Euroleague Basketball: Maccabi visits Greece to play Olympiacos

TA faces former stars Vujcic, Halperin in early-season matchup between the 2-1 teams.

maccabi tel aviv jason williams 224 88 (photo credit: AP)
maccabi tel aviv jason williams 224 88
(photo credit: AP)
Maccabi Tel Aviv will enter a game as an underdog for the first time this season when its visits the star-studded Olympiacos in the Euroleague on Thursday. No one realistically expects Maccabi to win in Piraeus, especially with the form the side has displayed so far this season. Tel Aviv lost at Cibona Zagreb in its first game of the campaign and after defeating Air Avellino in its second game, desperately struggled against a mediocre Le Mans side at the Nokia Arena last week, needing overtime and a very late Carlos Arroyo basket to get the better of the Frenchmen. Maccabi coach Effi Birenboim is hoping the low expectations ahead of Thursday's encounter will help his roster finally play to potential and record what might prove to be a momentum shifting victory. "Olympiacos is a very high obstacle," Birenboim said on Wednesday. "Every road game in the Euroleague is difficult and obviously so is this one against Olympiacos." Nikola Vujcic and Yotam Halperin will come up against Maccabi in an official game for the first time on Thursday, although the 30-year-old Croatian center, who spent six seasons at Maccabi, believes the Euroleague game will be completely different to his emotional testimonial at the start of October. "We are facing Maccabi Tel Aviv in a totally different game than the friendly one we played last month," Vujcic, who was an intrinsic part of the great Maccabi, which won the Euroleague title in 2004 and 2005, told the Euroleague Web site. "This time there is no emotional charge, but just two sides desperate for a win. We have to control the rhythm of the game and not allow Maccabi to play their game, which means scoring more than 80 points. They play fast and they shoot early in the 24 second clock. On the other hand, we have to play our game knowing that our recent loss in Croatia doesn't really mean anything." Vujcic and Halperin play a much smaller role at Olympiacos than they did in Tel Aviv, with the Croatian averaging 19 minutes, 4.3 points and 3.0 rebounds so far and the Israeli international playing 17 minutes and scoring 6.3 points per game. Olympiacos (2-1), which lost its first game of the Euroleague season at Cibona last week, is a perfect 5-0 in the Greek league and boasts an amazingly deep roster. Olympiacos has 11 top-quality players and coach Panagiotis Giannakis has a selection headache in every game. Josh Childress, who left the Atlanta Hawks for a three-year $20 million dollar contract, plays more than any other player on the team (30 mpg) and averages 12.3 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. The sides leading scorer, Ioannis Bourousis (14 ppg, 8 rpg), Lynn Greer (11.7 ppg) and Theodoros Papaloukas (7 ppg, 5 apg) also play crucial roles and the list just goes on and on. Georgios Printezis (11 ppg), Zoran Erceg (7.3 ppg) and not to mention Vujcic and Halperin, are also all potential game winners and are part of a roster which can easily overwhelm Maccabi. "Maccabi Tel Aviv is a team with great experience and tradition in the Euroleague, a team that always competes for the win," said Giannakis, whose first game as a coach in the Euroleague was a 75-67 defeat to Maccabi last season. "Our fans are expected to fill the gym like they did on the night we hosted Unicaja Malaga and I am sure they will help us very much. The atmosphere they created in that game and their patience were the best things they could have done and they have to continue with the same attitude." Maccabi will be without Rodney White once more on Thursday, with the American forward, who is on is way out of the club, flying to the US to be beside his pregnant wife. Marcus Fizer, who is still recovering from a knee injury, will return to Israel on Sunday after signing a new performance based contract with Maccabi, just a couple months after the yellow-and-blue tried to renounce his old contract. The key behind Maccabi's two recent Euroleague wins was the play of Carlos Arroyo. The Puerto Rican has averaged 19.5 points, 6.5 assists and 6 rebounds in the victories, turning over the ball just three times in total. "We're facing an excellent team," Arroyo said on Wednesday. "We lost to Olympiacos in the Vujcic testimonial at the Nokia Arena so that gives us extra motivation to win in Greece on Thursday."