Local Hoops: Mini-crisis at Mac Tel Aviv back home

Maccabi has only lost the league title in Israel once in the past 38 years, but on this form anything is possible come the end of May.

Macabbi TA 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Macabbi TA 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
With just a week and a half until the Euroleague Final Four tips off in Madrid, Maccabi Tel Aviv's preparations aren't exactly going as planned. On Monday the perennial Israeli champion was beaten for the second time in three local league games, falling 101-99 at Hapoel Holon. Even though the yellow and blue thundered past European powerhouse Barcelona in the Euroleague quarterfinals series a week and a half earlier, life back home has been a different story altogether. Looking at the league standings Maccabi should have no problems reaching the Israeli Final Four, but after seeing the long faces in the dressing room in Holon after the game this week, it seems clear doubts have begun to creep into the camp. Maccabi has only lost the league title in Israel once in the past 38 years, but on this form anything is possible come the end of May. In its previous league game, which came directly after the fantastic Game 3 victory over Barca, Maccabi was lucky to pull out an overtime win over Hapoel Jerusalem. After that game point guard Will Bynum admitted in a television interview with Sport5 that his teammates had played much of the contest as if they were still resting over the weekend and it was only in the dying moments that they switched back on. The week before, in between the second and third games of the quarterfinal series, Maccabi was beaten at home by Bnei Hasharon, and on Sunday faces a tough trip to Ironi Nahariya, currently in fourth position in the BSL after winning its last two league games. A dejected Esteban Batista, who scored 18 points against Holon emerged from the Maccabi dressing room on Monday trying to look forward, while unable to hide his disappointment with the team's recent performances. "We know we have to work hard and we don't have to make a big balagan [commotion] about it. We know we have to be better," the Uruguyan center told The Jerusalem Post. "I don't think all the championship depends on this game. We know we have to play the [Israeli] Final Four. We know we lost - what can I say." In Israel it is often considered a given that Maccabi will win the league title, even since the format was changed from a playoff series into a single game final a couple of years ago. However, there is now a feeling that maybe this won't be Tel Aviv's year, for the first time since Hapoel Galil Elyon triumphed under the leadership of legendary Maccabi coach Pini Gershon in 1993. But, Batista refused to be fazed. "Everybody knows the history of Maccabi and we know what we have to do," he said. "But the season is not over. We know we have to get to the Final Four." Maccabi's veteran captain Derrick Sharp also said he is keeping his eyes on the prize. "I'm never scared. It's the way the game goes." he said. "You can't win every game. We have to face some good teams." Montepaschi Siena, Maccabi's opponent in the Euroleague semifinals on May 2, are having no such problems, storming towards a second successive Italian league title. This past weekend Siena won at Tisettanta Cantu. Batista claimed he had not even begun thinking about Madrid, saying he is only focusing on the next game. "We are thinking all we have to do is think about Nahariya in the next game and then after we will think about Madrid," he said. Asked if he knows much about the Siena team Batista looked down and laughed. "Yeah, they're from Italy," he replied, before walking towards the exit of the Holon arena. Yotam Halperin, the 24-year-old point guard, is clearly thinking differently, telling reporters on Tuesday that his mind is already on Madrid. And then, in an interview with the Euroleague Web site Halperin said that while Maccabi takes each game at a time, "We know that Montepaschi is an outstanding team with quality at every position. I think that it's very difficult to point out a superstar on that team."