Hap Jerusalem wary as playoffs begin

Reds host Rishon in Game 1 tonight; Mac TA expects victory over Bnei Hasharon.

Maccabi Rishon Lezion 311 (photo credit: BSL)
Maccabi Rishon Lezion 311
(photo credit: BSL)
The BSL playoffs get underway on Sunday and promise to be closer than ever this season.
Perennial champion Maccabi Tel Aviv may be a firm favorite to sweep Bnei Hasharon, but the three other best-of-five series are expected to be especially tight, with the higher seeds unlikely to have it all their own way as they did in previous campaigns.
The relegation playoffs also begin on Sunday, with Hapoel Afula hosting Ironi Ramat Gan. Game 1 of the series between Ironi Nahariya and Hapoel Holon will be played at Ein Sara on Monday.
Maccabi Tel Aviv (1) vs Bnei Hasharon (8)  
Maccabi was defeated in just one of 22 regular season encounters and it is hard to see it losing a game in the series against Bnei Hasharon.
Dan Shamir’s team may have put up a stern contest in two of its three meetings against Tel Aviv this season, including the State Cup final. However, it was no competition for the yellow-and-blue when the sides last played a month ago, and that will likely be the case in the playoffs as well, starting on Sunday at the Nokia Arena.
Hapoel Jerusalem (2) vs Maccabi Rishon Lezion (7)  
Jerusalem jumped three places to end the regular season in second position following its 78-74 victory at Maccabi Haifa last week, but it has yet to prove it can play well on a consistent basis this season.
Hapoel had lost four of six league games prior to the showdown at Romema, and despite beating Rishon twice this season, will be wary of Effi Birenboim’s team.
Rishon lost six of its first seven games of the campaign, but has improved in recent months, winning five of its last seven encounters.
Rishon will also be boosted in the knowledge that Hapoel has uncharacteristically struggled at home this season.
Guy Goodes’s team has lost in four of its last five games at Malha Arena and Rishon will be looking to take advantage of Hapoel’s home struggles when it travels to the capital for Game 1 on Sunday.
Hapoel Gilboa/Galil (3) vs Ironi Ashkelon (6)
Gilboa got the season off to a 9-2 start, but has suffered from erratic form ever since and faces a tricky series against Ashkelon.
Despite losing to Gilboa in its season opener, Ashkelon crushed Oded Katash’s team when the sides last met three months ago, and coach Ariel Beit-Halachmi will be hoping that the experience of veterans Moran Rot, Omar Sneed and Brian Tolbert will help lead the team to the Final Four.
Gilboa, which hosts Game 1 on Monday, has a much younger roster, but Katash has guided the club to the Final Four twice before and his side will be a slight favorite to do so once more in the coming weeks.
Maccabi Haifa (4) vs Barak Netanya (5)  
Haifa held the runners-up position for much of the season, but lastweek’s loss to Jerusalem saw it drop to fourth and resulted in a verydifficult series against the surprise of the season.
Netanya, which was only promoted to the BSL this past summer, hasexceeded all expectations so far, and even without home-court advantagewill be confident of stunning Haifa.
Arik Alfasi’s team lost twice to Haifa this season, both by 14 points,but has won nine of 11 home games and can pile the pressure on AviAshkenazi’s men should it at least win its games at the Yeshurun Arena.
As ever, the key for Haifa will be its defensive play, with Ashkenazi’smen holding their opponents to a league-best 75 points per game in theregular season. Netanya, on the other hand, allowed 83.2 points pergame, the worst defensive record of the eight teams which reached theplayoffs, and its fate in the series against Haifa will likely rest onits ability to dictate a fast pace.