There is no question that the 2022/23 edition of Hapoel Tel Aviv is one of the most exciting and intriguing teams that Israeli basketball has seen in quite some time.
The Reds have played top-level hoops from the start of the campaign and are not only a threat to win the domestic league this year but also have a legitimate chance of heading deep into the EuroCup postseason.
With victories over Maccabi Tel Aviv – which moved Hapoel into first place in the Israeli league – and Turk Telekom Ankara to propel them into a second-place tie with the Turkish club in continental play, Danny Franco has his squad humming along and arguably playing the best basketball of the season.
The Reds clipped the yellow-and-blue by a point, 96-95, and then slipped by Turk 84-82 in what was certainly a real European double week if there ever was one as both opponents have deep, high-level squads as well as coaches who have experienced some of the highest of highs in Euroleague basketball.
In both of these encounters, Hapoel saw a number of players step up, including J’Covan Brown who fleeced Maccabi for 32 points, and Xavier Munford who did one better with 33 points while going 7-of-8 from deep in the win over Turk. But it wasn’t just one player who helped the Reds in these tough battles, it was a number of players who stepped up when some players were out.
Munford, the MVP in the win over Turk, was exhausted but all smiles following the game.
“It was a must win and all week we had been preparing for Maccabi and this game based on the standings this was going to be a big game. We had players who were out and we had to raise the level of our play.
“It’s a whole team feeling and I knew everybody was going to step up with guys out and everyone played and brought something to the table no matter how many minutes they played. Everyone gave it their all.”
Whether it was Tomer Ginat, Chinanu Onuaku, Gil Beni and Jaylen Hoard - the games demonstrated just how critical a deep roster is when not only playing in two totally different competitions but also if you want to truly have a chance to make noise and have a real, legitimate chance to win them as well.
That is what is making this season truly so exciting. These victories aren’t one-offs. They are the building blocks for something truly exemplary.
Franco’s team came into the Turk EuroCup clash without three regulars – Jordan McRae, JP Tokoto and Idan Zalmanson – who were all unavailable due to illness. Add the fact that they were both mentally and physically exhausted from the win over Maccabi less than 48 hours prior, it would have all added up should they have not had the energy to compete against a team that was fresher than them.
However, that was not the case. The Reds came out strong and held the lead for the majority of the game as their faithful fans also pushed them along.
But they finally hit a hard brick wall when they entered the final frame up 65-57, but very quickly saw Erdem Can’s club led by Jerian Grant and Axel Bouteille ripped off a 17-3 run over the first 5+ minutes of the quarter to take a 77-68 lead.
In addition to the deficit, last season’s MVP Onuaku fouled out and left the court frustrated as ever while a number of fans began to pack it in and head for the exits.
For most teams that would have signaled the end of the contest. An understandable “schedule loss”.But not for Danny Franco’s Hapoel Tel Aviv.
Munford took the bull by the horns and started scoring at will, leading the Reds to a comeback for the ages with a 10-0 run to finish off the game which included a trio of triples down the stretch including the game-winner with just five seconds left to secure the win.
The rabid fans shook their heads in disbelief as they couldn’t wrap their heads around what had happened in their own house, the Drive-In Arena.
“This was a heroic game on our part,” Franco explained. “We imagined before the game that with our short roster and if we would come up soft, we would have no chance to win the game. Onuaku got into early foul trouble but everyone gave so much for this game. Türk is an excellent team and well coached with great players and attitude. To win this game after the Maccabi game is really incredible and we are already thinking about Ness Ziona.
“Hapoel Tel Aviv is a big club and there are no excuses. At the end of the day, we will play just as we have the support of our crowd. A game like this one shows everyone that if you play with this type of intensity and play like a professional, you can win the game.”
When Hapoel Tel Aviv was demolished by Hapoel Jerusalem at home 10 days earlier, it seemed that the Reds world was about to cave in. That this was going to be the end of the season and the team would just come apart at the seams. But that was not the case. The players pulled it together themselves and looked each other in the eye saying that this is not how this season is going to go.
“That Jerusalem game was tough for us and we didn’t play well,” Munford said.” We had a players meeting after the game and we spoke about what we can expect from each other and what we can do to win. Jordan stepped up last week against Paris, Gil stepped up against Maccabi. It’s the next man up mentality and hopefully we keep winning.”The home crowd at the Drive-In Arena can be a game-changer for Hapoel and there is no question that the supporters can will the players on when exhaustion has hit or when the Reds’ backs are against the wall. Franco knows it, the players know it, the fans know it and the opposition knows it as well.
The fingerprints of the crowd was all over the final minutes of this game and Can, the Turk head coach, knew it all too well after having also arrived in Israel early to take in the derby and see the fans in action.
“I have to thank the Hapoel fans for the great atmosphere and the high quality of basketball,” Can said. “We didn’t want to make the turnovers and we made 16. In the decisive moments, we couldn’t control the game the right way, we missed shots and they scored. It was overall a good game for the fans to watch.”
“This was an incredible evening and I don’t know that we would have been able to come back in any other arena that would be half full,” said Franco.
There is just way too much talent for Hapoel to just “hi” and “bye” this season. Franco’s team has not only a real shot of winning the league title, but should we dare also say win the EuroCup and find itself playing in the Euroleague alongside Maccabi next season.
Sure there are some better teams, but with the way Hapoel can play and the potential that is oozing out of the Reds’ players, don’t count them out – there is no reason to.