|Two budding rivals will clash in an interesting game in Israel on Thursday when Maccabi Electra hosts Olympiacos at Tel Aviv’s Nokia Arena. The game will feature the return of former Maccabi stars Nikola Vujcic and Yotam Halperin to play an official game in Tel Aviv for the first time since the pair left in the summer. The two teams have both qualifies for the Top 16 already, but with one win separating four teams in the top four spots in Group A, every win matters as the teams jockey for position ahead of the Top 16 draw. Olympiacos could potentially seal first place in the group if it beats Maccabi and Cibona defeats Unicaja. Maccabi must beat Olympiacos and preferably by a large margin to have any realistic chance of winning the group. The Reds manhandled Maccabi 84-65 behind 21 points from Lynn Greer when they met in November in Greece. However Maccabi will have a different look this time around. Head coach Pini Gershon took the reins of the club after that loss and has it playing like the Maccabi of old lately. Furthermore, Maccabi’s star point guard Carlos Arroyo was a last-minute scratch that night due to back problems, but is set to lead the club this time. Another advantage for the hosts is that Gershon, who spent a season-and-a-half as the Reds’ head coach, has coached no less than eight Olympiacos players and will be extremely prepared for the showdown. Meanwhile Olympiacos head coach Panagiotis Giannakis, who took over from Gershon midway through last season, will no doubt have his team ready as it looks to win the group. The game features a number of interesting matchups, starting with Arroyo and Greer at point guard or Halperin against former teammate Tal Burstein and Marcus Brown at shooting guard. Theo Papaloukas as always plays major minutes off the bench for the Reds. Maccabi will turn to Tre Simmons, Jason Williams and Omri Casspi to deal with Josh Childress. The battle inside will see Vujcic team with Ioannis Bourousis, Georgios Printezis and Zoran Erceg, among others, against December MVP Lior Eliyahu, D’Or Fischer and Yaniv Green, with Marcus Fizer primed to make his return after a year on the sidelines if needed. Emotions will be high with the return of two of Maccabi fans favorites in different colors and the newcomers in yellow-and-blue will be eager to prove themselves in what promises to be an exciting 40 minutes of basketball.
- Forward Lior Eliyahu was named Euroleague Basketball’s MVP for December. Eliyahu had arguably the best stretch of his young career in December, averaging 20.3 points, 12.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists in three games.
- Eliyahu has produced double doubles in three consecutive games after having just three in his first 45 Euroleague appearances. Maccabi is 5-1 in games in which Eliyahu has recorded double doubles and 3-0 at home.
- Big man Marcus Fizer could make his return to action this week against Olympiacos. It would be Fizer’s first official game in nearly a year since suffering a torn meniscus in his right knee in the Top 16 opener against Olympiacos last February.
- Guard Tal Burstein is closing in on 1,000 points for his Euroleague Basketball career. He enters this week’s game against Olympiacos with 985 points in 132 career games. He also needs just 2 more three-pointers to reach 100 for his Euroleague career.
- Head coach Pini Gershon will be facing a number of his former charges for the first time. Gershon coached Olympiacos for a season-and-a-half from the summer of 2006 through the end of the regular season last year. Among the current Olympiacos players he coached are Lynn Greer, Ioannis Bourousis, Pangiotis Vasilopoulos, Milos Teodosic, Georgios Printezis and Sofoklis Schortsanitis. Gershon also coached Nikola Vujcic and Yotam Halperin to Euroleague crowns at Maccabi. He was replaced at Olympiacos by current head coach Panagiotis Giannakis.
- Guard Marcus Brown will face former teammate Theo Papaloukas this week. The two played together at CSKA Moscow between 2003 and 2005, helping the club win two Russian League championships and reach two Euroleague Final Fours. The first of those Final Fours was in Tel Aviv, where CSKA lost to Maccabi in the semifinals.
- Guard Dror Hagag played in the Euroleague for the first time in the 2005-06 season with Greek club AEK Athens. He was a teammate of current Olympiacos players Ioannis Bourousis and Mikhalis Pelekanos on that team.
- Forward Omri Casspi scored a Euroleague career-high 19 points against Le Mans in his last outing before the winter break.
- Center Nikola Vujcic will return to Tel Aviv for an official game for the first time since leaving Maccabi over the summer. Vujcic spent the past six seasons at Maccabi, winning two Euroleague crowns, reaching two more Euroleague finals and amassing five Israeli championships and four Israeli Cups. He did face Maccabi with Olympiacos in a preseason exhibition at Nokia Arena.
- Vujcic is coming off his best game in an Olympiacos uniform with 12 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 blocked shots against Cibona in the last Euroleague game before the winter break. He also crossed the career 2,000-point barrier in that game.
- Vujcic needs 1 more rebound to match Denis Marconato for second place on the Euroleague Basketball career rebounding charts. Vujcic enters the game with 881 career rebounds.
- Guard Yotam Halperin will face his boyhood club this week. Halperin played six seasons with Maccabi since joining the senior squad in 2001 and helped it win two Euroleague crowns, five Israeli championships and four Israeli Cups.
- Guard Lynn Greer has simply dominated Maccabi Tel Aviv in three career appearances against the Israeli powerhouse. Greer has averaged 24.7 points on 55.5% three-point shooting, 4.3 assists and 2 steals in those games. He was also twice named weekly MVP last season after playing Maccabi.
- Big man Sofoklis Schortianitis recorded his Euroleague debut against Maccabi in Week 2 of the 2005-06 season. He excelled with 13 points and an index rating of 22 as Olympiacos beat the then-Euroleague champs 83-78.
Wednesday, January 07, 2009