Disappointment, instability, internal problems, weak defense. Take your pick - these are all fair descriptions of Hapoel Jerusalem's season. Or, more precisely, most of its season. After two convincing wins against Barak Netanya in their Super League quarterfinal series, suddenly we don't hear about any arguments going on. And, Hapoel's basketball looks different.
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"We always had offense. There were even games when we scored 100 points, but they still outscored us," says power forward Elishay Kadir. "The change happening to us in the series is what we talked about all season - the defensive angle. We played defense really well. We kept them to a low score. We were very aggressive."
It sounds simple, yet it turns out it's rather complicated for Jerusalem. It took them seven months to get to this point.
"What we did in the league didn't match our expectations," Kadir admits. "This playoff is a whole other story, and now we want to correct the impression. We always knew we had the ability and we have advantages over other teams. It doesn't express itself because of lack of aggressiveness and defense, things that are more mental issues than basketball and tactics. We always lacked that little extra something - coming to help a little more, trapping and rotating on defense. In the two games against Netanya, and in the good game we had against Maccabi earlier, we did just that."
In two games against Netanya, you reached the free-throw line 36 times. It's a testimony to the right game plan, which is working.
"We have very talented, big men. Everyone in his own way finds himself in the paint, and it gives us an advantage. We have a relatively deep roster compared to Netanya, and the game plan is to draw as many fouls as possible to get them in trouble."
Is the chemistry working? It hasn't gone so well this season.
"This team has character. Despite everything that happened this year, everyone who was on the team was a good guy. There were incidents, but these things happen on every team. It's covered well in Jerusalem, and sometimes the little things in Jerusalem come across as big deals. It's a sport with a lot of emotions, and sometimes a player says something he later regrets. We need to rise above that."
The impression is there were a lot of fights this season on the team, at the management level, between players and the coach, and between players.
"It's surprising to hear people think that. I live with the team, and read in the press like everybody else about things I really didn't know about. The atmosphere in the club is very good. There were some losses, but there wasn't a blowup or anything resembling one. There were some incidents like Craig Smith's interview after his release, but I know he was sorry about things he said in the heat of the moment. What happened happened, and we moved on. Anything relating to the administrative side doesn't affect the players and staff, and we don't feel it. There's mutual respect between the players and the coaching staff and management."
The fans returned for the last game and saw the first victory in Malha after four straight losses in two months.
"People wanted to see a fighting team, spitting blood on the court and getting the crowd excited. They see it in the playoffs and it brings people back to the court. Jerusalem's fans are worth 10 points a game. I experienced it when I was on Galil and on Ramat Gan. The fact that we didn't win for a long time in Malha stemmed from all the changes we went through, as well as the strike in the middle."
In contrast to his team, Kadir has been pleasantly consistent. He averaged 10.5 points and 5.3 rebounds per game during league play and 8.5 points and 6.0 rebounds per game during the playoffs. He has improved his shooting from 57 percent to 67 percent.
"If it weren't for the bad luck of two injuries, things could have been more than just stable for me," he says. "I felt sharp from the beginning of the season, and that I could accomplish a lot this season."
Why are you unable to match your best season at Gilboa, not only in points (14.2 per game ) but also shooting percentage (69 )?
"Sixty-nine percent from the field is pretty crazy. I have shot over 50 percent since then, which is alright. At Gilboa, alongside Brian Randle and Dion Dowell, I played more at the 5 position. They sign a center or two at Jerusalem, and the game changes. I've improved certain parameters since leaving Gilboa - I developed my mid-range shot, my dribble and my passing. When you shoot from farther out, the percentages go down. I also feel more mature."
Everyone's basically waiting for the next series. Can you compete with Maccabi Tel Aviv?
"I don't think the series with Netanya is over, and it's hard to talk about another time. If we do reach the series with Maccabi, it will be an insane atmosphere in Malha. It's a wonderful story for the fans and basketball folks. There's a long history of rivalry between the teams, and there are players on both teams with great individual talent."