The Israeli basketball team's preparations for the European Championships, which begin on September 4, appear to have wandered off track. On Saturday, Israel suffered its third successive defeat in a preparatory game, losing 75-72 to Poland, having led 42-33 at half time.
Fate had it that Israel and Poland met in the opening game of the European Basketball Tour Antwerp 2013, a preparatory tournament for next month’s EuroBasket tournament in Slovenia, only 10 days after the Israelis had routed the Poles 81-65 in another warm-up tournament in Italy.
This time, it was the Poles’ turn to fight back and show what they can do. Both teams posted 21 points in the first period, before a 21-12 surge in the second period saw Israel race to a nine-point lead at half time. But it was Poland, coached by Dirk Bauermann, that dominated the second half of the game, as Israel’s porous defense was repeatedly split.
The Poles were without their leading center, Marcin Gortat, but Maciej Lampe and Thomas Kelati took up the reins in his stead to lead their team. Israel opened with Yotam Halperin, Yogev Ohayon, Omri Casspi, Lior Eliyahu and Yaniv Green.
Green, in his first serious game with the national team this summer after recovering from injury, took control of the game, made some astute decisions in attack and pushed Israel back from an early six-point deficit into the lead for the first time in the ninth minute, only for a three-ponter from Krzysztof Szubarga to restore parity at the end of the first quarter.
In the previous game between the two teams, Israel won the last four minutes 16-0. This time the blue-and-white surge came at the beginning of the second quarter, with Casspi scoring six consecutive points. Coach Alex Shivek fielded a lineup bereft of centers, with Casspi and Elishay Kadir in the inside positions, and Israel pressed forward unrelentingly, pounced on every mistake by Kelati and scored on the break almost at will.
As long as Alex Tyus, who remained in Israel after pulling a hamstring, is still not fit to play, Israel is depending heavily on its defensive play this summer, and Shivek reintroduced Green as the quarter wore on to maintain its nine-point lead. (Tyus is due to return to training on Wednesday if has recovered sufficiently.)
The coach opted for a tall lineup after the break, with Guy Pnini in the number 2 role. But despite continuing to play well in offense, the defense regressed quickly after Shivek, with the lead at 55-47, returned to his shorter players, with Afik Nissim and Halperin as the guards.
Poland retook the lead at 59-57, Ohayon reentered the fray and Eliyahu made it 61-59 at the end of the third period.
At 65-65, with five minutes left on the clock, Shivek brought on Raviv Limonad for Green and the machine got stuck: Poland scored five quick points, Casspi and Green pulled four of them back, then Limonad unnecessarily gave the ball away. In the game’s dying seconds, Halperin, Israel’s captain, missed a relatively easy basket that should have sent the game into overtime.
Omri Casspi, with 24 points on the night, was Israel’s only ray of hope from this game, while Eliyahu added 18.
“There were periods of this game when everything went right,” Shivek said after the game, “They played well for most of the first half and opened the second half OK. I think we had defensive lapses toward the end of the third period and at the beginning of the fourth. It was a close game and it could have gone either way. It’s just a shame that it went the wrong way this time.”
The coach also shouldered his share of the blame. “I accept that our decision-making in the final minutes was mistaken and we’ll have to fix that. I take from this game the minutes in which we pressed forward, and if we increase the number of good minutes when we play like that, the results will improve.”
On Sunday, Israel was to meet Italy in another important test in Belgium.
Israel has been drawn in Group A at the European Championship, together with Belgium, France, Germany, Great Britain and Ukraine. Israel’s campaign will open against Great Britain in Ljubljana on September 4 and will face Ukraine the following day
Gal Mekel, a regular in the national team since 2009 who recently signed with the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA, will be conspicuous by his absence in Slovenia