NEWARK, New Jersey - They might look worlds apart on paper, but in reality, the NBA's New Jersey Nets and Maccabi Haifa of Israeli basketball's Super League are startlingly similar. They both are entrusting their teams to new head coaches who are young but have very strong pedigrees; both teams are playing in temporary homes while their new arenas are under construction; they are very young from top to bottom, including the NBA's youngest player in Derrick Favors and Israel's youngest team in Haifa; they are relying on recent college graduates to make an impact; they have wealthy, invested owners who love the sport; and finally, they are aiming to compete after disappointing seasons.
The teams met here to open the Nets' new arena for the next two years, the Prudential Center, in front of 5,174 evenly-split fans.
Haifa started the game strongly and was still in it with a few minutes to go in the second quarter. The Nets, led by rookie Favors and newly acquired Anthony Morrow, pulled away after halftime and won comfortably 108-70. However, Maccabi did learn about the type of players it has assembled on its diverse roster.
Marco Killingsworth has potential to be a great low-post player even with his lack of height; Nets coach Avery Johnson bemoaned the fact that he was able to score several times against the Nets' 7'1" center Brook Lopez. Point guard Derrick Low also played well, scoring 14 points and hitting on four of five three-pointers while going up against recent All-Star Devin Harris.
Most likely, however, Maccabi will go as far as Sylvan Landesberg, the ex-Virginia shooting guard, will take the club. Landesberg, playing in front of friends and family from the New York area, led the game's scoring with 24 points, and at some points electrified the crowd with his dunks and drives to the basket. His 20 shot attempts were a reflection of his importance to the team, and a player of his caliber should be able to influence the outcome of games in the Israeli league.
Landesberg was excited to play in an NBA arena, a place where he feels he belongs and will be one day in the future. "To play in the NBA is definitely a goal and a dream of mine, so I'm going to keep working hard and doing what I have to do to get there," he told Haaretz Sunday night.
Meanwhile, his focus is on the upcoming season. "The Israeli teams are just as competitive [as the ACC]. It's a different type of game, a lot more physical. You can't sleep on the Israeli league, so I have to come hard to every game just like I did in college," he added.
Maccabi Haifa owner Jeff Rosen, who grew up in New Jersey, was thrilled about the game. "It's a wonderful feeling. To have my Nets fantasy and my Maccabi Haifa team play each other is pretty exciting," he told Haaretz. Rosen has only owned Maccabi Haifa since 2007 but has already transformed it into one of Israel's top teams, reaching the State Cup final and league playoffs one year later.
As for this year, "We're here for the Final Four, that's our goal," said Rosen. "I like our chances against everybody, and even if we're the fifth strongest team on paper, once you get into the playoffs anything can happen. There's no gift [championship] anymore in Israel."
On a night when no one expected them to compete, Maccabi Haifa may have learned a thing or two about itself and the heights it can reach this season by taking a look across the court and seeing a team in a similar situation trying to get back to previous successes. With a young but skilled roster, a new coach, a devoted owner and their trademark fans, Maccabi Haifa should be a team to watch this season.
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