basketball finland
Finland’s Antti Nikkilä, left, and Tuukka Kotti fight for the ball yesterday with Israel’s Robert Rothbart. Photo by AP
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Tal Burstein took the inbounds pass, drove up court and tried to force the winning shot Wednesday night against Finland. Not surprisingly, the ball didn't drop in, and as the Finns swatted the ball away they celebrated their 84-83 edging of Israel to claim their first win in Group A of their EuroBasket qualifier. Israel dropped its first contest to fall a game behind Montenegro in the five-team division.

Perhaps Burstein was trying to redeem himself for throwing away the inbound pass with 15 seconds - allowing Finland to score the go-ahead points on a pair of free throws, but his behavior typified Israel's lack of team play down the stretch as its star-studded roster squandered a late six-point lead. Yotam Halperin did the same thing with 1:12 left, only he made his three-pointer to put Israel up 81-78. On the possession before that, Guy Pnini failed to pass the ball as he tried to force a shot and give Israel the lead.

Finland coach Henrik Dettmann expressed skepticism Monday about his team's chances, precisely because Israel had so many options. Israel showed that each individual is good enough to win games but also to be tempted to try to do just that at an inopportune time.

Finland's tenacious play and pressure on defense kept the underdogs in the game long enough for Israel to implode despite solid play by some of its starters.

Omri Casspi, the team's first and only NBA star, barely touched the ball during the final 5:27 when Finland outran Israel 12-5 to erase a six-point deficit. His last attempt came at the 6:04 mark when he drained a three-pointer as part of a brief five-point outburst that gave Israel a five-point cushion. He finished with 17 points on 5-of-11 shooting. Halperin led all scorers with 18 points.

Israel's last-minute strategy was also questionable. After Yuval Naimy hit two free throws to stretch Israel's margin to 83-80, Halperin fouled Petri Virtanen with 14 seconds remaining rather than force to burn more time trying to tie the game or score an easy deuce. That call set up Burstein's inbound blunder. Coach Arik Shivek than pulled Naimy for Yaniv Green, who promptly fouled Gerald Lee near the basket. Lee then sank the game-winning free throws.

Israel must now regroup for its home game Saturday night against undefeated Montenegro, which decked Italy last night 71-62.