Tel Aviv once again the Final 4 favorite

Maccabi faces surprising Rishon, followed by J’lem-Gilboa, for a spot on Thursday

Macabi Tel Aviv coach David Blatt 311 (photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Macabi Tel Aviv coach David Blatt 311
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Maccabi Tel Aviv has been the default favorite at every BSL Final Four, but never to this extent.
Not only has David Blatt’s team been in superb form for much of the season – reaching the Euroleague final – but the other three sides in the season-ending tournament have all experienced erratic campaigns, almost stumbling into the Final Four.
Maccabi Tel Aviv progresses to Euroleague Final
Tel Aviv’s opponent in the first semifinal at Nokia Arena on Tuesday, Maccabi Rishon Lezion, recorded the lone surprise of the quarterfinal playoffs, but even its 3-1 defeat of Bnei Hasharon was hardly impressive.
Hapoel Jerusalem swept Maccabi Ashdod on its way to the semis, but that did little to sweeten a somewhat bitter season, which had once promised so much.
Hapoel Gilboa/Galil, which faces Jerusalem on Tuesday, has thus far defended its title admirably, but few believe that it has a chance of claiming a second straight championship.
Nevertheless, it is Maccabi’s dominance that led the BSL to introduce the Final Four format to start with, hoping to level the playing field with what some feel is an unfair way to decide the league title.
It has worked, with Tel Aviv dropping the title twice in the last three seasons.
The knockout format gives every team a chance, and despite losing just once in 30 games in the regular season and playoffs, Blatt is taking nothing for granted.
“We have still got some work to do and we are hoping to play the good, attractive and successful basketball we displayed during the year,” said Blatt, whose team has hardly been troubled in local play this season. “We are used to these types of events and we are experienced at making the needed switch. There should be no problem with motivation or ambition because we want to take the final title left to be won.”
While Tel Aviv comfortable cruised through the season, Rishon experienced a roller coaster campaign.
Effi Birenboim’s team had won just two of its last eight games entering the playoffs, only to find its form when it mattered most and surprise Bnei Hasharon.
“We are not just showing up to be part of the décor,” Rishon guard Nitzan Hanochi said. “We want to win. It is obviously going to be very difficult to do against Maccabi, but we will give our best and hope to maintain a tight game until the closing stages.
“Tel Aviv may have beaten us in all our meetings so far this season, but we remained in touch with them most of the time and if we can do that again maybe we can also record a different result.”
Jerusalem has seemingly gone from crisis to crisis this season, but coach Oded Katash, who guided Gilboa to the title last year, knows that two wins over the next three days and he will be hailed as a hero once more.
“We believe we can do it,” said Katash, whose side could only finish third in the regular season and suffered early exits from both the State Cup and Eurocup.
“We have been through a rough season, but you play all year for these moments and we feel we are ready.
“We have a lot of players who have experience at these stages. We are coming with confidence and we need to remain positive.”
Katash will be coming up against his assistant from last year, Lior Lubin, and Gilboa playmaker Gal Mekel is expecting a tight game between two teams and coaches that know all about each other.
“Both teams have very good rosters,” Mekel said. “We have played seven or eight times this season and there’s not much we can surprise each other with. The team that executes the little things better will win.”
With all four teams within one victory of the final and two of the title, Tel Aviv marksman David Blu knows that the Final Four will be decided first and foremost by which team copes better with the pressure.
“I don’t think we are the favorites,” Blu said. “This is a Final Four and in this knockout competition all the teams are equal. As we saw last year, when everything is decided by one game anything can happen.
Maybe the media expect us to win with ease, but this is going to be a tough game.”