(photo credit: )
Maccabi Tel Aviv visits Unicaja Malaga on Thursday night still in search of its first away win of the Euroleague season.
Maccabi played one of its better games of the year last week and pushed the hottest team in European basketball all the way, but still lost 90-88 to unbeaten Greek giant Panathinaikos.
Midway through the first group stage Tel Aviv is second in Group B and leads the Euroleague in scoring with 92.4 points per game and is also third and fifth in assists and in rebounds, respectively.
However, the statistics are extremely misguiding. The Israeli champions' Continental form has been patchy at best and the team has rarely managed to combine two good quarters of play not to mention two good games in a row.
Maccabi has lost all three of its away games in the Euroleague and everybody at the club realizes that on Thursday the poor run of form must finally come to an end.
"We definitely have to win a game away from home," Tel Aviv coach Neven Spahija said ahead of the match. "We came close last time and I think we have improved since. Our team play is better.
However, we lack in experience and we need to play much better defensively."
Malaga began its season poorly, losing its first three games. The club was beaten after overtime in the first game of the campaign by Maccabi and fell to Joventut Badalona and Cibona Zagreb in its next two matches. However, the three defeats were for a combined 11 points and the Spanish champion has turned its season around over the last four games.
The team, which averages nearly 20 points less than Maccabi (74.7 ppg) and turns over the ball 17.7 times a game (second worst in the Euroleague), has nonetheless won three of its last four, losing only to Panathinaikos in Greece.
Malaga will be without playmaker Pepe Sanchez, who joined Marcus Brown on the injured list this week, leaving the team short-handed on the perimeter. Guards Berni Rodriguez (14.4 ppg, 3 assists per game), Carlos Cabezas (11.5 ppg) and swingman Jiri Welsch (11.4 ppg) are the side's top scorers and will all play extensive minutes on Thursday with the absence of Sanchez and Brown.
Daniel Santiago (9.9 ppg, 4.7 rebounds per game) will be Malaga's premier weapon under the baskets and, together with Spanish veteran Carlos Jimenez (8.7 ppg, 4.1 rpg), will attempt to slow down Maccabi's high-scoring offense.
"We had an extra day to prepare for the game this week and we hope to take advantage of that time as much as we can," Jimenez told the Euroleague Web site. "You have to show the highest respect for our opponent, regardless of previous results. Our last couple of results can boost our morale.
"Positive results always help. It's clear that we need to show more consistency, so having won our last two games should show us the way against Maccabi, too."
Nikola Vujcic (15.7. ppg, 7.7 rpg, 4.4 apg) once more holds all the keys to Tel Aviv's success and with Will Bynum (15.6 ppg, 3.4 apg) playing his best game as a Maccabi player last week, the club enters the game with more confidence than any of its previous away forays.
Maccabi, which has lost its last two meetings in Malaga, will be hoping for Simas Jasaitis (12.4 ppg) and Derrick Sharp (9.6 ppg) to continue their excellent shooting and for Lior Eliyahu (11.1 ppg, 6 rpg) and Jamie Arnold (9.6 ppg, 5.7 rpg) to maintain their consistent contribution under the baskets.
"I don't think we've ever been more desperate for an away win," Eliyahu said. "This is a very difficult away game and I hope we return with the victory. We have worked all week on our mistakes in the game against Panathinaikos and hopefully we can finally win abroad."