Perennial champion faces newly-promoted Maccabi Haifa in season climax tonight.
By ALLON SINAI
Ending a season without being crowned as league champion is unthinkable at Maccabi Tel Aviv.
But going two seasons without claiming the BSL title would be a true disaster in the club's terms.
Only twice in the league's 55 year history has Maccabi failed to win the championship for consecutive seasons, with the last time coming more than 40 years ago.
Maccabi's coaching staff and players are desperate to avoid making such history and will need to perform under this immense pressure when they face Maccabi Haifa in Thursday night's Final Four title game at the Nokia Arena.
After last season's dramatic loss to Hapoel Holon in the final, Tel Aviv plays another newly-promoted team on Thursday, which like Holon has the ability and nerve to threaten the yellow-and-blue's position as perennial champion.
Haifa finished the regular season in an impressive third position and only missed out on claiming the State Cup after Holon's Brian Tolbert hit a miracle three-pointer.
The team defeated Bnei Hasharon 3-1 in its quarterfinal playoffs series and, despite squandering a comfortable lead against Hapoel Jerusalem in Tuesday's Final Four semifinal, mounted an impressive comeback from an eight-point deficit late in the game to record a 98-93 overtime victory and advance to an historic final.
"Tel Aviv was the best team in the league and deserved to end the regular season in first position," Haifa coach Avi Ashkenazi said at the pre-game press conference on Tuesday.
"Tel Aviv is playing at its home arena and will also have an advantage in the stands. However, in one game anything can happen and I hope we can complete the job and lift the title."
Tel Aviv coach Pini Gershon dismissed Ashkenazi's remarks.
"Ashkenazi is just trying to pile the pressure on us," he said. "It's easy to come as the underdog."
Gershon only got one minute from guard Marcus Brown in the semifinals, but is hopeful the American will be able to feature far more on Thursday.
"Brown should play, but we have quality bench players and those who replaced Brown on Tuesday did a very good job," Gershon said.
However, Tel Aviv playmaker Carlos Arroyo was far more concerned with the possible absence of Brown.
"Brown is the key to our success," Arroyo said. "Unfortunately, he won't be able to help us much, so we all need to raise our level of play. We are aware of Haifa's quality, but this is final and we must fight until the final second."
Despite insisting Haifa is entering the game as an underdog, Ashkenazi admitted that his team has got plenty to offer against Tel Aviv.
"I think we have some advantages over Maccabi," Ashkenazi said. "However, we need to make sure we implement our game plan."
Tel Aviv was anything but impressive in its 72-70 win over Hapoel Galil/Gilboa on Tuesday.
Maccabi played poorly, but held a comfortable lead for the first three periods.
But a few good minutes by Galil in the fourth period gave Oded Katash's team the lead, which Tel Aviv only barely managed to overturn in the closing stages.
Tel Aviv and Haifa split their two meetings in the regular season, with Gershon's team winning 80-68 at home in January and Haifa claiming a 79-76 victory at Romema last month.
In fact, in all three of its regular season losses Tel Aviv failed to score more than 80 points, and that will be the magic number which the defense-orientated Haifa will be aiming for on Thursday night.
The key to Haifa's success this season has been its defense and the contributions of Doron Perkins and Davon Jefferson.
The Greens had the best defense in the league in the regular season, conceding an average 75 points per game, although the team allowed more than 80 points for just the fourth time this season against Jerusalem on Tuesday.
Perkins and Jefferson were superb once more in the semifinals, with Jefferson scoring 24 points and taking 10 rebounds and Perkins adding 22 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists and five steals.
"I think it's going to come down to defense because defense wins championships," Jefferson said. "I'm approaching the final like any other game. I don't feel like I'm under any special pressure."
His teammate Ido Kozikaro was also confident Haifa is as ready as it will be for the final.
"The win over Jerusalem gives us confidence and helps us mentally ahead of the final," Kozikaro said.
Tel Aviv forward Lior Eliyahu, who led his team with 20 points in the victory over Galil, is wary of Haifa, but is looking forward to the final.
"Haifa deserved to beat Jerusalem. They played well and we will have to play aggressively to win on Thursday," Eliyahu said. "It's difficult to tell how the game will develop. This final will be a real battle."
Earlier Thursday, Jerusalem plays Galil for a place in next season's Eurocup competition.
The winner will also receive a NIS 250,000 bonus from the BSL.
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