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(photo credit: AP [file])
Maccabi Tel Aviv will look to prove that last week's impressive victory against Olympiacos was no fluke when it visits Unicaja Malaga in its final Euroleague regular season game on Thursday.
Tel Aviv, which played its best game of the season last Thursday in defeating Olympiacos 96-83 at the Nokia Arena, needs to win by eight points or more to leapfrog Malaga and finish at least second in the group.
Pini Gershon's team could even come top of its regular season group if it's victorious by 26 points or more or if it defeats Malaga by at least eight points and Olympiacos loses at home to Le Mans.
"Over the last few games we have started to see the fruits of the hard work we put in over the break. I hope this continues in Malaga," Gershon said.
"We executed well in the last games, but on Thursday we expect a very tough encounter. Unicaja is one of the strongest teams in the Euroleague, and it's never easy to play in Malaga in front of so many fans. However, we've been in tougher situations and should find the way to win even under the current circumstances. I'd like to believe we'll continue our streak and keep playing better."
Maccabi, which is being protected in Spain by an especially large police force, has won four straight Euroleague games, with its last loss coming to Malaga in Tel Aviv (80-73) almost two months ago.
Malaga has won six straight European encounters and has won 22 consecutive games at home since Tel Aviv beat it in December 2006.
Unicaja is an extremely well balanced defensive orientated team, in which nine players play between 18 and 27 minutes per game,.
Aito Reneses's side has allowed more than 80 points just once in its nine Euroleague games this season, and the pace of Thursday's game will likely decide the outcome of the encounter.
In each of Maccabi's continental wins the side has scored more than 80 points and in its last four games has averaged 89 points.
"We bounced back in the Euroleague on Maccabi's court. At that time, we had a lot of injuries, but they, too, were not as good as they are now," Reneses told the Euroleague Web site.
"For instance, they didn't have Fizer, who was injured, but is back. Also, Pini Gershon had just returned as the coach, and the only effect at that time could have been a spontaneous one, not the effect that comes from practicing, as they now have been for several weeks.
"It's true we are playing to finish first, second or third, but that doesn't worry me much, because we have already qualified. What does concern me is that we play well, because each time we do that, we become a better team."
Marcus Brown will be playing in Malaga for the first time since he spent two seasons at the club between 2005 and 2007, helping the team reach the Final Four in Athens in his second season.
Crucially, last week was the first time in which Brown (13.7 ppg) and Carlos Arroyo (14.5 ppg, 4.5 apg) both played close to their best in the same game and complemented each other in the backcourt, helping the team as a whole play better.
Gershon will be hoping for a repeat performance from the two guards and will be counting on D'or Fischer and Lior Eliyahu to come up with the goods as always.
Fischer (15.0 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 70.3%) and the Euroleague's December MVP Eliyahu (15.2 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 69.5%) have played consistently well throughout Maccabi's tumultuous season and are currently placed first and fifth respectively in the competition's overall statistical ranking.
"Unicaja is a team with many good players and a very deep bench. The fact they beat us in Tel Aviv when so many players were missing says a lot, and obviously now that most of them are back, our task we'll be much tougher," Eliyahu said.
"I think it's the toughest road game in our schedule so far in the regular season, even tougher than the game in Piraeus against Olympiacos. We want to complete a perfect second round of games and enter the Top 16 in good momentum."