Maccabi Tel Aviv's Euroleague campaign hits a crossroads in Moscow on Thursday. Just last week it seemed as though Maccabi was the front runner to finish atop of Euroleague's Group C and receive a favorable draw in the top 16.
However, the humbling 91-82 home defeat to Caja Laboral Vitoria not only snapped the team's four game winning streak, but also raised serious concerns of Maccabi's capability to challenge the continent's top teams.
Another defeat against CSKA Moscow on Thursday will likely mean Maccabi will have to settle for third place in the group, complicating any dream the team has of reaching the quarterfinal playoffs, not to mention the Final Four.
Maccabi thrashed CSKA 71-54 in its most impressive showing this season when the teams met at the Nokia Arena last month, but much has happened since. Moscow has shown constant improvement and has won four straight games since losing in Tel Aviv, including impressive road victories over Vitoria and Roma.
Maccabi, on the other hand, only barely managed to get the better of the group minnows, before falling to Caja at home last week.
"Everybody knows that the CSKA Moscow team we beat in Tel Aviv isn't the same team we will meet on Thursday," Maccabi coach Pini Gershon said.
"They have made some small adjustments and we will need to find answers to their backcourt and stay focused on the rebound. If we make as few turnovers as we did last week, we'll be in a very good position, but just like last week it might not be enough."
Maccabi committed just six turnovers at the Nokia Arena last week, but didn't give itself any real chance of winning by hitting just 36.7 percent of its shots from two-point range, while allowing Vitoria to score 16 of 31 from beyond the arc.
"We'll need to execute our game plan to the max to get this victory," Gershon added. "Last week we missed a chance to make our lives easier in this group, so we need to step up and fix it. We come to Moscow to win, clear and simple, and every player on the team knows what this game means to the team as a whole and to them as individuals."
Maccabi forced the Russians to commit 24 turnovers when the team's met in Tel Aviv and limited Moscow to three of 21 from three-point range. However, Evgeny Pashutin's side has gelled in recent weeks and has got plenty of reliable weapons with which it can hurt Maccabi.
Trajan Langdon is the side's leading scorer (13.3 points per game), with Ramunas Siskauskas (13 ppg) and J.R. Holden (11.3 ppg) also averaging double-figures. Maccabi will also be wary of the threat posed by Zoran Planinic (7.7 ppg) and Victor Khryapa (7.3 ppg), who may not own impressive averages but are more than capable of making winning contributions for CSKA.
"Maccabi is a well-disciplined, athletic team," Pashutin said. "Our main goal is to play disciplined defense and not allow Maccabi to score easy baskets. Our defense wasn't bad in Tel Aviv as we allowed only 71 points, but we played poorly offensively. Now we are improving with every game. Our team chemistry is better and we are approaching the game against Maccabi especially attentively."
Maccabi shooter Alan Anderson will be a last-minute decision with an injured hand, but considering he hit one of 11 shots against Vitoria last week that may not be such a bad thing for Gershon.
One of the changes made by Pashutin since the defeat in Tel Aviv has been the decision to start center Sasha Kaun. The Russian big man has averaged 13 points and 7.7 rebounds in his last three games after scoring a total of two points in the team's first four group encounters.
With Tel Aviv already looking for a replacement for Polish center Maciej Lampe, it will likely come down to D'or Fischer and Yaniv Green slow down the in-form Kaun.
"It's going to be a great challenge for us, but this is what the Euroleague is all about," Fischer said. "When you get your butt kicked, like we did last week, you must get up and respond, and this is what we'll try to do in Moscow.
"We need to handle our business now. We can get this win, which is very important for us, and separate ourselves again from CSKA."