Euroleague: Maccabi Tel Aviv at the crossroads

Victory over Pau-Orthez would put team in driver's seat to advance to the best-of-three quarterfinals.

maccabi tel aviv 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
maccabi tel aviv 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Two weeks after its 15-game Euroleague home winning streak came to an end, Maccabi Tel Aviv will try to embark on a new run at Nokia Arena Thursday night when it hosts Pau-Orthez of France in its third game of the Euroleague Top 16. Maccabi (1-1), which hadn't been beaten in European play in Tel Aviv for over a year, lost 79-68 to Tau Vitoria in its first Top 16 game, but recovered last week, defeating Lottomatica Roma 71-69 in Italy. The victory put Tel Aviv in the driver's seat to finish second in Group D. Winning its two remaining home games against Orthez and Roma would almost guarantee a spot in the best-of-three quarterfinals. "We're very encouraged by last week's win at Roma and we want to continue on the winning path," Maccabi coach Neven Spahija said Wednesday. "We know how strong Pau-Orthez is. They are the surprise team of the Euroleague this season. They had only a small chance to advance to the Top 16, but they did it. "They are also the only team to beat CSKA Moscow this season. But with all due respect to their athleticism and their deep bench, we're coming to win." Orthez (0-2) reached the Top 16 after finishing fourth in Group C with a 7-7 record, but has gotten off to the worst possible start in Group D by losing its first two games. The French club lost 78-68 to Roma in Italy in Game 1 and stumbled at home 99-89 to Tau last week. Orthez must win on Thursday to have a realistic chance of progressing, but comes into the game after losing its last four road games in the competition by an average 17 points. "Maccabi Tel Aviv is one of the best teams in Europe, with a great basketball tradition," Pau coach Gordon Herbert told the Euroleague Web site. "Moreover, their arena is one of the most difficult places for a visiting team to get a good result. The challenge is enormous, but victory is the only way we can keep our chances of qualifying. "Defense and the control of the rebounds will be the key of the game. I hope that our experience in very difficult arenas in Istanbul, Kaunas and Thessaloniki will help us control the rhythm and play with intensity from the first minute." Orthez, which only averages 76 points per game to Maccabi's 85.6, has three players who average double figures, with Michael Wright leading the team with 15.7 points per game. The American forward, who played for Hapoel Tel Aviv three years ago, also takes five rebounds per game and averages an impressive 59 percent from the field. Britton Johnsen is second to Wright in scoring (11.2 ppg, 4.3 rpg) and is followed by four players who, despite not racking up many points, play a key part in their club's success. Playmaker Aaron Miles (9.6 ppg, 3.8 assists per game, 3.6 rpg), C.C. Harrison (9.5 ppg), Ricardo Greer (7.9 ppg, 5.8 rpg) and Melvin Sanders (10 ppg, 3.5 rpg) contribute to their team on both ends of the court and give coach Herbert a deep rotation that should at the very least make Tel Aviv work for the win. "We dug ourselves a hole and now we have to dig our way out," Miles said. "In the Euroleague, every team can beat the other, so I believe it's possible to win on Thursday." Jamie Arnold, who earned himself MVP-of-the-week honors with his 17-point, 12-rebound performance in Rome, will hope to put up similar numbers against Pau and take some of the load off the shoulders of teammate Nikola Vujcic (16.4 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 4.4 apg). Goran Jeretin played more than any other Maccabi player last week and, despite not recording an impressive statistic line, helped settle the club's erratic playmaking. Will Bynum (11.1 ppg) flourished alongside the Montenegrin guard, scoring 17 points against Roma and, more importantly, only turning the ball over once during his 35 minutes. Derrick Sharp (11.8 ppg) played a crucial part in a Maccabi win once again last week. He believes that on Thursday, the club's biggest danger is complacency. "Orthez is very physical on offense and they can score just as well as any other team," he said. "We need to play as if they're the best team in Europe."