Local Hoops: The battle for the league title begins

Holon, Mac Tel Aviv, Nahariya and Bnei Hasharon feature in the Final Four tonight.

jp.services2 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Could this be the first year since 1993 Maccabi Tel Aviv fails to claim the league championship? After battling for position for 27 regular season games, Israel's top four teams face-off in the Final Four semifinals at the Nokia Arena on Tuesday, knowing that they're just two wins away from making history. In the first game Hapoel Holon, which finished the regular season in first position with a 20-7 record, faces an Ironi Nahariya (15-12) side which booked its place in the season ending tournament just a week ago thanks to its victory over Ironi Ramat Gan. Israeli basketball's big night will then be completed by the intriguing encounter between Maccabi Tel Aviv (18-9) and Bnei Hasharon (17-10). Maccabi enters the game after its worst season ever in the BSL when Tzvika Sherf's team set several new club records it would have gladly avoided. Until this season, a Maccabi team had never lost as many as nine games during a league campaign and had also never suffered four consecutive losses. "We've made all the preparations and Tuesday is going to be a great day," Maccabi forward Omri Casspi said on Monday. "There's a massive hunger in the team and everybody is aware of the fact that we must win this game if we want to take the championship. We have had problems with Bnei Hasharon in the past and I hope that this time we will claim the win." The biggest problem for Maccabi on Tuesday may not be its own play, but the identity of its opponent. In three meetings this season Bnei Hasharon defeated Tel Aviv each and every time, including two wins at the Nokia Arena. The 87-68 defeat in Ra'anana at the start of the season may have been brushed aside by Maccabi as a one-off, but the 86-78 and 79-78 losses in Tel Aviv which followed, proved that Effi Birenboim's men know how to beat Maccabi and aren't afraid to do so. Bnei Hasharon has had cope with a short roster all season long, with star swingman Cookie Belcher out injured since April, and will need its seven main players to be at their very best if the side's to advance to the title game. The most important component in Birenboim's team, however, is Meir Tapiro. The 33-year-old playmaker, who has averaged 13.6 points, 5.5 assists and 5.2 rebounds per game, has struggled with injury in recent weeks, resulting in Bnei Hasharon losing five of its final seven games of the season. "We've worked very hard to get here and I hope that we will at the very least reach the final," Tapiro said. "We had a very good season and we want to build on all the good things we've done, especially on defense." With all due respect to Maccabi and Bnei Hasharon, this season's most thrilling team is Holon. After recovering from November's fire-cracker incident at Malha Arena, when a Holon fan threw an explosive device on to the floor which blew off three of a security guard's fingers, Hapoel began claiming win after win thanks to a breathtaking high-scoring offense. Miki Dorsman's team, which was only promoted from the National League last summer, averaged 91 points per game and has won 14 of its last 16 games. "We're in a good mood and not under any pressure," Dorsman said ahead of his team's final training session on Monday. "The players understand what's at stake and we feel like the underdog. We're not the champions yet and in basketball everything can happen." Dorsman built a deep and balanced roster, but two of his players are the undoubted leaders of the team. P.J. Tucker (14.6 ppg, 7 rpg) and Chester Simmons (15 ppg, 3.7 rpg) make Hapoel a threat from the perimeter and the paint, giving the side a lethal one-two punch. "This has been the longest week of the season and we've been working very hard," Simmons said on Monday. "Tuesday's game against Nahariya will be different than our previous meetings as now we're playing for the championship." Holon beat Nahariya in the teams' first two encounters this season, but the side's most recent defeat was against Ironi two weeks ago. Hapoel was thrashed 99-78 at Ein Sara by Nahariya, with Roni Bosani's team blowing Holon away. Despite only taking charge at Nahariya six weeks ago, Bosani instilled a new belief into the team which has led to six victories in the final seven games of the season. "Holon finished the league in first position, putting on amazing shows, so I don't think you can say that they're not the favorites," Bosani said. "We are, however, more experienced than Holon and we've been in good shape lately."