Maccabi Tel Aviv forward Jonah Bolden (center) dunks two of his 12 points during an 82-63 win over Hapoel Eilat in BSL action at Yad Eliyahu Arena..
(photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
Maccabi Tel Aviv enters Thursday’s Euroleague game at Zalgiris Kaunas knowing it may well end up looking back at the showdown in Lithuania as a crucial juncture in its campaign.
The yellow-and-blue is aiming to string together three straight continental wins for the first time this season, as well as another first in two road victories in a row.
A triumph would also see Maccabi move tied in the standings with Zalgiris in sixth place, and at the very least ensure it maintains a two-game gap in the battle for a top-eight finish and playoff qualification.
It would also mean Tel Aviv remains no more than two games behind third place.
Maccabi will have to start showing some consistency in its final 10 games to qualify for the quarterfinals, not to mention surprisingly sneak into the top four to secure home-court advantage in the playoffs.
The yellow-and-blue will also have to finally prove that it can beat one of the competition’s quality sides on the road, with six of its remaining games being away from Yad Eliyahu Arena.
Tel Aviv finally snapped its Euroleague road drought with its best offensive display of the season last Friday, beating Olimpia Milano 111-102 in Italy. Tel Aviv improved to 11-9 with its first road win in more than two months, maintaining a two-game lead over Baskonia Vitoria in the battle for a topeight finish. Unicaja Malaga and Red Star Belgrade are one game further back.
Maccabi is tied with Khimki Moscow in seventh place, with Zalgiris one game ahead of the two and Real Madrid, Panathinaikos and Olympiacos a further game in front.
The yellow-and-blue, which had lost its previous five road games against Barcelona, CSKA Moscow, Panathinaikos, Real Madrid and Olympiacos by an average 18.4 points per contest, will be targeting a second road victory in a row against one of the Euroleague’s pleasant surprises this season.
Zalgiris, guided by coach Sarunas Jasikevicius, who led Maccabi to Euroleague crowns in 2004 and 2005, is on course to reach the playoffs despite having one of the smallest budgets of the 16 teams in the competition. Kaunas has gone 7-3 over its past 10 games, winning all five of its home contests over that stretch. The Lithuanians are 7-2 at the Zalgiro Arena, with the losses coming against Real Madrid and Baskonia Vitoria back in November.
“I don’t think that the game versus Zalgiris will decide if we’ll make it to the playoffs, there are a lot of games left to play. We will do it step by step,” insisted Maccabi coach Neven Spahija. “It’s a tough league, there are those who are considering Zalgiris as a surprise, but everyone has good parts during the season as well as bad ones with so many games to play.”
With captain Paulius Jankunas (12.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg) being questionable for the game, the hosts will look to Kevin Pangos (12.5 ppg, 6.2 apg) and Aaron White (9.9 ppg) to pick up the slack, if necessary.
Zalgiris ranks among the top three in the Euroleague both in two-point (55.0%) and three-point (40.0%) accuracy, but connected on only 7-of-25 attempts from beyond the arc (28.0%) in the 81-74 defeat to Maccabi at Yad Eliyahu two months ago.
“Zalgiris is a good team and is playing at home,” added Spahija. “But we’re ready and we are in a good momentum. I don’t know if that will be enough to win the game but we are ready.”