Maccabi Tel Aviv enters the BSL playoffs as the preferred choice to regain the local basketball league championship, but unlike most previous seasons, there are at least two teams who not only believe they can win the title, but are confident of doing so.
Hapoel Jerusalem led the regular season standings for much of the campaign before ultimately finishing one game behind Maccabi, while defending champion Maccabi Haifa beat both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in recent weeks to clinch the No. 3 seed.
Hapoel Tel Aviv, as well, must be considered a legitimate outside contender as it finished the regular season in fourth place and recorded at least one win this season against the top three seeds.
Mac TA finished the regular season at 22-6, its worst record since going 18-9 in the 2007/08 campaign, which ended with the loss of the championship at the hands of Hapoel Holon.
The yellow-and-blue also suffered its heaviest home defeat in history in any competition when it was thrashed 93-65 by Jerusalem at Nokia Arena in late March.
However, after getting off to its worst-ever start in local league action, losing four of its first nine games, Tel Aviv won 17 of its final 19 contests, falling at Haifa 68-66 the week after its historic defeat to Jerusalem.
But there is still a long way to go before Jerusalem or Haifa potentially meet Maccabi in a mouthwatering two-legged home-and-away final, with any team aiming to be a title contender needing to first come through best-of-five quarterfinal and semifinal series.
Jerusalem hosts Hapoel Holon at Malha Arena in its last-eight series opener on Thursday, with No. 4 seed Hapoel Tel Aviv welcoming No. 5 Hapoel Eilat at Hadar Yosef Arena later in the evening.
Maccabi Tel Aviv begins its series against Hapoel Gilboa/Galil at Nokia Arena on Saturday, while Haifa hosts Ironi Ness Ziona in Game 1 at Romema Arena.
While the yellow-and-blue is widely expected to sweep Gilboa 3-0, the other top seeds may not have it all their own way.
Jerusalem beat Holon in both of their regular season meetings, but the historic bitter rivalry between the clubs means the No. 2 seed will face a very hostile atmosphere on the road in Game 2 next week, and potentially also in Game 4.
Jerusalem will want to ensure it at least takes a 1-0 lead into the second game of the series by overcoming Holon on Thursday.
Since losing to Maccabi Ashdod in its regular season opener at Malha last October, Jerusalem has gone 9-0 at home against teams not named Maccabi Tel Aviv or Maccabi Haifa.
“Holon is the league’s best offensive rebounding team,” warned Jerusalem coach Brad Greenberg. “They play aggressive defense and this will be a tight series.
However, we have a good team comprised of unselfish players.”
Jerusalem captain Yotam Halperin believes defense will decide the series.
“We have risen or fallen this season based on our defense, even though we have a lot of weapons on offense,” explained Halperin. “We have struggled in recent weeks with playing only one game a week after being knocked out of the Eurocup, but I believe in our players.
We are facing a very difficult series and we will need to raise our level in the playoffs.”
Holon coach Elad Hasin, who replaced Lior Lubin in March, believes his team can become just the third No. 7 seed in local history to knockout a No. 2 seed.
“Holon’s DNA is to fight and work hard and we will give our all,” he said. “I hope we can do that throughout a series. Jerusalem is a wonderful team but we will look them in the eye.”
Hapoel Tel Aviv and Eilat split their regular season meetings, with each team winning at home. Tel Aviv enters the playoffs on the back of a four-game losing streak, although all of those defeats came against Maccabi Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa.
“We have every reason to be worried ahead of this series,” said Hapoel Tel Aviv coach Erez Edelstein. “We can’t be pleased with the way we have played defense in recent games and if we don’t play our best defense we will have a very tough time. We are facing a quality side and a difficult mission.”
Tel Aviv and Eilat also met in the State Cup semifinals at Nokia, with the Southerners prevailing.
“We know exactly what we need to do to win because we prepared for Hapoel ahead of the cup semis,” said Eilat coach Oded Katash. “Hapoel has had a great season and knows how to excel.”
The other two quarterfinals series both tip off on Saturday.
Gilboa has no illusions regarding the magnitude of the task it faces against Maccabi Tel Aviv, and Ness Ziona – the surprise package of the season – will have to improve its road record to have a chance of ousting Haifa after winning just one of six games at teams ranked above it in the standings.