Maccabi Tel Aviv visits Hapoel Eilat on Monday night aiming to wrap up its place in the BSL final, while Hapoel Jerusalem must beat Maccabi Haifa on the road to keep its hopes alive.
Maccabi took a 2-1 lead over Eilat in the best-of-five series with a comfortable 97-75 victory at Nokia Arena on Thursday, with the yellow-and-blue scoring over 90 points in its five playoff wins so far, while being held to 71 points in its two defeats.
However, much of the talk ahead of Game 4 has not been about the decisive factors in Monday’s encounter but rather regarding coach David Blatt’s future at Maccabi.
Blatt has been heavily linked with a move to CSKA Moscow this summer, although reports over the weekend claimed he has notified the Russians that negotiations with Maccabi regarding a contract extension have been going well and that he would like to remain in Israel.
Blatt vehemently denied those rumors on Sunday, insisting that he remains completely focused on regaining the BSL title after last season’s disappointment.
“Besides the fact that the reports are completely incorrect I have nothing else to say,” said Blatt. “I don’t know where this is coming from. Last week it was reported that I have already signed with CSKA and unfortunately the media is once more proving how irresponsible it is. Nevertheless, this has no effect on me.”
Blatt claimed that there has been no breakthrough in the negotiations with Maccabi.
“There hasn’t been any progress in the past week,” he said. “But we are in the middle of a series and that is all that matters to me at the moment. The goal is to win the championship. My focus and the team’s focus at the moment is on the series.”
Another David who has reportedly already decided to leave the club after the end of the season is forward David Blu. However, he declared after Game 3 that he will only make a decision regarding his future when he returns home to the US after the season is over.
“I love all the fans and Israel is always my home and I haven’t decided anything yet,” he said. “I’ll make a decision about my future in the summer when I go home and I can think more clearly.”
Eilat’s defensive play has been the key behind its unbeaten home record in the playoffs so far, with Oded Katash’s side allowing just an average of 74 points in its three postseason games in Israel’s southernmost city, while conceding 91.7 points in four road contests.
Katash guided the team in Game 3 despite the passing of his father three days earlier and guard Afik Nissim is hoping the team can repay him for his dedication on Monday.
“We have experienced some tough days with Katash in mourning and we really wanted to win for him,” said Nissim, who has averaged 4.6 points so far in the series, hitting just 4-of-23 field goals attempts (17%) after netting 13 points per game in the quarterfinal series against Hapoel Tel Aviv.
“We really want to return to Nokia for a Game 5 and there will be a very different atmosphere in Eilat.”
Jerusalem remained alive in its semifinal series against Haifa thanks to a nerve-wracking 70-63 win at Malha Arena on Friday. However, Brad Greenberg’s team still trails the defending champion 2-1, with the Greens having the opportunity to clinch the series at home at Romema Arena on Monday after snatching home-court advantage away from Jerusalem with a road win in Game 1.
Jerusalem will once more be playing without Art Parakhouski and Lior Eliyahu, who both suffered season-ending injuries in recent weeks, but is hoping to return to Malha for at least one more game this season before it leaves the arena after 28 years for its new fancy home, the Jerusalem Arena, ahead of next season.
“Our season isn’t over yet,” said club chairman Ori Allon. “Our players have a lot of character and they proved it. Even had we been swept in the semis this season shouldn’t have been regarded as a failure. If we win a title we will have exceeded expectations. However, our goal at the start of the season was to fill Malha and we have achieved that. Our goal next season is to make significant progress and in the third year we want to secure a place in the Euroleague.”
Hapoel is aiming to become just the third team to come back to win a series from a 0-2 deficit since the format was introduced in Israel in the 1989/90 season. Despite Friday’s victory, Jerusalem is still on the verge of missing out on the league final for a seventh straight year, while Haifa needs just one more win to advance to the final for a second straight season.
“Jerusalem has a very depleted roster, but has still got talent and we lost in Game 3 even though we gave everything we had,” said Haifa coach Danny Franco. “We weren’t composed enough in Game 3, but we battled and I hope we bring the same energy to Game 4 on Monday.”
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