Maccabi Tel Aviv looks to solidify first-place hold

Tough test on tap for yellow-and-blue with group’s most dangerous foe Pana paying a visit.

Maccabi Tel Aviv's David Blu 370 (photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Maccabi Tel Aviv's David Blu 370
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Maccabi Tel Aviv can take a significant step in its quest to end Euroleague regular season Group D in first place when it hosts Panathinaikos at Nokia Arena on Thursday night.
Maccabi (3-1) climbed to the top of Group D with last week’s 76-74 victory at Lietuvos Rytas Vilnius and can strengthen its position in first place by moving two games clear of Panathinaikos (2-2), which is considered to be the yellow-and-blue’s main rival for the top spot despite its disappointing start to the continental campaign.
After suffering a surprise defeat in Vilnius in its opener, Pana bounced back with a 21-point victory over Laboral Vitoria and a win at Red Star Belgrade.
However, it was dealt an unexpected home loss to Lokomotiv Kuban last Thursday, a week after the Russians were soundly beaten at home by Maccabi.
Panathinaikos claimed the league and cup double in Greece last season, but failed to make the Euroleague Final Four for just the second time in five years, losing to Barcelona in five games in the quarterfinals.
Coach Argiris Pedoulakis stepped into Zeljko Obradovic’s massive shoes last summer and he returned for a second season despite the relative disappointment in the Euroleague.
Dimitris Diamantidis (8.3 ppg, 8.3 apg) remains the undoubted star of the Greek powerhouse, with Lithuanian Jonas Maciulis (12.0 ppg) the team’s leading scorer in the Euroleague so far.
Roko Ukic helps Diamantidis with the ball handling responsibilities, while Greek guard Michal Bramos provides some fire power from beyond the arc.
Ramel Curry and James Gist are the team’s leading American players, with veteran Mike Batiste well past his peak, but still making an important contribution off the bench.
“We are facing Maccabi on the road after also playing away from home in the Greek league and the tiredness is a factor that affects our game,” said Pedoulakis. “Panathinaikos is a great team and it is our responsibility to solve the problems and improve our game.”
Maccabi enters the showdown in a far more upbeat mood after recording its third straight Euroleague victory last week.
The alarm bells were ringing after the 1-2 start in the BSL and the defeat at Vitoria in its Euroleague regular season opener.
However, the yellow-and-blue weathered the storm impressively and will be in a strong position at the halfway mark of the regular season should it make it four continental wins in a row on Thursday.
The American core that returned from last season (Devin Smith, Ricky Hickman and Shawn James) has continued to lead the team, with Australian Joe Ingles (13.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 4.5 apg) looking like a steal so far.
Smith proved yet again in Lithuania last week why he is considered to be Maccabi’s most important player. The swingman not only led the team in scoring with 18 points, but also helped make his teammates better.
Tel Aviv looked like a different team without Smith when he sat out the side’s first four BSL games due to an ailing knee. But he is now back playing twice a week and is desperate to help the yellow- and-blue continue its winning ways against Panathinaikos.
“We held off Vilnius late in the game by sticking together as a team,” said Smith. “I felt it was my time to take responsibility when the team struggled. I always try to give my best for the team.”