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Maccabi Tel Aviv begins its campaign to reach a fourth straight Final Four on Thursday night when it faces Unicaja Malaga of Spain in its Euroleague season opener at Nokia Arena.
Maccabi has gone through a nearly complete overhaul in the offseason, adding six new players and replacing its entire coaching staff. The new team has had a rough preseason, losing its last five exhibition games and not playing anywhere near the level its fans have been accustomed to in recent years. However, on Thursday, the new squad has the chance to silence its critics - if only temporarily - and show it has the potential to live up to past success.
"It is a new team, but the same club and the same expectations. We are ready," new Maccabi coach Neven Spahija said at a press conference on Wednesday. "We are determined to win this game. It's very important for us. I know this game will not win or lose the championship. But we are determined on winning this match because we are a new team and we want to show how strong we are and play for our fans."
Maccabi may think it is coming into the game in a less-than-ideal situation, but the Israeli club's troubles are dwarfed by the ones the Spanish team is facing.
Malaga has had a terrible start to its season, losing four of its first five league games, and has traveled to Tel Aviv without the Euroleague's all-time leading scorer, Marcus Brown. The team will also suffer from the late arrival of center Daniel Santiago, who only just rejoined the team, only playing in one game with the squad before Thursday.
"We are behind schedule, but we are not worried because the season is long," said Malaga coach Sergio Scariolo on Wednesday. "Last year, we were the best team in the first stage and then we didn't make the playoffs.
"You have got to rely on your home games but it is always important to win on the road. We don't have a clear idea of Maccabi because we haven't seen them compete in the Euroleague or in the Israeli league yet, but it's no excuse, it's just the situation and we have to play."
Despite Malaga's less-than-perfect start to the season, Maccabi would be foolish to take its opponent lightly. The team won its first-ever Spanish league title last year and boasts some formidable players.
Slovenian Erazem Lorbek is dangerous from any spot on the floor and Maccabi veteran Nikola Vujcic will have his work cut out for him if he is to outduel the Malaga center.
Another intriguing matchup, which may go a long way to deciding Thursday's winner, will be between the visiting backcourt of Carlos Cabezas, Berni Rodriguez and Pepe Sanchez and Maccabi guards Will Bynum, Yotam Halperin and Derrick Sharp. Bynum will be making his home debut and will be up against two good defensive players in Cabezas and Sanchez.
Haplerin returns to Maccabi after playing last season in Slovenia for Olimpija Ljubljana and being drafted by the Seattle Supersonics of the NBA. He will have an increased role from the one he had two season ago, especially with Tal Burstein still out with an injury.
Maccabi newcomers Simas Jasaitis and Rodney Buford will be eager to impress in front of the local crowd and will likely be coming up against Malaga's new signings Konstantinos Vasileiadis and Jiri Welsch.
"We are coming here with the intention of leaving with a win," Welsch said on Wednesday. "We didn't start the season off very well but it doesn't bother us a bit. This is a different competition and we will be ready."
Two other players making their debut for Tel Aviv are Israeli Lior Eliyahu and Noel Felix, who only joined the team last week. Eliyahu has been impressive in Maccabi's preseason, but since Felix has arrived, the Israeli has barely featured in the club's exhibition games. Spahija will need to find the right combination to get the best out of both players.