Maccabi Tel Aviv enters the second leg of the BSL final on Wednesday night as a firm favorite to regain the championship. However, defending champion Maccabi Haifa believes it is more than capable of overturning the four-point deficit from the first leg at the home of the European champion at Nokia Arena.
Despite its surprise Euroleague triumph, the yellow-and-blue experienced an erratic local campaign, losing a relatively high total of eight games against seven different Israeli sides in 2013/14.
Haifa also beat Maccabi earlier this season, but that was at Romema and the Greens will be targeting their first ever win over Tel Aviv at Nokia on Wednesday, with the yellow-and-blue desperate for redemption after last season’s dejection.
“It is going to be a real battle at Nokia,” said Haifa coach Danny Franco. “We gave all we had in the second half of the first leg and I’m proud of what we did even though I am disappointed we lost.
“I draw optimism from our performance in the second half. Our team gave 100 percent and we couldn’t have done more. We have one more night to give our all.”
Tel Aviv coach David Blatt, who may be guiding the team for the last time after being heavily connected with a move to the NBA or Europe in recent weeks, had mainly one man to thank for the first leg win, playmaker Tyrese Rice.
Rice was sensational, registering 30 points and seven assists in 30 minutes, carrying the team on his back in the closing stages the way he did in the Euroleague final against Real Madrid.
“Haifa is a very talented team which is well coached and the two best sides in the country gave the fans good value for their money in the first leg,” said Blatt.
“What else is there to say about Tyrese? That was one of the greatest performances I have seen by a Maccabi playmaker and I coached some great playmakers.”
Maccabi hit 10-of-25 three-point attempts in the first leg, while committing just eight turnovers, most of them in the fourth quarter. Blatt would be happy to receive a repeat performance in those categories, but will be hoping the likes of Devin Smith, Sofoklis Schortsanitis and Alex Tyus will make a bigger contribution than they did on Sunday and give Rice a helping hand.
“It was a pure dog fight,” said Rice of the first leg. “We knew exactly how it was going to be but we came out with a win and that is what we wanted. We will complete the mission on Wednesday.
I have no doubt.”
Smith is expecting an improved showing by himself and the team at Nokia.
“We never thought it would be a walk in the park,” said Smith. “We knew Haifa is a deep team with dominant foreigners, but we were hungrier than them.
We beat them in Haifa even though they played well and that says a lot about us.
They will be hungry in the return leg, but every team plays better at home and so will we.”
Haifa, which is looking to deny the yellow-and-blue the league title for a second straight season, something which hasn’t happened since 1966, was completely dependent on two players in the first leg.
Donta Smith led Haifa with 29 points, eight rebounds and eight assists, while Brian Randle ended an excellent game with 27 points and seven boards. However, the rest of the team didn’t show up on the offensive end and Haifa will have absolutely no chance on Wednesday should it commit 17 turnovers again and hit just 5-of-23 three-point shots.
Terrence Roderick, Adrian Henning, Moran Rot and Dagan Yavzuri accounted for just 15 total points, hitting a combined 4-of-22 shots from the field. Maccabi’s bench outscored Haifa’s 48-10, although 30 of those points came from Rice.
Yavzuri is confident both he and his teammates will bounce back on Wednesday and provide Smith and Randle with greater support.
“We weren’t nervous in the first leg.
We are experienced players and we have been in similar situations, but there are days when the ball simply doesn’t go in,” said Yavzuri. “We play as a team and it doesn’t matter where the points come from. Donta and Brian carried us and we will have to help them more on Wednesday.”
There are several reasons for optimism for Haifa ahead of the return leg, one of them being the fact that the Greens held Maccabi to 40.6 percent from two-point range on Sunday, a season low for the yellow-and-blue.
“We were twice tied with Maccabi, but they took it away from us at the end,” said Randle. “We were naive at the start of the first leg and allowed them to play their game. We have one more game to play and we will have to show up without any excuses. We will need more players to play better. We believe we can do it. We would already be at home had we not believed in ourselves.”