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Maccabi Tel Aviv faces the most daunting of tasks on Thursday night when it visits Greek powerhouse Panathinaikos in Athens.
The game will renew one of the greatest rivalries in European basketball. Since 2000, Maccabi and Panathinaikos have played each other twice in the Euroleague championship game and have also met two times in the Final Four semifinals.
While the perennial Israeli league champion has won the last three against Panathinaikos, Thursday could prove to be a very long night for Maccabi, if recent form is anything to go by.
Maccabi (4-2) was thoroughly outplayed by Cibona Zagreb and Partizan Belgrade in both of its Euroleague away games this season and will face a Panathinaikos (6-0) side which is the only remaining undefeated team in Europe's premier competition.
"Panathinaikos is in great shape at the moment and are quite possibly the best team in the Euroleague," Tel Aviv coach Neven Spahija said on Wednesday at Ben-Gurion Airport before leaving for Greece. "However, Maccabi is Maccabi and wherever we play we try to win.
"We have nothing to lose at the moment and I hope that we learned something from our last two away games in Zagreb and Belgrade, where we played terribly. This is a great opportunity for our players to display our quality and show that we can handle such difficult games."
The Greek club, which has won its six games by an average of 13 points, is enjoying a stellar season by forward Mike Batiste. The 29-year-old American, who was named the Euroleague MVP for November this week, is averaging 15 points and 7.2 rebounds per game in only 25 minutes of play.
Despite Batiste's impressive stats, the most important player for coach Zelimir Obradovic is point guard Dimitrios Diamantidis (10.5 ppg, 5 rpg, 3.7 apg). The 26-year-old is on court more than any other player on his team (31 minutes per game) and is equally menacing on defense (3 steals per game) and offense. The backcourt is completed by Nikos Hatzivrettas (12.2 ppg), Tony Delk (10.2 ppg) and Slovenian Sani Becirovic (9.8 ppg), giving the Greeks one of the best group of guards on the continent.
Robertas Javtokas, Demos Dikoudis (5.3 ppg, 2.5 rpg) and Konstantinos Tsartsaris (7.4 ppg, 2.8 rpg) will share responsibility for Panathinaikos's play under the baskets, as Dejan Tomasevic is set to miss the game.
"We are facing a team that we respect very much. Maccabi Tel Aviv is a club with great history and it is always nice to play against them," Obrdovic told the Euroleague Web site. "They have made some roster changes and they have a new coach, but still they are considered to be one of the Euroleague favorites and I agree with that.
"Despite our injuries, we will try to perform as well as possible knowing that a victory over Maccabi is going to be a great step towards finishing in first place at the end of the regular season."
Maccabi flew out to Greece without Rodney Buford, who was released on Tuesday and the team's success will once again depend on the play of Nikola Vujcic (15.3 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 5 apg). The Croatian center remarkably co-leads the Euroleague in assists and comes into the game in sensational form after recording a triple-double in last week's game against Ljubljana.
"Panathinaikos is hosting the game and is playing really well this year," Vujcic said on Wednesday. "They are undefeated and are the favorites of course. However, this is one game and anything is possible."
Vujcic's dominance as Maccabi's premier passer is highlighted by the fact that the side's three main guards Will Bynum (14.5 ppg), Yotam Halperin (6.3 ppg) and Derrick Sharp (10 ppg) combine for 6.7 assists per game - only slightly more than the center dishes out himself.
Maccabi, which leads the league with 93.1 points per game, will also be counting on substantial contributions from Simas Jasaitis (13 ppg), Lior Eliyahu (11.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg) and Jamie Arnold (11.2 ppg, 6.2 rpg) to counter Panathinaikos's deep rotation.
"We have to play with much more confidence. In our games so far, we have shown two different faces, one in Nokia Arena and one away from home," Spahija said. "We have to play much better in our away games. If we play the way we know and with confidence, then we have a chance."
Rishon Lezion loses to a Gasol
Maccabi Rishon Lezion lost 99-82 to powerful Spanish side Akasvayu Girona in the FIBA EuroCup on Wednesday night, but is nevertheless only a win away from advancing to the second round of the competition.
Rishon plays BC Siauliai in its next match and a win against the Lithuanian club will guarantee the Israelis a top-two finish in the group.
On Wednesday, Reggie Moore led Rishon with 19 points and 10 rebounds, with Itai Lev adding 15 points and four rebounds. Marc Gasol, brother of NBA superstar Pau Gasol, led Girona with 17 points and 13 rebounds.
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