One of the key matchups in the BSL quarterfinal series between Hapoel Jerusalem and Hapoel Tel Aviv.
(photo credit: DANNY MARON)
The battle for a berth in the BSL Final Four enters its final stretch on Thursday night with the start of the four best-offive quarterfinal playoff series.
The top eight teams after 33 regular season games are vying for four tickets to the season ending tournament in Jerusalem where the championship will be decided at the start of June.
Defending champion Hapoel Jerusalem finished three-games clear at the top of the regular season standings, clinching the No. 1 seed weeks ago, and will face No. 8 Hapoel Tel Aviv in the quarters.
The winner of that series will play in the Final Four the winner of the showdown between No. 4 Ironi Nahariya and No. 5 Hapoel Eilat.
No. 2 Maccabi Tel Aviv will be favored to overcome No. 7 Bnei Herzliya in their series while No. 3 Maccabi Haifa comes up against No. 6 Maccabi Rishon Lezion.
After claiming a first championship in club history last year, Jerusalem enters the playoffs as a clear favorite to defend its title.
A win on Thursday would be Jerusalem’s 13th in a row in BSL action, equaling a club record. Danny Franco’s team beat Hapoel Tel Aviv in all three of their regular season meetings, although only did so by a combined eight points.
Despite having little to play for in their most recent clash at the start of this month, Jerusalem fought back from a 21-point deficit to claim a 93-92 victory thanks to E.J. Rowland’s three-pointer with 2.7 seconds to play.
Jerusalem hasn’t lost in the BSL since the end of February, but coach Franco urged his players to forget about the regular season as they prepare for the playoffs.
“I don’t know if our winning streak will have any effect on the series, but this is the playoffs and everyone starts from scratch,” he said.
Captain Yotam Halperin said the players are only focusing on the series against Tel Aviv and not thinking ahead to the Final Four which will be held at their home arena.
“We had a good regular season, but that is no longer relevant,” explained Halperin. “All our games against Hapoel were tight and this will be a difficult series against a tough team with talent.”
Tel Aviv ended the regular season with four wins from its last six games, with its defeats coming against Jerusalem and Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Captain Matan Naor admitted Jerusalem is the favorite, but is confident his team can at least put up a fight.
“We had a tough season. I really feared we may be relegated not that long ago,” said Naor. “Obviously we are the underdog but every playoff series takes on a life of its own.”
Despite its rough season to date, Maccabi Tel Aviv is still very confident of overcoming Herzliya.
Maccabi has won eight of its past nine games, and even though it ended the regular season with a club record nine defeats, it managed to beat Herzliya in all three of their meetings by double digits. Maccabi, which was beaten in the semifinals by Eilat last season, hasn’t gone two straight years without a local championship since the mid-1960’s.
“We are feeling a little better recently,” said Maccabi captain Guy Pnini. “Things are starting to fall into place. This has been a season with many ups and downs and hopefully we are on the up and can continue this way in the playoffs. We are meeting a good team against which we had a tough time this season, but I believe we will get the job done.”
Herzliya coach Micky Gorka is hoping his team can leave behind its poor finish to the regular season, losing five consecutive games as well as seven of eight.
“The playoffs give us an opportunity to make a fresh start,” said Gorka. “We need to put everything aside and understand that we are