Two of the Euroleague's biggest rivals meet again on Thursday in Group B when Maccabi Elite Tel Aviv hosts Panathinaikos at Nokia Arena in Tel Aviv, Israel. The two teams enter the game in much different situations, but similarly starved for a victory. Maccabi (7-6) must win to finish second in the group, while a defeat could land the Israeli champs anywhere from third to fifth place, depending on other results. Panathinaikos (11-2) has already wrapped up first place, but will look to boost spirits ahead of the Top 16 after losing back-to-back games. This decade alone, these teams have played each other twice for continental titles and twice more in the Euroleague Final Four, splitting those games and the subsequent titles at issue in 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2005. The Greek champs hold an 9-6 lead in the all-time head-to-head series after edging Maccabi 90-88 earlier this season when Simas Jasaitas's game-tying basket for Maccabi was shot just after the buzzer sounded. Mike Batiste led the Greek champions with 21 that night, while Will Bynum netted 22 for Maccabi. The teams will have slightly different looks than they did that game. Batiste (16.1 ppg., 7.1 rpg.), still nursing a calf injury, Nikos Hatzivrettas (8.9 ppg.) and Demos Dikoudis (8.1 ppg.), are all doubtful for coach Zeljko Obramovic's team. On the other hand, Bynum (11.9 ppg.) is back after missing a game last week and new signing Goran Jeretin could debut this week for Maccabi. The key for Maccabi is as always all-Euroleague center Nikola Vujcic, who is ranked second in the league in scoring (17.5 ppg.), fifth in assists (4.4 apg.), fifth in rebounding (7.8 rpg.) and eighth in blocked shots (1 bpg.). Team captain Derrick Sharp (11.8 ppg., 57.8% 3FG) and Tal Burstein, both of whom have been around for the entire rivalry with Panathinaikos, could also play big roles. For the visitors, star guards Dimitrios Diamantidis (8.5 ppg., 3.8 apg., 2.6 spg.) and Tony Delk (10.8 ppg.) will need to make their presences felt, while Dejan Tomasevic and Kostas Tsartsaris (8.6 ppg., 4.6 rpg.) will be in the market for more minutes in place of Batiste and Dikoudis. The list of potential impact players between these deep teams is seemingly endless and any one of their starters or reserves could be a hero in the end. Maccabi's perfect home record makes it the favorite, but anything is possible in an rivalry like this, where the only sure thing is exciting Euroleague Basketball.
Wednesday, January 31, 2007