Mac TA faces surprise Galil/Gilboa in semifinal while Hap J'lem takes on Haifa.
By ALLON SINAI
After coming through 22 regular season games and one playoff series, Israel's top four teams face off in the Final Four semifinals at the Nokia Arena on Tuesday night, with each side knowing it is just two wins away from claiming the BSL championship.
Hapoel Jerusalem faces Maccabi Haifa in the first game of the evening, with Maccabi Tel Aviv playing Hapoel Galil/Gilboa later on.
The winners of those contests will meet in Thursday's final and regardless of the outcome, Israeli basketball will have a new champion after last season's winner, Hapoel Holon, failed to make it past the quarterfinals.
(1) Maccabi Tel Aviv vs (5) Hapoel Galil/Gilboa
Despite last year's dramatic final loss to Holon, Maccabi enters the Final Four as the clear favorite once more, with coach Pini Gershon going for his seventh league title in seven seasons in charge at Tel Aviv.
"Everyone WANTS to win the championship, but we NEED to win the title," Gershon said. "The three other teams can afford to lose, we can't."
Gershon became Maccabi's fourth coach in less than a year when he rejoined the club at the end of November, and he is confident the defeat in last season's final, which ended the team's 14-year stranglehold on the league title, will have no effect on the outcome of this season's Final Four.
"This is a completely different team to the one which lost last season and we are ready for the battle. We had a month to prepare for the Final Four and I think my players understand the significance of this event," Gershon said.
Maccabi, which beat Ironi Ashkelon 3-1 in its quarterfinal playoff series, faces a Galil team it defeated twice this season, including a 23-point thrashing at the Nokia Arena on the first day of February.
However, Galil has only hit its form in the last couple of months, ending the regular season with a four-game winning streak before getting the better of Holon in a tight Game 5 in the playoffs.
It is no coincidence that the rise of playmaker Gal Mekel has corresponded with the team's recent successes.
The 21-year-old, who spent two seasons at Wichita State, averaged just 6.9 points and 2.5 assists in 16.8 minutes on court during the regular season. In the five playoff games against Holon, however, Mekel averaged 30.4 minutes, scoring 14.0 points and passing 4.2 assists per game.
Mekel has also been a revelation on the defensive end, playing a crucial role in slowing down the BSL's top scorer, Luis Flores, in the series against Holon.
Galil will need Mekel to contribute on both ends of the court once more if it is to have any chance of stunning Maccabi.
Mekel is on loan at Galil from Maccabi and may well return to the club next season, but he's remaining focused on the task at hand.
"There's a lot of talk surrounding the fact that I grew up at Maccabi, but I think the best thing I can do at this point is to concentrate on my performance and help my team in any way I can," Mekel said.
Meanwhile, Tel Aviv's star point guard, Carlos Arroyo, played and scored more (33.3 mpg, 15.5 ppg) than any other Maccabi player during the regular season and containing him will be crucial if Galil coach Oded Katash is to knock off the team which sacked him at the start of last year after less than half a season in charge.
"I learned a lot from my time at Maccabi," Katash said. "It wasn't a very pleasant experience, but it made me understand that the fire to coach still burns strong within me. I'm very happy at the moment and I'm very proud of my team."
"We all understand we need to step up our game," Arroyo said. "I think we need to stick to what we know and we'll be OK. You can't afford to make mistakes in the Final Four and you've got to be at your best. If you lose you don't get another chance. We must be focused and understand there's no tomorrow."
(2) Hapoel Jerusalem vs (3) Maccabi Haifa
The first semifinal on Tuesday between Jerusalem and Haifa will be a repeat of the State Cup semi in mid-February.
Haifa surprised then two-time reigning cup holder Jerusalem with a 67-66 victory, thanks to a Moshe Mizrahi basket with 2.4 seconds to play, but lost in the final to Holon.
Hapoel defeated Haifa both home and away in the regular season but, perhaps even more important, has hit top form in recent weeks.
Jerusalem was the only team to sweep its quarterfinal playoff series, beating Ironi Nahariya 3-0, and enters Tuesday's game on the back of a five-game winning streak.
Omar Sneed and Yuval Naimi were very good in the regular season, but have been excellent in the playoffs, with Sneed averaging 23.0 points, 8.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists in the postseason, while also recording the first ever triple-double in Israeli playoff history.
"We are ready both mentally and physically," Hapoel coach Guy Goodes said. "We're expecting a very tough semifinal. It will be very similar to the cup semi, but lets hope the ending will be different."
Haifa's first season back in the BSL has been very impressive to date, with Doron Perkins and Davon Jefferson the undoubted stars of the team.
Perkins (19.2 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 3.5 apg) and Jefferson (18 ppg, 10.2 rpg) are the only players in the team to average more than 30 minutes and 10 points in the playoffs, and coach Avi Ashkenazi knows he will need his top players to be at their very best to get the better of Jerusalem once more.
"We must believe we can defeat any team on a given night," Ashkenazi said. "We are no better than any other team here, but there's no team we can't defeat."
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