Uri Kukia's birthdays have a tendency to turn into group celebrations. When he turned 25 and 26, he and Ironi Nahariya won road games against Rishon Letzion and Bnei Hasharon respectively. Last year, the day after he celebrated his 27th birthday he and Maccabi Haifa gained promotion to the top flight of Israeli basketball. "I hope that my birthday brings the team luck," says Kukia, who hopes that his Hapoel Holon team will mark his 28th birthday by making it to the Final Four.
The odds would appear to be in Holon's favor, as the reigning champion hosts Gilboa-Galil in the deciding game of their five-game playoff series. The winner of tonight's deciding game will face Maccabi Tel Aviv in the semifinal.
This is the eighth time in the history of Israeli basketball that a playoff series has gone to a decider; on each of the seven previous occasions, the final game has been won by the home team. "When it comes to the fifth game, home-court advantage is more significant," admits Gilboa-Galil coach Oded Katash, "be we will try our hardest to buck the trend."
There's one set of statistics that Katash will be more pleased with from the current season. Holon and Gilboa-Galil have each won three of their six games this season, but four of the victories have come on the road. Indeed, of the 15 games played so far in the 2008 playoffs, 10 have been won by the road team.
In addition, the most significant statistic of the playoffs so far is that Holon's offense is simply not functioning. From an average of 82.3 points per game during the regular season, Holon has dropped to just 69.3 in its four playoff games so far. Luis Flores, the undisputed star of the team, has seen his personal haul drop from 19.8 points per game to just 13.2 in the playoffs, and he's now hitting just 31 percent of his field goal attempts.
On no fewer than seven occasions this season, Holon's games have been decided by a point or two - and Holon has won them all. Two of those games were in the playoff series against Gilboa-Galil. Even if tonight's game is does not go down to the wire, there is sure to be drama right down to the final buzzer.
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