobody can analyze this game better than Maccabi playmaker Taylor Rochestie, who joined the team from Nizhny Novgorod last season. In his season and a half with Nizhny, Rochestie helped the club reach the Eurocup semifinals and the VTB League finals in 2014 and make it to the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Top 16 last season. He won the Alphonso Ford Top Scorer Trophy after averaging 18.9 points over 21 Euroleague games. Rochestie is averaging 11.8 points and 3.6 assists in five Eurocup games so far this season. He is familiar with this week’s opponent and head coach Ainars Bagatskis, but will put his personal feelings aside on Wednesday. "It is not a friendly game or a friendly situation. As soon as they come here, it is a game that we have to win for our fans, for our club and for each other, to advance," Rochestie told Javier Gancedo of Eurocupbasketball.com. "It is an important game and it doesn't matter who we are playing. As soon as the game is over, I go back to hanging out with some of the friends that I have made over the last couple of years."
Hello Taylor. The Eurocup season comes down to one game, at home against Nizhny Novgorod. How are you guys preparing for it?
"We are just trying to take steps every day to be a better team. We have a tough situation here with new players, loads of injuries, we don't know who is coming to play each day and this is something that we have not got used to, but as time goes on, more and more players are with us and we are feeling confident. The main thing we have to focus on is becoming a stronger team each day. I hate to say it, but to worry less about the team we are playing - and more about us."
After the disappointment of missing the Top 16 in the Euroleague, how much pressure is on Maccabi going into this game? Can pressure sometimes be good in terms of helping you focus?
"Here in Maccabi, there is pressure when you wake up and there is pressure when you go to sleep. Every single game is like this. We are supposed to win each game, whether it’s the Israeli League, Euroleague, Eurocup or pre-season games. There is an idea that when you put on this jersey, you go to play and try to win, but this is not something that the players don't have themselves, too. They don't put the pressure on, but expect to win, too. We have to go out there and play to win. I think that, for most of us, is not anything added because the hardest critic is yourself and you have to play to be the best, for a team like Maccabi. And play to win."
You did great things and made history with Nizhny the last couple of years. How special is it for you to play for qualification against a team that meant so much for you in your career?
"It was great to be back there, to go play in Nizhny and go see a lot of people that I care about. But for 40 minutes, they are my opponents, so it is not a friendly game or a friendly situation. As soon as they come here, it is a game that we have to win for our fans, for our club and for each other, to advance. It is an important game and it doesn't matter who we are playing. As soon as the game is over, I go back to hanging out with some of the friends that I have made over the last couple of years."
Maccabi is on a three-game losing streak and has lost against Unics twice. Did you expect it to be so tough when you saw this Eurocup group?
"You know, every group is different and every competition is different. There are a lot of great teams that are not even playing in European competitions. There are great teams in our league playing one game a week. You cannot overestimate or underestimate anybody. A lot of the teams are playing in the Euroleague based on what they did the previous season, not the season you are having now. Valencia and Unics are Euroleague-sized teams and the Eurocup has a lot of great teams in it. You cannot take anybody for granted."
Of course, you had a great run with Nizhny in the Eurocup two years ago, reaching the semifinals. What do you remember about it?
"I just remember the home and away games, when we started to get to the elimination rounds. It was incredible! We started finding ourselves in a hole. We could lose the first game, but go home and win to advance. It was an exciting time because the expectations were just being passed every time. We wouldn't be happy just being in the next round; we would try to push and win again and make history for the club. It was a special time definitely for that reason - and to top it off, we went to the Euroleague the following year. It was great."
You know half of Nizhny's team. Most of its main players played with you there. How valuable is that inside information to prepare the game?
"I think it is valuable, especially when you are trying to break down individuals and learn about the team. One great thing about Nizhny and the players there is that they are pretty versatile. They are a tough team to beat and to play against. Ainars [Bagatskis] is a great coach and is going to come out with different strategies. They have played against us and it is hard to especially prepare for their offense. They can put a whole bunch of different lineups, different players in different positions, trying to create as many mismatches as they can. Like I said earlier, we have to focus more on ourselves and just prepare as we can to play a good game."
After playing them once already, what will be the key to beating Nizhny and making it to the next round?
"One is hopefully having as many players as we can, in our rotation. In the last couple of weeks we haven't had that. It doesn't matter who is coming to play, we just need to go out there and play hard, play the way that we practice."
How much should Maccabi’s experience – players like you and Devin Smith, Coach Zan Tabak and the club itself – make a difference in a do-or-die game like this?
"I really think that almost all games are do-or-die games. This is the mentality here; you go out to each game like it is the most important game. We are really looking forward to hopefully having a nice crowd behind us. The crowd understands how important the game is to us and we will definitely have an amazing atmosphere. We can definitely use that and our great fans will push us to the next level."
One factor in your favor is the home court and the Maccabi fans. How much can they help you in this game?
"It is amazing how much they help. We know they are with us and have been there from the beginning, far before any of us got here. It is an incredible place to play and I am very fortunate to play here, especially because of the fans and how much they bring to this team. Like I said, we hope we can get as many fans as possible to push us forward."
Maccabi is considered more of a national team than most clubs. Despite the extra pressure that it implies, how much of a privilege is it to be part of such an important team for so many people?
"It is a huge privilege and I think that for me, personally, I am happy that I came here at the time that I did. When you are a young player, you don't understand how incredible this team is. I played for Galatasaray in my second season in Europe, a great club with a great following. I was a little young and didn't understand where I was. I have come to Maccabi after playing in many places, in many countries, with many coaches and different basketball. You can really appreciate what it means to play for Maccabi, living in a city like Tel Aviv and a country like Israel. It is a pretty incredible experience."