By ADAM MILLER
After six long months and 22 regular season games for each team, the BSL playoffs finally get under way this weekend.
If last season's super-dramatic Final Four was any indication of what the BSL postseason might hold in store just 12 months later, this year's new eight-team playoff format promises to be a thrilling adventure from start to finish.
While Maccabi Tel Aviv and Hapoel Jerusalem are the clear favorites, holding the top two seeds, No. 3 Maccabi Haifa Heat finished just a game above Hapoel Holon, Hapoel Galil/Gilboa and Bnei Hasharon, all of whom have 13-9 records.
Here is a breakdown of all eight playoff teams.
Maccabi Tel Aviv
By Maccabi's standards, it was a less than stellar year, mainly because of its Euroleague performance and disciplinary issues.
On paper, however, Tel Aviv (19-3) is the BSL's top team and favored to win the Israeli league championship. Maccabi has seen its floor leader, Carlos Arroyo, become one of the top point guards in the league, with a 3.3 assist/turnover ratio while leading the team in points (15.5) and assists (6.2).
Tel Aviv coach Pini Gershon has the league's deepest team from top-to-bottom, with strength at every position. Maccabi has six players averaging double-figures this year, making the team an overwhelming threat for anyone looking to hold down the offense.
Aside from having six scoring threats, the yellow-and-blue hold the league's top field-goal (62%) and three-point (40%) percentages.
Although Maccabi is focused on avoiding a postseason similar to last year, it won't be easy with a deep talent pool throughout the league. Gershon and Co. struggled at the end of the season against Maccabi Haifa in a close loss on April 12.
Tel Aviv's most alarming loss came on December 14 against sixth-seeded Bnei Hasharon, which held Maccabi to 78 points.
Its first round opponent is Ironi Ashkelon, who it has beaten twice already and should cruise by once again, but the road after that is not guaranteed to be easy by any means.
Throughout most of the season, Hapoel has found ways to beat teams week in, week out.
It wasn't until Ironi Ramat Gan pulled off a stunning 16-point victory over Jerusalem that things went wrong.
Over the last two months, Hapoel (17-5) lost three of its last eight games. All three of its losses were by double-digits, with the latest coming April 6 in a 15-point loss to Ironi Nahariya.
Jerusalem will now get the chance to make up for its loss earlier this month in a first-round series against the team from the North.
Hapoel is strong in the backcourt with great shooting to compliment guard Timmy Bowers, who leads the team in scoring (16 ppg), along with point guards Yuval Naimi and Moran Rot splitting time.
Its biggest problems are up front, where it severely lacks size. Despite bringing in Torin Francis late in the season, Hapoel often finds itself short-handed down low.
Those issues have not yet affected coach Guy Goodes' team, which is still second in the league in rebounding (26.3). Given the past difficulties Hapoel has had with Nahariya, post presence will certainly be a concern in the first round.
The one comfort Jerusalem will have in the opening round is home-court advantage. Hapoel is undefeated at home, which should provide the team with plenty of confidence in the opening series against a team it has failed to beat with any consistency.
Maccabi Haifa Heat
The Heat has lived up to its preseason billing and, thanks to a change in
personnel and the acquisition of quality American talent, Haifa now finds itself as the third seed in the BSL tournament.
Forward Davon Jefferson just recently broke out, developing into the scorer that Maccabi expected when they signed him, raising his average to 16.1 points per game.
He has stepped up much more lately than in the past with more aggressiveness that has led to more shots and rebounds. In the win over Maccabi Tel Aviv, Jefferson put up 28 points and 11 rebounds just three weeks after totaling his season-high in points and rebounds against Ironi Kiryat Ata.
However, the team's hopes of advancing lie on the shoulders of Doron Perkins.
While Haifa's starting point guard was out a few weeks with an injury, the team's offense struggled to make up for his ability to run the offense as well as his leadership. The Heat hope to have both in this first-round series.
As the defending champion with arguably the best backcourt in the league, this team knows what's required to win it all, especially after upsetting Tel Aviv in the Final Four last year.
