Euroleague: Mac TA aims for 1st place in Greece

A victory for the Israeli champion and a Lietuvos Rytas Vilnius loss to Cibona Zagreb will guarantee the team a top seeding in the upcoming Top-16 draw.

Maccabi 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Maccabi 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Maccabi Tel Aviv's route to the Euroleague Final Four could become considerably easier if it defeats Aris Thessaloniki on Thursday night and other results go its way. A victory for the perennial Israeli champion in Greece and a Lietuvos Rytas Vilnius loss to Cibona Zagreb will take Maccabi above the Lithuanians into first place in Group B and guarantee the team a top seeding in the upcoming Top-16 draw. Tel Aviv can also claim a top seed by finishing as the best second-placed team in the group stage with a win and a Real Madrid home loss to Panathinaikos in Group C. Maccabi (10-3) has won four straight Euroleague games by an average 13.5 points since Tzvika Sherf's arrival and will be confident of extending its winning streak yet again on Thursday. Tel Aviv defeated Aris (7-6) 85-70 when the teams' first met this season at the Nokia Arena and despite the Greeks surprise 84-74 road win over Efes Pilsen last week, Maccabi will be entering Thursday's encounter as a strong favorite. "Aris has made a change and has improved since we last played them," Sherf said on Wednesday. "Thessaloniki is a good home team. The addition of Darius Washington has changed them and they're playing much faster now. Vladimer Boisa also adds a lot of aggressiveness and Hanno Mottola, who put on a show last week in Istanbul, always wakes up when he sees Maccabi. All in all they have a pretty good team, which plays better at home than it does on the road." One of the main talking points in Greece will surely be the return of Sherf to his old hunting ground. The veteran coach guided both of Thessaloniki's top clubs, PAOK and Aris, in the past, leading Aris to its first European title, the Saporta Cup in 1993. "It's fun for me to return to Thessaloniki because I spent many years there and enjoyed myself very much," Sherf said. "The only thing that interests me now, however, is that Maccabi does well and wins. I have to put the nostalgia aside because we have a tough game to play." The fit-again Nikola Vujcic can expect to play more minutes on Thursday, with Esteban Batista a doubt for the game after spraining his ankle in training on Tuesday. Maccabi's Croatian center will look to take advantage of Aris' lack of depth in the paint on Thursday, especially as forward Reyshawn Terry is sidelined with a leg injury. Jeremiah Massey leads Aris in minutes (31 mpg), points (15.2 ppg), rebounds (7.8 rpg), steals (1.4 spg) and blocks (1.1 bpg), with Bracey Wright (14.8 ppg) the Greeks go to guy in the backcourt. "Maccabi Tel Aviv is playing much better in the second round of the regular season. To be honest, we lost badly on the road against them due to their incredible first half and it was difficult for us to come back," Aris coach Gordon Herbert told the Euroleague Web site. "However, we will try to overcome our difficulties and claim the victory to finish as high as possible in our group. Reyshawn Terry, Jeremiah Massey and Spyros Panteliadis can't practice with the team because of minor injuries and their availability for the game will be a last-minute decision. "At the same time, Hanno Mottola got the flu and he is working hard to be in the line-up. Nobody knows until the last practice whether we can count on any of them for the game against Maccabi." Since Sherf took charge Yotam Halperin has blossomed for Maccabi. The guard has become the team's top Israeli player, averaging 28 minutes, 14.5 points and three assists in the last four Euroleague games. "This isn't just another game for us," Halperin said on Wednesday. "We're playing for a seeding and that's very important. "We shouldn't bother ourselves with what's happening in the other games. We need to just concentrate on winning."