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(photo credit: AP)
With inconsistency seemingly the only constant at Maccabi Tel Aviv this season, the side returns on Thursday night to the one place where nothing seems to change and where even in the worst of times the wins continue to come with ease.
Maccabi hosts Olimpija Ljubljana at the Nokia Arena in the Euroleague on Thursday and, following its continuous underachieving at its European away games, will have to extend its 11 game winning streak in Tel Aviv to keep pace with the top of its group.
Maccabi lost to Cibona Zagreb 87-82 last week in what was its third straight away loss in the competition. "We are ready for the game," Tel Aviv coach Neven Spahija said on Thursday. "We did a lot of work after the Cibona game and we have changed many things. We have a young and new team which has matured through a difficult situation."
Maccabi, which has lost six of its last eight Euroleague games abroad, was thoroughly outplayed at both of its away games this season, but still managed to win its last two home games comfortably.
Tel Aviv defeated Lottomatica Roma and DKV Joventut Badalona by a combined 30 points and the early signs are that the Slovenians will face a similar fate Thursday night.
Ljubljana has lost in its last three trips to Tel Aviv and comes into the game in a less than ideal situation. The Slovenians have been defeated in three games on the trot in the Euroleague and have also suffered from countless problems in their preparations for Maccabi. The side's original flight to Israel on Wednesday was cancelled due to the strike at Ben-Gurion Airport and the team was only expected to arrive in the country early Thursday morning.
The game may even be postponed if the Slovenians arrive to late in the day or fail to land in Israel at all. "Obviously if they don't land until the afternoon we won't ask them to play if they don't want to. The match will lose its sporting value," Maccabi chairman Shimon Mizrahi said on Wednesday.
Ironically, the Olimpija players announced this week that they plan to go on strike following the game in Tel Aviv after not receiving their salaries for a number of months.
Despite its financial difficulties, Ljubljana squad still features some formidable names. Teemu Rannikko of Finland is the sides leading scorer averaging 14.2 points and 2.8 assists per game. Rannikko was named the Euroleague's Week 5 MVP after scoring 26 points and passing three assists in his sides 71-70 loss to Partizan Belgrade last week.
Former NBA player Marko Milic (11.6 ppg, 6 rpg) will be his usual dangerous self on Thursday and together with Ivica Jurkovic (8.7 ppg) and 20-year-old Georgian Manuchar Markoishvili (8.4 ppg) will threaten Maccabi from any spot on the court.
Hasan Rizvic (5 ppg, 5.4 rpg) will do the lions share of defending against Maccabi big man Nikola Vujcic after teammate Saulius Kuzminskas was forced out with an injury.
Ljubljana coach Gaper Okorn told the Euroleague website: "Maccabi is capable of beating a rival with just five minutes of good play. This is a side that doesn't let its opponent's breath."
Ljubljana is the second worst scoring team in the Euroleague, averaging 66.8 ppg, with Maccabi the second best with 89.8 ppg.
Okorn will face a familiar face on Thursday after working as Spahija's assistant last year at Lietuvos Rytas.
The game will also be a special occasion for Yotam Halperin who played for Ljubljana last year. Halperin (5.2 ppg, 2.6 apg) played a major role in Olimpija last season, but has failed to translate his good play from Slovenia to the Nokia Arena. Tel Aviv's chances of success will rest once more on the shoulders of Vujcic (13 ppg, 8 rpg, 4 apg) who has been superb on both sides of the court. Noel Felix and Rodney Buford, who have only played a combined 15 minutes per game in the first five matches of the season, will probably once again only feature rarely, leaving fellow new signings Lior Eliyahu (12.8 ppg, 6.4 rpg), Simas Jasaitis (13.2 ppg) and Will Bynum (15 ppg) to carry the load.
Spahija added: "We have had a consistency problem so I can't treat Ljubljana like a mediocre team. This is a very important game for us in the Euroleague."