maccabi tel aviv 298.88.
(photo credit: AP)
Maccabi Tel Aviv has made an encouraging start to its current Euroleague campaign.
Despite a poor preseason run, the yellow-and-blue are now riding a two-game winning streak and will be hoping to maintain the positive run against Cibona Zagreb in a difficult away game Thursday night.
Maccabi head coach Neven Spahija and star forward Nikola Vujcic, who both are Croatian, have stolen the headlines ahead of the crucial Euroleague Group B clash and will be the center of focus when the Israeli champions enter the Drazen Petrovic Arena in Zagreb.
Despite Will Bynum leading the yellow-and-blue in scoring with 17.7 points per game, it's Vujcic who has proven himself as the franchise player on and off the court. Maccabi's star center is producing another solid season with averages of 13.2 points, 8.7 rebounds and 4.5 assists, also using his vast experience to guide his young teammates.
"It's never easy to play Cibona," Vujcic said ahead of the game. "They have many talented players with no real stars, which is their strength. It's dangerous to play them when they play as a team. We are still trying to get to know each other, so it's not going to be easy to win here.
"We are still learning to play as a team and are still far away from the form we need to show. We need time. It's been a tough schedule, with games against NBA teams and it's taken its toll on our young roster. Patience is needed, as we are getter better with every practice session."
Teenage sensation Lior Eliyahu will have to impress yet again to keep his place in Spahija's starting lineup, especially with substitute Noel Felix pushing for playing time. The American forward has not utilized his chances so far, which has drawn criticism from fans and raised speculation regarding his possible departure.
Coach Spahija, who is familiar with Croatian basketball and is aware of the upcoming obstacle, has called on his players to produce the first away win of the season. Maccabi had a poor Euroleague outing on November 2, falling apart against Partizan Belgrade en route to a 103-91 humiliation.
"Of course we have to improve and play better than in Belgrade," the coach commented. "It's now time to win an away game. I think we are a better team now and our defense has improved a lot. We just have to be more persistent and then there is a chance to come back with a good result.
"This is a special game for me. I have won a cup here before and this arena is not just another place for me. Of course there will be some excitement before the event, but I will concentrate only on Maccabi when the game starts. This arena has tough baskets and the rebounds will fall far away from the boards."
The reigning Croatian champions will be hoping to get their European season back on track with the help of the fanatic and at times violent Zagreb crowd. Cibona has two home victories and lost at Partizan Belgrade and at Panathinaikos.
The hosts will be hoping to take full advantage of Maccabi's weak defense, which has allowed an average of 86 points in the season's first four games.
A key figure in the Croatian rotation is swingman Chris Warren, who is the team's biggest three-point threat.
"Maccabi are one of the best teams in Europe," Warren said. "But the home advantage is ours. It's a big challenge and we are ready to play big teams. Maccabi have made many changes but have big names such as Will Bynum and Rodney Buford, who have NBA experience. I haven't seen them play, but it won't be an easy game."