Maccabi Tel Aviv will look for its fourth Euroleague win in a row when it meets Croatian champions Cibona Zagreb on Thursday night at Drazen Petrovic Center in Zagreb. The two-time defending Euroleague champs are confident heading into the game, but aware that Cibona is not a team to be taken lightly.
Maccabi defeated Cibona 83-74 at Nokia Arena in November, but trailed by double figures for most of the first half and didn't wrap up the win until the fourth quarter. Jamie Arnold, who started in place of a banged-up Maceo Baston, scored a season-high 20 points, as did Will Solomon, to lead Tel Aviv. James "Scoonie" Penn led Cibona with 25.
Much has changed with Maccabi since then. Jamie Arnold has slipped out of the rotation, losing time to both Yaniv Green and Sharon Shason. Solomon has found a common language with his new teammates and after a few big games leads his team in scoring with 16.4 points per game. Nikola Vujcic has taken control of the offense from the pivot, dishing 5.1 assists per game - second most in the league - to go with his 13.1 points and 6.5 rebounds.
Now Maccabi arrives believing it can win regardless of whether the game winds up being a typical high-scoring contest that it loves or a slowed-down, half-court game that Zagreb prefers. Cibona is the second-lowest scoring team in the league with 66.7 points per game, far behind Maccabi's 88.4 - the most in the league. Maccabi also tops the charts in assists (17.7) and defensive rebounds (26.9) and is second in three-point shooting (42.4 percent).
Cibona coach Drazen Anzulovic hopes he has the formula to take the game. "We are going to try to stop them with high-level defense. And if we have five or six players make an impact on offense, we can surprise them," he told the Euroleague Web site.
So far only two players have contributed steadily on the offensive end for Cibona. Penn leads his team with 14.8 points per game, while young forward Damir Markota (10 ppg.) has been a spark, usually coming off the bench. Shooting guard Davor Kus (9.7 ppg.) and power forward Bennett Davison (10.3 ppg., 6.4 rpg.) are Cibona's other reliable offensive options.
Maccabi has a 14-5 all-time record against Cibona, and has won six of the last seven meetings between them. The Croatian side's lone victory during that stretch was at home in the Adriatic League in 2003. Only three Maccabi players - Vujcic, Tal Burstein and Derrick Sharp - that took part in that 85-80 defeat are still with the team.