Euroleague: Mac TA and Blatt reunited as rivals

Tel Aviv is coming off an 18-point hammering by Lietuvos Rytas Vilnius and will be heading into Thursday's game without its best player.

Maccabi TA 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Maccabi TA 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
The Euroleague season may be only three weeks old, but Maccabi Tel Aviv already faces a must-win game at the Nokia Arena on Thursday night. Maccabi hosts its former coach David Blatt and Efes Pilsen in a game from which anything short of a win will significantly hinder the team's hopes of finishing top of its group. Tel Aviv is coming off an 18-point hammering by Lietuvos Rytas Vilnius last week and to make matters worse will be heading into Thursday's game without its best player. Croatian center Nikola Vujcic injured his knee during the yellow-and-blue's win over Hapoel Galil Elyon on Sunday and is set to miss at least the next six weeks. Vujcic has been paramount to Maccabi's success in recent seasons and will be sorely missed by coach Oded Katash. "We're playing without Vujcic and I think his absence robs the team of many qualities. For example the players who'll replace him don't have his passing skills," Katash said on Thursday. On Blatt's return to the Nokia Arena, the new coach said: "David was outstanding for Maccabi for many years. He's one of the men responsible for spoiling the Tel Aviv fans. He built a dynasty at Maccabi." Vujcic's absence means several Maccabi players will have to step-up their play on Thursday. Marcus Fizer played a combined 22 minutes in Tel Aviv's first two European games and scored a meager total of 10 points. Newly acquired center Esteban Batista, who has featured for just 41 seconds in the Euroleague so far, could start in place of Vujcic, and will have every chance to prove why Maccabi signed him to a multi-year deal a couple weeks ago. Like Maccabi, Pilsen has also split its first two Euroleague games of the season, losing 93-85 to Cibona Zagreb in its season-opener and defeating Armani Jeans Milano 80-70 last week. Blatt's team is a relatively disappointing 3-2 in the Turkish league, but has shown signs in its recent games that it's finally starting to jell. "Maccabi is always more dangerous after a loss," said Blatt, who helped the Tel Aviv side win two European championship titles as an assistant coach and also guided the team to the 2002 Euroleague Final Four as its head coach. "I still feel like I'm part of Maccabi and I wish the team all the best after tomorrow night. "Vujcic is not only an ex-player, but also a friend. I was sorry to hear of his injury. On the one hand his absence could help us. On the other hand, however, it will also motivate the other players to play better." Blatt has built a well-balanced side in which four players average between 13 and 15 points. Drew Nicholas (14.5 ppg, 5 rpg), Andre Hutson (14.5 ppg, 6 rpg), Serkan Erdogan (13 ppg) and Kenny Gregory (13 ppg) score and play more than any other roster members and are the backbone of Blatt's team. The biggest disappointment for Pilsen so far has been the play of Scoonie Penn. The American guard, who joined the Turks from Pini Gershon's Olympiacos, has scored just four points and passed a single assist in the first two Euroleague games of the season. "This is one of the most important away games in the Euroleague for any team," Penn told the Euroleague Web site. "Maccabi is still struggling to become a good team because they have many new players on their roster. For that reason, it's going to be an extremely interesting game." Maccabi playmaker Vonteego Cummings, who has struggled for consistency so far this season, is hoping Tel Aviv can send a message to its continental opponents by defeating Pilsen. "This is a very important game for us. We need to win to show that the big loss in the last game isn't our real game," Cummings said. "Efes is one of the toughest teams in the group, but we want to show we are one of the strong teams in the group as well, and if we beat them it will be like sending a message out. Nikola is very important for us, and his injury is a big hit, but we want to show we can still play well without him."