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Maccabi Tel Aviv hosts Tau Ceramica in the first game of the Euroleague Top 16 Thursday night knowing that any outcome other than a victory will be a massive blow to its European aspirations.
The top two clubs in Group D, which besides Maccabi and Tau also includes Pau-Orthez and Lottomatica Roma, will advance to a best-of-three quarterfinal playoff series. However, only the first place team will enjoy home-court advantage in the last eight. This acquires added importance for Tel Aviv this season, with the team winning all seven of its Euroleague home games so far, but losing six of its seven road games.
Each Top 16 team plays three home games against the other teams in its group and three away games against those teams.
"The first game of the Top 16 is always important, especially when you play such a strong opponent like Tau Vitoria," Maccabi coach Neven Spahija said. "They have a very strong and balanced team that finished top of Group A and at one point won 10 Euroleague games in a row. We had a lot of time to prepare for the game and we are definitely ready."
Tau, which finished the regular season with a 12-2 record, arrived in Israel without its coach Velimir Perasovic, who was hospitalized on Monday with chest pains. Assistant coach Nacho Lezcano will take his place on the sideline and will need to do without injured guard Zoran Planinic, who also remained in Spain.
Tau has some unfinished business with Maccabi, losing to the Israeli club 90-78 in the Euroleague championship game in Moscow in 2005 and 85-70 in last season's Final Four semifinal in Prague.
The team is led once again this season by Luis Scola, who is averaging 16.6 points and 5.6 rebounds per game in his eighth year with the club. Talented 22-year-old Brazilian Tiago Splitter (9 ppg, 6.1 rpg), Mirza Teletovic (5.8 ppg, 3.6 rpg) and Kaya Peker (5.5 ppg, 3 rpg), complete a frontcourt which is among Europe's best.
Guard Igor Rakocevic (16.4 ppg) is Tau's second best scorer, but the key to the visitors' backcourt and overall team play rests on the shoulders of Pablo Prigioni (7.6 ppg, 5.4 assists per game, 2.9 steals per game). The playmaker has made an unbelievable 92.9 percent (13 of 14) of his shots from inside the arc and has also missed only once from the free-throw line this season (93.8%).
However, more than anything, Prigioni is a player that makes sure his teammates receive the ball in their favorite positions and slowing him down will be a crucial part of Maccabi's game plan. Serkan Erdogan (11.7 ppg), Fred House (6.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and new signing Ender Arslan will feature more than usual due to Planinic's absence and each have the potential to put in a game-winning performance.
"We must prepare [for] the game as if nothing had happened and play as well a game as possible," Lezcano told the Euroleague Web site. "It's not a pleasant situation for me, but in this job, you have to be prepared to face almost everything.
"We must follow the same path we did with Perasovic. We will try not to let this affect us. The game is quite important for our Euroleague campaign and everyone must take a step forward and try to keep winning."
Thursday's game features the Euroleague's two highest-scoring sides, with Tau's 83.2 ppg in the regular season second only to Maccabi's 87.9 ppg.
The game against Tau will be Tel Aviv's first since being upset by Bnei Hasharon in the semifinals of the State Cup last week.
Maccabi's season hit a new low with that loss and a win on Thursday will be vital in the club's efforts to end the current crisis.
The hosts will need another excellent performance from Nikola Vujcic (16.9 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 4.4 apg) if they are to get the victory, with Lior Eliyahu (11.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg), Jamie Arnold (7.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg) and possibly even Yaniv Green and Noel Felix also needing to come up with the goods against the Spanish club's menacing big men.
Derrick Sharp (12.2 ppg) will aim to continue the form from his superb regular season and, together with Will Bynum (11.5 ppg), newcomer Goran Jeretin and Yotam Halperin (7.8 ppg), will hope to show that the team's ball-handling has improved during the club's recent 10-day break.
"It's going to be a very tough game, but we're ready for the challenge. Tau hasn't lost many games so far in the Euroleague, but we have a perfect home record, so it's going to be a very interesting game," Halperin said. "We need to show we're still in business after losing in the State Cup, and nothing will be more convincing than a win over a great team like Tau."