(photo credit: AP)
It may only be the start of February, but the fate of Maccabi Tel Aviv's European season could rest on the outcome of Thursday night's Euroleague game against Panathinaikos at Nokia Arena.
Maccabi (7-6) must defeat the Greek giant to secure second place in Group B, with a loss possibly dropping the side as low as fifth depending on the outcome of other results in the group.
Maccabi has already booked its place in the Top 16, but if the team does not finish second in the group, it will likely receive a tough draw in the next round.
"It's going to be a very difficult game," said Maccabi coach Neven Spahija. "It's a big game for me and my players. Panathinaikos is playing without pressure, because it has secured first place in the group, while we're under big pressure from the media and fans.
"These kinds of situations show you who you are and what you're made of, but we're not afraid. I'm sure we'll give our best to win this game and finish second in the group."
Tel Aviv suffered its sixth defeat in seven Euroleague road games last week against Olimpija Ljubljana, but hasn't lost in its last 14 games at home and faces a Panathinaikos side that has dropped its last two games.
Panathinaikos (11-2) secured for itself the top spot in the group long ago and its best player, Mike Batiste (16.1 points per game, 7.1 rebounds per game), will not play on Thursday because of a slight calf injury.
Nikos Hatzivrettas (8.9 ppg) and Demos Dikoudis (8.1 ppg, 3.8 rpg) are both doubtful for the game, with coach Zelimir Obradovic not likely to gamble on their health in what is a meaningless game for his club.
"This is our last game of the regular season and everybody knows that the result is not important for Panathinaikos," Obradovic told the Euroleague Web site. "What is significant for us is to come back healthy for the Top 16, since we have suffered many injuries during the last month. Facing Maccabi in Tel Aviv is always nice for any team, and Panathinaikos considers this game a great opportunity to show high-quality basketball."
Thursday's game will renew one of the greatest rivalries in European basketball. Since 2000, Maccabi and Panathinaikos have faced each other twice in the European club championship game and have also met two times in the Final Four.
The Greek club won the first meeting of the 2006/07 season 90-88 in Athens, but in its current state, another victory on Thursday looks unlikely.
Dimitrios Diamantidis (8.5 ppg, 4 rpg, 3.8 assists per game, 2.6 steals per game), Tony Delk (10.8 ppg), Sani Becirovic (8.8 ppg) and Ramunas Siskauskas (8.5 ppg) will attempt to dictate the style of play from the backcourt and keep the score as low as possible.
Panathinaikos only concedes an average of 70 points in its road games, while Tel Aviv leads the Euroleague with 88.8 ppg.
Dejan Tomasevic and Kostas Tsartsaris (8.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg) will battle under the baskets and will need to contribute more than usual with the absence of Batiste and Dikoudis.
The Greek club's big men will contend in the paint with Nikola Vujcic (17.5 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 4.4 apg) and Lior Eliyahu (11.8 ppg, 5.1 rpg), who were two of Maccabi's better players in last week's loss.
Veteran guard Derrick Sharp (11.8 ppg) is having one of his best-ever seasons for the club, helping with its ball-handling as well as scoring. Some of the load should be lifted off the shoulders of Sharp on Thursday with new signing Goran Jeretin expected to make his debut for Maccabi against Panathinaikos.
"Jeretin only arrived on Tuesday so we can't count on him too much for this game," Spahija said. "He needs time to adjust to the system. I know exactly what he can do for us. He can bring experience, good decision-making and take pressure off players. I hope he'll help us along the way."
Jeretin is not likely to have a significant impact on Thursday's game and Tel Aviv's hopes for success will once again rest on its experienced players.
"We must fight for every ball, and give everything we have, because they are a very good team and we can't afford to lose this game," Vujcic said. "We haven't lost at home so far, and we need to keep it this way, no matter who's playing on the other side."