Hapoel is currently the second most popular team in Israel. They usually bring over 4 foreigners each season, and their budget for this season is somewhere in the neighborhood of 4 million dollars. Their best player is Mario Austin, who makes somewhere between $950,000 NET per year. Along with Austin, they have former NBA player Tamar Slay, former North Carolina guard Ed Cota, and former Mississippi State guard Timmy Bowers.
Montepaschi is a team that is only a few years removed from playing in the Euroleague final four. This is their first year of ULEB Cup play, and their management expects them to work their way back to the Euroleague sooner rather than later. Their team features three former NBA guys in Lonny Baxter, Joe Forte, and Romain Sato, as well as former Seton Hall guard Rimantas Kaukenas.
The game itself was very exciting, and close throughout. The fan base in Jerusalem is amazing, and the 2,000 fans at the game were louder than the crowd at any NBA game Ive ever attended. The game started out sloppy in the beginning, and was scoreless until after two minutes passed, but Sato was able to break the slump with his only field goal of the game. The quality of play then picked up, and Mario Austin established his dominance down on the block. Vladimer Boisa kept pace and was able to lead Montepaschi to a 38-36 halftime lead. In the second half each team made an effort to run away with the game. Montepaschi came out with a 6 point run to begin the second half, but Hapoel was able to get within three after a 4 point play by Jurica Golemac, and Mario Austin made a dunk off of a backdoor cut to cap off an 8-0 run. Hapoel was able to grab a 66-61 lead by the end of the third quarter, and they held off Montapaschi long enough in the fourth to get the win by a margin of 85-80, their first of the season after being blown out by Maccabi Tel Aviv in their Israeli league opener and on the road to Russian club Khimki in the ULEB Cup last week.
Mario Austin might be the best big man outside of the NBA right now, and he was unstoppable on the block for Hapoel. He displayed great footwork inside, and was very patient with his moves, which led to 6 drawn fouls and 8 free throw attempts. Austin also displayed some range by stepping outside and making some shots from the perimeter. On the glass, he was able to use his body very effectively to keep opposing players away. The defensive end was the only place where Austin displayed a weakness. He was very late with his rotations to the ball, and doesnt understand where to position himself to deny the ball. With his big 260 pound body, youd expect him to be a better post defender than he is. He does carry his weight well, and shows effort getting up and down the court. He finished the game with 18 points and 11 rebounds on 6/15 from the field, though three of his misses came from the 3 point line. The Chicago Bulls currently own Mario Austins rights, and could bring him over this summer after his contract with Hapoel expires.
Former New Jersey Net and Charlotte Bobcat Tamar Slay also plays for Hapoel. Word is that he performs very well in practices, but is very streaky in the games. This was the case tonight, as Slay had some very nice plays, but other times on the court he looked lost or disinterested. Part of his inconsistency probably comes from the role they try and use him in. Slay is used a lot at the power forward position since he is 68 though his skill set is that of a wing player. He is too soft to play the 4, and struggles against some of the more physical players. Slay has lost all confidence in his perimeter shot, but he can still score from time to time, and shows flashes of being the player that lasted 3 years in the NBA.
Ed Cota has had a very successful European career, and was the initiator of Hapoels offense for much of the game. He didnt try and do too much himself, but was able to scored when he chose his spots. Cota was very successful handling the ball on the fast breaking and passing off at the right time. He seems to have lost a step in terms of athleticism, but has a high basketball IQ to compensate. The main thing Cota brings to the floor is steady control of the tempo of the game, as wells as vocal leadership. He wont be making an NBA roster anytime soon, but is a great European player.
Lonny Baxter is a player Montepachi was expecting a lot from, but he was very unproductive. The last time I saw Baxter play significant minutes was during the summer of 2005 at the Minnesota Summer league, where he was in shape. It appears that Baxter has enjoyed a little too much fine Italian cuisine, and his added weight limits his effectiveness on the court. He only played 14 minutes, and picked up 4 fouls trying to guard Mario Austin. Baxter finished the game with 2 points and 3 rebounds. For a player who was in the NBA last season, things have not gone well lately for Lonny Baxter. He was in jail for a bit this summer and therefore just arrived in Italy a few weeks ago.
Former Xavier guard Romain Sato logged heavy minutes for Montepaschi with mixed results. Though his shot wasnt falling, he was able to draw 9 fouls, which led to 10 attempts from the free throw line. Sato also played excellent defense, and made a lot of small hustle plays on the court. He finished the game with 10 points on 1/8 from the field, and 5 rebounds. Though he doesnt appear quite ready to get back to the NBA yet, he is a guy to keep an eye on this season to see how he progresses.
Former NBA player Joseph Forte played a good game as well, despite his lack of perimeter shooting. Forte scored a lot of his points in transition when he was going to the basket. He also created nice off the dribble, and found the open man on a couple occasions. Despite being 1/5 from the 3 point line, Forte had 17 points on 6/17 from the field, with 4 rebounds and 2 assists.