maccabi TA 88.
(photo credit: )
Maccabi Tel Aviv cannot afford another loss if the two-time defending Euroleague champion plans to finish the regular season in first place in Group B. With that in mind, Pini Gershon's charges face Lietuvos Rytas at Siemens Arena in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Thursday night for their penultimate regular season game.
Last week, Maccabi suffered its worst loss since the creation of the modern Euroleague in 2000, falling 94-71 on the road at Milano. The yellow-and-blue looked awful without star center Nikola Vujcic, who missed the game with the flu. Now the Croatian is back and Tel Aviv must prove that its performance in Italy was a fluke.
The opponents, the 2005 ULEB Cup champs, have been the biggest surprise of the current campaign. L. Rytas looked like it didn't belong with the big boys when it started the season with back-to-back losses against Cibona Zagreb and AJ Milano - not among the toughest teams in the group.
However, things rapidly changed as L. Rytas reeled off seven wins in a row, including tough road games at Barcelona, Efes Pilsen and Tel Aviv. Now the team is back in a rut, dropping its last three, while averaging just 65 points per game. To make matters worse, coach Neven Spahija is without starting point guard Roberts Stelmahers, out with a calf injury.
When these teams last met, big man Haris Mujezinovic had a career night, hitting four three-pointers on the way to 24 points, five assists and four steals - all season-highs - as L. Rytas recorded a 92-86 upset. Fred House chipped in 17 for the victors, while Vujcic posted 25 and Anthony Parker added 18 points, 11 rebounds and six assists for Maccabi.
House's play has disappeared lately. The swingman's multi-faceted game has been devoid of scoring in the last two as House has totaled nine points on 3-of-17 shooting. He also had as many turnovers as assists and steals combined (5). The hosts will need House at his best to overcome Maccabi at their house.
Another player Maccabi must beware of is athletic center Roberts Javtokas (9.7 ppg., 7.6 rpg., 1.3 bpg.), who will no doubt be ready for Vujcic thanks to his coach. The Croatian Spahija has coached Vujcic at the national level, most recently at Eurobasket 2005 last summer. Power forward Matt Neilsen cannot be overlooked either.
Spahija is relatively optimistic about the game. "Everyone can see that we are not in good shape right now, but we will do everything possible to win this key game," he told the Euroleague Web site. "It will not be easy, as Maccabi is a really strong team. However, we are keen to finally show good basketball in front of our fans... Our defense is probably the best in Europe, but we definitely have to shoot better to win the game."
The biggest question mark surrounds recently-signed point guard Maurice Baker, who will go head-to-head with Will Solomon in just his second Euroleague appearance.
"Missing [Stelmahers] is a big problem for our team," Spahija said. "We brought Maurice Baker in only to substitute Stelmahers for 15 or 17 minutes per game, but now he has to be our starter.
However, things are getting better as he is learning our system and how our other guys play."
Gershon has found the positive in the fact that a loss could see Maccabi fall out of first place. "I like games when both teams are under pressure," he said.
"When a team is playing under pressure, the players take shots more carefully and play more organized, and don't just take wild shots in hopes they go in at high percentages.
"I hope our experience will be an added value."
Anda faces tough EuroCup challenge in Moscow
Earlier on Thursday, undefeated Anda Ramat Hasharon will face its toughest challenge this season when it faces Spartak Moscow in the first leg of the FIBA EuroCup Women quarterfinals.
Anda boasts a perfect record domestically and in Europe, but has yet to face a team of Spartak's caliber. Moscow's star is center Lisa Leslie, arguably the greatest female center of her generation. However at age 34, she is no longer as intimidating as she once was.
"We have better players than Leslie," Anda coach Orna Ostfeld told reporters on Tuesday, referring to Ramat Hasharon stars Deanna Nolan and Cheryl Ford.
"This game should have been the final," she added.
Some 50 fans, including sponsor Henri Zimand joined the team for the game.