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(photo credit: Euroleague photos)
Maccabi Tel Aviv's newly assembled roster faces its first true test of the season on Thursday night when it visits Lietuvos Rytas Vilnius in its second Euroleague game.
The perennial Israeli champion was far from impressive in its wins over Ironi Nahariya (90-87) and Le Mans (74-71) in its BSL and Euroleague season-openers and will need to improve its shabby play considerably if it's to defeat a strong opponent in Lithuania.
Vilnius recorded an impressive 83-76 road victory over Armani Jeans Milano last week and is a perfect 5-0 in the Lithuanian league. Marijonas Petravicius led Rytas with 28 points in Milan, scoring 10 of 12 fieldgoals, with Hollis Price and Mindaugs Lukauskis adding 15 and 13 points, respectively. Rytas is also in a very select group of European teams to have never lost to Maccabi, defeating the Israelis home and away in the 2005-06 season.
"Rytas is a very good team, strong and athletic. Obviously it's not going to be an easy game," Maccabi coach Oded Katash said on Wednesday. "It's going to be a very tough and aggressive game, and we'll have to be well prepared.
"Our goal at the moment is to improve our play. We are the first to criticize ourselves when we don't play well. We will continue to work on our game until we play the way we should. Sooner or later Maccabi will play good and positive basketball."
The biggest disappointment in Tel Aviv's first two games of the season was Marcus Fizer. The massive forward scored just two points in 13 minutes against Le Mans and nine points in 11 minutes at Nahariya. Katash has yet to find an ideal rotation for his large roster and Fizer is the one paying the price at the moment.
"It's still early. We're still trying to gel as a team and as a unit," Fizer said. "It's only been two games and we got two wins and that's all that counts. We're going to get better."
Vilnius coach Alexander Trifunovic could have forward Chuck Eidson back in the team on Thursday after the American recovered from an injury that ruled him out of the team's first Euroleague game last week.
"We are confident and on a high after winning in Milan," Trigunovic told the Euroleague Web site. "Maccabi didn't play that well against Le Mans, but I have followed their games since the very start of the pre-season and I can say it's a great team with great players. It's just that they still don't display consistent basketball. I think Maccabi is one the best teams in Europe, no matter what people say. We can, however, beat them. We must work hard on both ends of the court. If we do this, I think we'll celebrate another win in front of our fantastic crowd."
Lukauskis, who missed just 31 seconds of his team's game in Italy, remains wary of Maccabi despite its erratic start to the season. "We have a great chance to win. This Maccabi is weaker than the team we beat twice two seasons ago," Lukauskis said. "Still, we must be careful. After a more or less poor start, they can explode in Vilnius. I think Maccabi isn't showing its true potential yet. Furthermore, they have had to deal with a couple of injuries."
Yotam Halperin was head and shoulders above his teammates in the win against Le Mans, scoring 18 points, passing nine assists and grabbing six rebounds. The Israeli guard's numbers, however, could suffer on Thursday, with Will Bynum returning to the fold and Vonteego Cummings certain to get plenty of playing time after his excellent performance against Nahariya on Sunday.
"We've worked very hard ahead of this game and we know what to do," Halperin said. "The keys aren't just in my hands. We have a deep roster that allows the coach to rotate his team. It's important to me to play a responsible role in the side, but at the moment the only thing that matters is that the team's winning."
On TV: Lietuvos Rytas Vilnius vs Maccabi Tel Aviv (live at 8:15 p.m. on Channel 10)