Euroleague: Mac TA still feared, despite poor record

Maccabi will be looking to finally break out of its offensive debacle on Thursday night, when it hosts Cibona Zagreb at the Nokia Arena.

Derrick Sharp 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Derrick Sharp 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
The Euroleague season is already four games old and only three of the 24 participating teams have scored fewer points than Maccabi Tel Aviv. Maccabi, which has averaged 72.8 points per game, failing to score more than 74 in any one game, will be looking to finally break out of its offensive debacle on Thursday night, when it hosts Cibona Zagreb at the Nokia Arena. The Croatians, who are fifth in the competition in scoring, have split their four games to date, winning their two home encounters and losing twice on the road. Tel Aviv has split its games in exactly the same fashion, but the team is still coming to terms with its 23 point blowout loss to Unicaja Malaga last week. The yellow-and-blue scored its lowest total of points of the young season against Malaga and continued to struggle from the free throw line and three-point arc. The team is second to last in the Euroleague in both statistical categories, shooting a horrendous 60 percent from the free throw line and an even worse 24 percent from beyond the arc. "The team has been much better in training this week and I have a good feeling about the side," Maccabi coach Oded Katash said. "We know what we expect from ourselves both offensively and defensively, but I will settle for a slight improvement against Cibona. The Croatians are very dangerous, but we must maintain our perfect home record." Puerto Rican Larry Ayuso is the Cibona player Katash will be hoping to stop most. Ayuso is on court for an average 32 minutes, seven more than any of his teammates. The star guard has scored 18.3 ppg, averaging 64.7 percent from two point range and 100 percent from the free throw line (21 of 21). Ayuso's performance will be especially important for Cibona on Thursday night, as playmaker Tre Kelley (10.3 ppg, 2.3 apg) has remained in Croatia and will miss the game through injury. Chris Warren (12 ppg) and Luksa Andric (10 ppg) are expected once more to play plenty of minutes. Together with Sam Hoskin (7.8 ppg, 4 rpg) and Damir Mulaomerovic (8.5 ppg), they will assist Ayuso against a historically superior opponent. "Maccabi is a great team, with great players," Cibona coach Josip-Jerko Vrankovic told the Euroleague Web site. "Physically, it's one of the best teams in Europe, with a deep bench and more than five players who are able to decide a game on their own. We know that it's going to be a hard game, especially because of the home advantage for Tel Aviv. We'll keep on playing our game, and we will try to reduce the mistakes we made in the past. But we also have had a lot of positive elements in our game, which we will try to keep and to improve. I think we are on a good path." Maccabi is still waiting for a breakout performance in the Euroleague by Marcus Fizer, with the American forward playing just 13 minutes a game and averaging a mere eight points and 2.5 rebounds so far. Fizer had his first dominating performance for the team against Hapoel Jerusalem on Sunday, scoring 28 points in 28 minutes. However, he has yet to show his variety of skills in continental competition, and anybody associated with Maccabi will be itching for him to finally do so on Thursday. With Fizer underperforming and Nikola Vujcic and Tal Burstein missing from the team through injury, Tel Aviv has been grinding out victories with a mixture of luck and resolve. Still, few people expect Maccabi to lose on Thursday, and forward Lior Eliyahu is aware that an explosive performance by the team is long overdue. "We're the favorites. The time has come for us to lift our play and dominate a game," Eliyahu said. On TV: Maccabi Tel Aviv vs. Cibona Zagreb (live at 8:50 p.m. on channel 10)