(photo credit: AP)
Maccabi Tel Aviv will be looking to continue its dominance at Nokia Arena on Thursday night when it hosts DKV Joventut Badalona in the Euroleague's Matchday 4.
Tel Aviv has won its last 10 home games and anything but an 11th straight victory on Thursday will be a big surprise.
Maccabi (2-1), which has lost just twice in its last 32 games at Nokia Arena, defeated Lottomatica Roma with ease last week in Tel Aviv and showed that it may have finally overcome its early season "teething problems."
In the first couple of weeks of the season, Tel Aviv displayed all the symptoms of a rebuilt team that is failing to gel. The new foreign players hadn't adapted to their new surroundings, the team was unable to play well consistently, and despite the occasional positive, the club was anything but impressive.
However, the team is improving with time and despite still not playing anywhere near the quality of the glorious sides of the last few seasons, has shown that it shouldn't be written off just yet.
"Maccabi must win every home game and it doesn't matter the style the opponents play," Maccabi coach Neven Spahija told the Euroleague Web site. "We are practicing very hard lately and I see improvement every day."
Badalona has never beaten Maccabi in Israel, but the club nevertheless has happy memories from Nokia Arena. Joventut won its one and only European championship in Tel Aviv in 1994 and the Spaniards will be hoping to resurrect some of that former glory with a win against Maccabi on Thursday.
"Joventut is a good team. They have achieved good results in the Euroleague and the Spanish League so far," Spahija said. "They play very similarly to us. They want to play in the open court and use a deep bench. They also have a very experienced coach, so it's not going to be an easy game."
Badalona thrashed Partizan Belgrade 82-51 last week and, like Tel Aviv, has a 2-1 record in Euroleague Group B. The team's leading scorer is 21-year-old Rudy Fernandez, who has averaged 16.6 points so far this season. Fernandez, who is one of the best European players in his age group, had been doubtful for the game against Maccabi, but arrived with his teammates in Israel on Wednesday and will play against Tel Aviv.
One player that is missing from Joventut's squad is English center Andrew Betts (11 points per game, 4.3 rebounds per game). Betts injured his knee in a Spanish league game over the weekend and will miss the next four weeks.
The Spaniards did not waste any time and on Tuesday announced the signing of center Robert Duenas, who is expected to make his debut in Tel Aviv.
The playmaking of Elmer Bennett (11.6 ppg, 3.3 apg) and the scoring of Lubos Barton (12.3 ppg, 4 rpg) will both be crucial to Badalona's chances of getting a victory and Maccabi will need to be wary of both players.
Maccabi fans will also get a glimpse at a player who is widely regarded as one of the future stars of European basketball. Ricard Rubio, 16, made his Spanish league debut before his 15th birthday and is best known for his 51 points, 24 rebounds, 12 assists and seven steals in the final of the Under-16 European Championship last summer.
"It's clear that having so many injury problems is going to hurt us a lot," Badalona coach Aito Reneses said. "It's going to be very difficult for the team to perform at its best. We hope that independent of the result, the team will do the utmost that it can at this time."
Maccabi will be led once again by the superb Nikola Vujcic (11 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 5 apg) and will be hoping Lior Eliyahu (11.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and Will Bynum (18 ppg) continue to improve.
"I love playing in front of our fans. They are like our sixth man," Bynum said ahead of the game. "Joventut is a real good team. Elmer Bennett is a very good point guard and they have Rudy Fernandez. It's going to be a fun game. I'm still adjusting to the European game style, but I'm enjoying this experience."