After three days of celebrations and spending more time chatting with the prime minister and president than practicing, Maccabi Tel Aviv players will have to return their focus to basketball on Thursday night when the newly crowned European champion hosts Hapoel Eilat at Nokia Arena in Game 1 of their BSL best-of-five semifinal series.
While Maccabi’s 2013/14 season will forever be regarded as a resounding success thanks to its first European championship triumph since 2005, the yellow-and- blue remains desperate to reclaim the BSL championship.
Last season’s loss to Maccabi Haifa in the title game left scars, and being crowned Israeli champion once more was the team’s priority at the start of the campaign. The last time the yellow-and-blue went consecutive seasons without winning the local championship was 48 years ago.
Maccabi, which beat Hapoel Gilboa/ Galil 3-1 in the quarterfinals, defeated Eilat in all three of their meetings this season, including in the State Cup final.
However, Oded Katash’s team gave Tel Aviv a run for its money in all three contests and has a roster which can match up against David Blatt’s men arguably better than any other team in the league.
Eilat, which entered the playoffs as the No. 5 seed, overcame Hapoel Tel Aviv (4) 3-1 in the quarterfinals, dominating the Reds with fine tuned pick-and-roll play.
Kevin Palmer (16.3 points per game and 9.5 rebounds per game in the playoffs), Elishay Kadir (15.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg), Terrico White (15.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg), Afik Nissim (13.0 ppg) and Yancy Gates (11.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg) give Katash plenty of options and will ensure Maccabi will need to contain a handful of players to triumph in the series.
Gates is a particularly valuable asset for Katash as he is one of the only players in the league who has the size and strength to guard Maccabi’s Greek giant Sofoklis Schortsanitis.
Schortsanitis will be playing in his first BSL game in over a month on Thursday after serving a six-game suspension for storming into the stands at Hadar Yosef Arena in chase of a Hapoel Tel Aviv fan.
“I’m happy that Maccabi returned with the Euroleague title and if it happens to result in them being slightly lax I will be even happier,” said Katash.
“Reaching the semifinals is a massive achievement for Eilat. The season isn’t over yet but I’m very proud of what is happening at this club. This is only the second year of this project and despite some difficulties we always believed in our way.”
The second semifinal series will also get under way on Thursday, with Hapoel Jerusalem hosting Maccabi Haifa at Malha Arena in Game 1.
No. 2 seed Jerusalem battled Hapoel Holon for four games before claiming a 3-1 series win in the quarters, with all four encounters being decided by seven points or less.
“We played well in the series but there are still some things we have to work on,” said Jerusalem coach Brad Greenberg.
“We will have to improve our play to reach the finals. We are still not content.”
Defending-champion Haifa (3) only barely scraped through to the semis, beating Ironi Ness Ziona 68-67 in overtime in a decisive Game 5 at Romema Arena on Monday.
Haifa coach Danny Franco admitted that his team will require a dramatic improvement to overcome Jerusalem, but more than anything else he was just relieved to be in the last four.
“We are not a perfect team or the team that won the championship last season,” Franco said. “We were under a lot of pressure and the guys deserve a lot of credit for holding on. We are looking forward to Thursday and are expecting a real battle against Jerusalem.”