(photo credit: (Castoria/EPA))
Maccabi Tel Aviv hosts Lottomatica Roma at Nokia Arena on Thursday night in its final game of the Euroleague Top 16. However, Maccabi's sights are already firmly set on April 4, when it visits CSKA in Moscow in the first game of their best-of-three quarterfinal series.
Maccabi (3-2) guaranteed itself a second-place finish in Group D last week when it defeated Pau Orthez 98-94 after overtime and Roma lost 77-72 to Tau Vitoria in Italy. CSKA wrapped-up first place in Group E by defeating Pini Gershon's Olympiacos 83-79 last week, and will have the advantage of playing the third and final game of the quarterfinal series at home should it be necessary.
Tel Aviv will be without Will Bynum on Thursday after the American guard flew home to visit his ailing father. Center Nikola Vujcic, who is recovering from a strained hamstring, will probably only feature fleetingly.
"Everybody knows that the score tomorrow [Thursday] doesn't matter to both teams," said Maccabi coach Neven Spahija. "We have already qualified to the next round and Roma has no chance, but that doesn't mean we don't want to win.
"We need to stay in shape for the next games, so we must play a good 40 minutes. We can't underestimate this game, because that will hurt our preparations for CSKA. We want to improve the small things because that will help us in the future.
"Will Bynum will be missed, so Yotam Halperin will get a chance. I believe he's playing with much more confidence lately."
Roma (1-4), which has lost its last four Euroleague games, arrived in Israel without center Roberto Chiacig and is also not expected to risk its injured stars Mire Chatman and David Hawkins in the meaningless game.
"It is a pity that we are not going to Tel Aviv for our last Top 16 game with the qualification at stake," Roma coach Jasmin Repesa told the Euroleague Web site. "Maccabi are already through to the quarterfinals and we will try to honor the competition and give a good performance in our last Euroleague game this season.
"We know Maccabi well, having already played against them several times this season. We beat Maccabi earlier this season but it is going to be a difficult game in Tel Aviv."
Tel Aviv and Roma will play each other on Thursday for the fourth time in 2006/07. Maccabi won the first meeting 78-65 in December, the Israeli club lost 88-81 after overtime in Italy in January and won 71-69 four weeks ago in the second game of the Top 16.
Thursday's game could be European legend Dejan Bodiroga's last visit to Israel. The 34-year-old Serbian has tormented Maccabi throughout the years, but will nevertheless get a standing ovation from the Tel Aviv fans when he leaves the Nokia Arena floor for possibly the last time.
"We are satisfied with what we have done this season in the Euroleague," Bodiroga said. "To have reached the Top 16 was an achievement for us.
"We have played against top teams and this has been a good experience for Roma. We hope that against Maccabi we can remain in the game just as we did against Tau and maybe end our Euroleague adventure this season with a good result."
Halperin, who will be given plenty of playing time on Thursday, is, despite the game's insignificance, looking to end the Top 16 with a win.
"I grew up in Maccabi, and we learn from a very early age to never lose our hunger and to win every game," Halperin said. "The fact that the result won't influence the standings doesn't matter.
"Maccabi always wants to win, especially at Nokia Arena. Our wonderful fans deserve to see us win and that's what we'll try to do tomorrow."