Why Hapoel Tel Aviv will win the Israel Basketball League Championship

Jun 13, 2024 | Holyland Hoops

Thursday is the beginning of the end of the 2023/24 Winner League season, with Maccabi Tel Aviv hosting Hapoel Tel Aviv in the first game of a best-of-three game series. This is the second consecutive year in which the finale will be a Tel Aviv Derby series. While most people expect the result to be the same and for Maccabi to walk away from the series with their 57th League Championship – check out the piece from The Sports Rabbi himself – I’m here to tell you why the Reds will win go one step further than last season and win the club’s 6th Championship and first since the 1968-69 season.

This season has not been easy for any Israeli team. While other teams have struggled during the season with an unwanted coaching change and losing its star foreigner – à la Hapoel Aleksandar Dzikic and Zach Hankins – Hapoel have made positive adjustments on both fronts. The club was not happy with Hapoel’s quarterfinal exits from the EuroCup (a 94-89 loss to Besiktas) or the State Cup (84-79), so they parted with coach Danny Franco and replaced him with Stefanos Dedas, who has led the team back to the League Finals. J’Covan Brown – widely regarded as one of the best players in Israel – has been out injured since March (and did not take part in either of those quarterfinal losses), so the team signed Tyler Ennis, who starred for the Reds throughout the semifinal series against Kiryat Ata, averaging more than 17 points a game, including shooting 4/8 from behind the arc in the deciding game three.

Ennis is far from the only star foreign player on the team, which also includes the likes of Jaylen Hoard (who was named to the All League Second Team this season after averaging 16.7 points and 5.1 rebounds in 23.1 minutes during the regular season, to go along with 12 points and 7.3 rebounds in the playoffs), Braian Angola (who over the offseason was to join Maccabi but failed reportedly failed his physical, so instead signed with Hapoel and averaged a very nice 11.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.2 assists in 25.9 minutes in the regular season) and Xavier Munford (who averaged 17.5 points in 27 minutes against Maccabi this season).

But of course, we’re talking about the Israeli league, so we want to focus on the Israeli players. Hapoel boasts the likes of Israeli captain Tomer Ginat (who was named to the All-League First Team this season after averaging 13.4 points and 5.6 rebounds in 27.2 minutes during the regular season and scoring a team-high 22 points in the deciding game three victory over Kiryat Ata earlier this week to take game MVP honors), team captain Bar Timor (who has averaged 10.3 points and 3.7 assists in 21.5 minutes throughout these playoffs) and Gil Beni (who records modest numbers, but his defensive pressure is second to none and sets the tone for the energy that his team brings).

The teams met three times in the regular season, with Maccabi leading the ledger 2-1 at the moment after each team won their games at home: Hapoel 89-86 in January; Maccabi 95-78 in February; and Maccabi 88-82 in May, which secured homecourt advantage for the Yellow & Blue throughout the playoffs – but Hapoel did lead that game 40-31 at halftime and showed even recently that they can match it with the more-fancied Tel Aviv team.

So what makes me think that Hapoel can steal a game from Maccabi at Yad Eliyahu and take home the Championship?

Maccabi has gone undefeated during the playoffs and has not lost a game in nearly a month. On the one hand, they have won 9 games straight. On the other hand, this means that they are due for a loss – and Maccabi has shown this year that they are fragile when it comes to the big games and tend to lose focus in the money-time. Commentators talk about how Maccabi was only a few minutes away from the EuroLeague Final Four, but the team faltered at the finish line of game 5 of the quarterfinals for the second consecutive year, with eventual EuroLeague Champions Panathinaikos taking the game on the back of a 23-16 fourth quarter. In their last loss – in the State Cup Final – Maccabi was totally shocked by Jerusalem, which came into Yad Eliyahu to win the Cup on Maccabi’s own turf.

While Maccabi is vulnerable at home – especially at the pointy end of the season – can’t the same be said for Hapoel?

Sure – and it makes sense to raise questions when only last week Hapoel dropped a home game against 6th-placed Kiryat Ata in game one of their semifinal series. However, that was the wakeup call that Hapoel needed. Not only that, but it’s been a long time since Maccabi won a game at The Drive In – which is a very hostile venue for visiting teams, especially when they’re from the other side of town. Let’s not forget what happened at The Drive In in game two of last year’s final series, when Hapoel handed Maccabi a 112-74 shellacking, when Munford scored 26 points in 19 minutes (including 6/8 from 3).

What’s the bottom line? Hapoel has come too far and invested too much this season to come away from it with nothing to show other than finishing as the runners-up for a league-record 22nd time. The club deserves it: the players deserve it; the coaching staff deserve it; the administration deserve it; the boisterous and over-energetic fans deserve it; and let’s be honest, Israeli basketball deserves it. Y’alla, Hapoel!

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