Basketball preview: Haifa, Tel Aviv primed for first half of final showdown

Haifa and Maccabi have met four times this season, with Tel Aviv winning three of the games.

Maccabi TA center Sofoklis Schortsanitis (left) and Maccabi Haifa’s Ido Kozikaro (photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
Maccabi TA center Sofoklis Schortsanitis (left) and Maccabi Haifa’s Ido Kozikaro
(photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
Maccabi Haifa and Maccabi Tel Aviv may be facing off in the BSL final for the second straight season this week, but there are few other similarities between the past two editions of the title decider.
For one, it is no longer a title decider but title deciders, with the BSL adopting the unorthodox two-legged home-andaway format to determine this season’s champion.
As the lower seed, Haifa hosts the first leg at Romema Arena on Sunday night, with the return leg to be played in Tel Aviv on Wednesday. Should each team triumph in a single game, the winner will be decided on aggregate score.
Haifa beat Tel Aviv in last season’s winner-takes-all final at Romema and is aiming to become the first team not named Maccabi Tel Aviv to claim back-to- back championships since Hapoel Tel Aviv in 1966.
That was also the last time the yellow and- blue failed to take the league title two years running, although the single- game format did see Maccabi drop the championship three times in the past six finals.
Both teams also enter this season’s final with significantly different rosters, with Haifa failing to hold on to the core that led it to success and Tel Aviv desperate to make changes following last year’s dejecting disappointment.
Only three Haifa players returned from last season, with Donta Smith, Ido Kozikaro and Alex Chubrevich all hoping to claim a second consecutive championship.
The likes of Gal Mekel, Paul Stoll and Pat Calathes all left the club, with coach Brad Greenberg also moving on to Hapoel Jerusalem. Danny Franco came in as Greeberg’s replacement, and it wasn’t until recent weeks that Haifa finally realized its potential by playing as a cohesive unit. Sherwood Brown and David Cubillan were both cut during the season, with Haifa losing star forward Ike Ofoegbu to a season-ending injury in January. Adrian Henning came in to replace Ofoegbu, with Terrence Roderick joining the side in March after being released by Hapoel Eilat.
Haifa ended the regular season in third place and only barely scraped through to the semis, beating Ironi Ness Ziona 68-67 in overtime in Game 5 of the quarterfinals at Romema.
However, the Greens finally hit top form in the semifinal series against Hapoel Jerusalem, winning Game 1 at Malha Arena by 28 points to snatch home-court advantage away from the hosts before wrapping up a 3-1 series triumph with an emphatic 90-68 home victory in Game 4.
“It is not a given for us to be in the final,” said Haifa coach Danny Franco.
“We want to try and win the first game regardless of the margin of victory. Beating the European champion would be a great achievement for us.”
Haifa and Maccabi have met four times this season, with Tel Aviv winning three of the games. However, Franco doesn’t believe any of their previous encounters holds any significance ahead of the final.
“The Maccabi we face this week will be different to the Maccabi we have played earlier this season and the same goes for us,” he explained. “We have already beaten them before so we are confident, but we will not be facing the same Maccabi we defeated. This is a special week and we want to be at our best. Maccabi plays at a different level to the rest of the league and we will try to meet their standard.”
Six of Tel Aviv’s players still have the bitter taste of last season’s loss in their mouths and will be looking to exorcise those ghosts this week. Their new teammates will want to make sure they don’t join the growing list of players to have failed to win a league title with Maccabi following an erratic campaign which saw the yellow-and-blue lose to seven different Israeli sides.
Despite dropping a game in both the quarterfinals against Hapoel Gilboa/ Galil and semifinals versus Hapoel Eilat, Maccabi will still be bursting with confidence on Sunday, exactly three weeks after lifting the Euroleague title following a sensational victory over Real Madrid in the final.
After spending three days in the US following the passing of his father last Monday, Maccabi coach David Blatt guided the team in training once more on Friday.
According to a report on Yahoo Sports, Blatt met with new Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr on Thursday to discuss the option of becoming his top assistant. Blatt has turned down NBA assistant jobs in the past, but may well be enticed to move to Northern California to help reshape the Warriors, which could prove to be a springboard to a head-coaching position in the NBA.
Whether Blatt chooses to move on or remain at Maccabi, his future will only be determined after the final, and he will want to make sure he can come to a decision with a clear mind after reclaiming the championship.
Last season’s failure to lift the league title is the only blemish on Blatt’s local record, with the coach claiming 10 of 11 possible championships and State Cups so far in his six seasons in charge of the yellow-and-blue. Tel Aviv has already lost a relatively high total of eight games against Israeli sides in 2013/14, but captain Guy Pnini believes that means little ahead of the final and is optimistic the yellow-and-blue can redeem itself this week after last year’s disappointment.
“Of course we have some unpleasant memories from the game at Romema last season, but this will be a different story,” Pnini said. “Both teams are very different to last year and we have come through a lot this season, ensuring we will enter the final with a lot of confidence and self-belief.”
Despite the Euroleague triumph, Pnini knows Maccabi’s season will not be complete should it fail to regain the local league title.
“Haifa has proven this year that it is an excellent team, but I believe that we will achieve our goals if we play our game,” he claimed. “It isn’t easy to come back down to earth after the peak we reached, but everyone at the club always knew that our first goal is to win the BSL championship, especially after we lost it last season. All the guys know the meaning of this game and I’m sure it will show on court.”