Hapoel Maccabi 298.88.
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
If Tuesday's BSL Final Four Semifinals are anything to go by, Israeli basketball fans are in for a treat Thursday night. Maccabi Tel Aviv faces Hapoel Jerusalem in the championship game at Nokia Arena on Thursday in a match-up between the two best basketball teams in Israel.
Maccabi scratched out a 93-87 victory over Hapoel Galil Elyon-Golan in the semifinals in an extremely tense game it was fortunate not to lose. Tel Aviv trailed by 13 points at one point in the second quarter and, with two minutes remaining in the game, was still tied with a Galil squad that lost 12 games during the regular season.
Jerusalem, on the other hand, played its best game in months on Tuesday and booked its place in the final with ease after opening a second-quarter lead over a dangerous Bnei Hasharon team.
Hapoel's performance on Tuesday combined with Tel Aviv's erratic play throughout the season has Jerusalem believing more than ever before that this could be the year to claim its first Israeli championship.
However, even though Jerusalem is coming into the game more confident than ever and Maccabi is suffering from injuries to crucial squad members Nikola Vujcic and Lior Eliyahu, the perennial champion is still the favorite ahead of the game.
"I'm expecting a very difficult game, but I expect to win. We are the favorites," Maccabi coach Neven Spahija said. "Maccabi has shown many times that it can win without its star players. We've won in the Euroleague and in the BSL without Vujcic.
"On Tuesday, we won without Eliyahu and I'm sure Vujcic will play much better against Jerusalem."
Maccabi, which has won the last 13 championships and 36 of the last 37, hasn't lost a title-deciding game against Jerusalem in 10 years. Tel Aviv has won its last seven meetings in finals against Hapoel by an average 15 points, a run which includes last year's 96-66 thumping in the BSL final.
"It's obvious to all our players that we have a chance to do it tomorrow," Jerusalem coach Dan Shamir said. "There's not much you can do in one day of preparation, but I can say that we will concentrate on preparing our defense for Maccabi. We need to play our best defensive game to defeat Tel Aviv."
For the first time in years, Jerusalem has a squad whose quality can challenge Maccabi's seemingly everlasting supremacy.
Mario Austin (21 points and 11 rebounds on Tuesday) and Terrence Morris (15 points), give Shamir a dynamic duo under the baskets that would even trouble a fully fit Vujcic, not to mention a hobbling one.
Meir Tapiro (22 points, six rebounds) is finally rid of the Nokia Arena jinx that had troubled him for years until Tuesday, proving that there should be no doubt that he is the best Israeli playmaker in the league. "I hope this final will not be like last year's," he said. "Hopefully, we will put on a good display, give our all and make a little history."
Timmy Bowers (14 points) was his usual reliable self against Bnei Hasharon and, together with his teammates, gives Shamir a core of players that can push Tel Aviv's best all the way. However, Shamir will be hoping for improved contributions from Dror Hajaj (five points) and Jurica Golemac (five points), who were kept unusually quiet on Tuesday.
Spahija's biggest concern ahead of Thursday is the fitness of Vujcic and Eliyahu. The Croatian center was limited to 13 minutes against Galil, scoring just five points, with Eliyahu not playing at all against his former outfit.
Will Bynum (29 points) and Jamie Arnold (19 points, 10 rebounds) kept their team in the game against Galil and were the only reason Maccabi didn't suffer a stunning defeat.
Besides Bynum, Arnold and Derrick Sharp (14 points), the rest of Tel Aviv's lineup dramatically underperformed on Tuesday, scoring a combined 31 points on 11-of-26 from the field.
A similar performance by the supporting cast on Thursday will likely mean Jerusalem will claim an historic title, something Tal Burstein is well aware of. "I don't think our form on Tuesday will be enough," he said. "Tomorrow is a new game and we will need to match our good play of recent weeks."