The two giants of Israeli basketball will clash for the third time this season when Maccabi Tel Aviv hosts Hapoel Jerusalem on Thursday night at Nokia Arena in Tel Aviv with more than just their rivalry at stake.
The teams enter the game with identical 16-3 BSL records, meaning that the victor will take sole possession of first place. Moreover, in a schedule quirk, the winning team will host a rematch on Sunday night.
Thursday's game is a makeup of a Matchday 19 meeting that was postponed last month to allow both teams more time to prepare for crucial games during their respective European runs. Jerusalem was eventually eliminated from the ULEB Cup by Dynamo Moscow, while Maccabi has clinched a spot in the Euroleague Final Four next weekend in Prague.
Sunday's game will highlight the BSL Matchday 23 schedule, which before the season started stated that the team that leads the league at the end of two full rounds of play (20 games) will host the second-place team.
Maccabi has a five-game winning streak against Hapoel, but their two meetings so far this season have displayed some of the best domestic action seen here in years.
In December, Jerusalem led most of the way, but Maccabi played better down the stretch to eke out a 100-98 win in Malha behind 29 points and nine rebounds from center Nikola Vujcic.
Their second meeting took place in early March with the season's first trophy, the State Cup, on the line. Maccabi led comfortably most of the way, before a last Jerusalem charge made for an exciting finish, but it was Tel Aviv that rejoiced in the end, 96-91. Former Jerusalem favorite Will Solomon led Maccabi with 24 points and eight rebounds.
Thursday's game will be a little different for both sides. Despite back-to-back BSL losses in recent weeks to Bnei Hasharon and Hapoel Galil Elyon-Golan, Maccabi's real concern is preparing for its Final Four semifinal against Spain's Tau Vitoria and it will view this and Sunday's games as tuneups.
Jerusalem arrives pressurefree, knowing that it has nothing to lose at this point. In recent games, coach Erez Edelstein has widened his rotation, with reserves Tamar Slay, Izik Ohanon and Guy Kantor seeing more action. He will need a strong showing from Ohanon, since center Erez Marckovich is still out with an injury.
Maccabi will also be shorthanded up front. Coach Pini Gershon will need to choose between Maceo Baston and Jamie Arnold at power forward, since league rules limit the team to only four foreign players per game, and Solomon, Vujcic and Anthony Parker are all certain to start.
Jerusalem last beat Maccabi in February 2004 and hasn't won a league game in Tel Aviv since the 1990/91 season.