Despite losing its last two games of the season, Holon as been one of the hottest teams in the BSL and a major threat to anyone it plays.
One of the contributing factors, Luis Flores, has made a serious run for Most Valuable Player by leading the league in scoring averaging 19.8 points per game.
Hapoel's other guard, and the team's No. 2 scorer, Deron Washington, has taken much of the load off Flores in order to create mismatches offensively.
Ever since defeating Jerusalem on March 16, Holon coach Dany Franko has seen his team struggle. It won the next two games against Nahariya and Kiryat Ata, but both by under five points.
Two weeks later, Holon went into Ashkelon and lost, 94-84, and ended the season on a sour note, losing at Maccabi Tel Aviv.
While Flores and Washington will carry much of the load, Hapoel will have to get help from some of the other veterans if it expects to make a run in the tournament.
Oded Katash's team has quietly put together a team capable of upsetting Holon - or anyone else for that matter, thanks to a four-game winning streak to end the season.
Its speed has made up for what it has lacked in size, with Brian Roberts and Brian Randle taking on much of the scoring load.
Roberts is the seventh-best shooter (65.4%) in the BSL, which has allowed him to make a great impact without having to shoot much.
Galil has shown it can be competitive against anyone, but has struggled to beat some of the league's best teams. Its most impressive feat was beating Haifa twice this season. However, Gilboa will have to rely on good shooting in order to do well in the postseason.
Hasharon is perhaps the most inconsistent team in the playoff.
It is the only team in the BSL to defeat Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa this season. At the same time, though, it is one of two playoff teams (Ashkelon being the second) which has lost to Kiryat Ata and Maccabi Rishon Lezion.
Hasharon's biggest strength is its defense. Coach Ariel Beit Halachmi's team is fourth in the BSL for points allowed. The two biggest reasons for that are Shaun James and Ousmane Cisse.
James (2.2) and Cisse (2.0) ranked first and second in the league in blocked shots. Their presence down low has forced other teams to shoot jumpers with a little more regularity than they would like, and the improvement they have made to the front court defense has been invaluable.
The major weakness for the team is that it has lacked a primary scoring threat for much of the season. Recently acquired Ira Newble has eased the burden so far (15.6 points), but in order for Hasharon to advance, it is the defense that will have to step up.
This is a team that simply won't go away.
Despite having a record below .500, Nahariya has frustrated plenty of teams, and in some cases has even pulled out upset victories, as was the case when it downed Hapoel Jerusalem on April 6.
It took a big blow just prior to that game, when financial difficulties led management to get rid of point guard Raviv Limonad and power forward Aaron McGhee. Since then, other players have stepped up in their absence.
The biggest improvement of the season has come from Phillip Ricci. The talented forward has averaged 18 points in the last three games of the season and has become much more aggressive near the conclusion of the schedule.
Ricci will be expected to take much of the load off the team's leading scorer Ron Lewis, who has continued his dominance offensively in the absence of Limonad and McGhee. The shooting guard has scored over 20 points in six of his last seven games, spending much of his time out on the perimeter.
Lewis will be integral to Ironi's chances in its first-round matchup against Jerusalem, as he scored a season-high 29 points in their last meeting, capitalizing on 6-of-9 in field goals and 4-of-6 from the perimeter.
If he can duplicate the success he had the last time his team went against Jerusalem, Nahariya will make it difficult for Hapoel to close out the series.
Ashkelon's late improvements went a long way in giving it the victories needed down the stretch to secure a playoff berth, but it's not likely to be hanging around for long.
Ironi is led by the league's best rebounder in Rashon Turner (15.5 points, 10.6 rebounds) but he is the only major force on the club. As a result, Ashkelon has had problems competing for most of the season.
The team from the South is the only playoff team to lose to all four teams in the relegation tournament. In fact, had it not been for its win on April 13 over Hapoel Holon, it would've failed to make the playoffs.
Ashkelon did the job necessary to prevent Ramat Gan from advancing, but it will have massive problems surviving in its series against Maccabi Tel Aviv with a severe lack of firepower.