Maccabi Elite will try to lock down the top spot in Group F and with it home-court advantage for the Quarterfinal Playoffs when it hosts Zalgiris Kaunas on Thursday evening at Nokia Arena in Tel Aviv. Maccabi has already clinched a playoff berth and will win the group with a victory or finish second the winner of Thursday’s other game pitting Olympiacos Piraeus against Real Madrid if it loses. Zalgiris lost its hopes of advancing last week when it lost at home to Olympiacos. The game will be the first time the two teams meet for a Top 16 game in Tel Aviv since Maccabi won a thriller in 2004 in which Derrick Sharp forced overtime with one of the most famous shots in Euroleague history. With Maccabi trailing by 3 in the final seconds to an Arvydas Sabonis-led Zalgiris side and Giedrius Gustas, it seemed that the Lithuanian champs were certain to send Maccabi home and reach the Final Four in Tel Aviv. But Gustas missed both, Tanoka Beard committed a line violation and Maccabi tied the game on a desperation triple as time expired, going on to beat a stunned Zalgiris in overtime. Maccabi would go on to win the Euroleague title that season and the next, while Zalgiris has never advanced past the Top 16. Only a handful of players from that game are now with their teams – Sharp, Nikola Vujcic, Yotam Halperin, David Bluthenthal and Tal Burstein for Maccabi and Dainius Salenga from Zalgiris. Despite that trauma, Zalgiris was able to come back and win the next time it visited Tel Aviv, 102-104 in December 2004. Zalgiris also dumped Maccabi in Lithuania earlier this season, 101-82, for its lone victory in the Top 16. Jonas “The Bull” Maciulis scored 22 and Marcus Brown had 19 to lead Zalgiris, while Esteban Batista paced Maccabi with 25 points and 13 rebounds – both season-highs. The matchups to watch this week are in the paint, where Batista joins Vujcic and Terence Morris to battle Zalgiris’s Eurelijus Zukauskas, Mamadou N’Diaye and Paulius Jankunas. Meanwhile Maccabi’s deep backcourt with Halperin, Sharp, Will Bynum, Alex Garcia and Vonteego Cummings will try and wear down DeJuan Collins, Brown and Marko Popovic. At small forward, Maciulis will try to outmuscle Bluthenthal and Omri Casspi. Both teams are offensive minded, which should produce a fun game to watch. Zalgiris’s care-free situation could work to its advantage as head coach Rimantas Grigas’s charges try to finish their season on a high note. But with first place on the line, Maccabi won’t be in a giving mood and will look for a big win in front of its fans.
Wednesday, March 19, 2008