Five years ago, a young Omri Casspi made national basketball history when he became the first Israeli to play in the NBA. On Friday night, another page was written, when for the first time, two Israeli players were faced off in the world's best league.
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The Texas match-off, which pitted Casspi's Houston Rockets against newcomer Gal Mekel's Dallas Mavericks, displayed low-quality play throughout. A tangle of fouls and turnovers was concluded with the Rockets coming up on top at 113-105: But both Israeli players did particularly well.
Casspi played an active and aggressive game from the moment he was called in, less than a minute into the game. Assigned to guard Dallas star Dirk Nowitsky, Casspi found himself fouled up and switched out early in the game.
Later in the fourth quarter, Casspi left court after twisted his ankle, and did not return to the match. Houston's Israeli racked up over 21 minutes of play, scoring 12 points (4 of 8 in the field, 3 of 3 for three-pointers), two rebounds, two assists, three fouls, one steal and one turnover.
"It was quite emotional," said Casspi after the games' conclusion. "Gal played a great game, I am very happy for him. I think this game was a badge of respect for Israeli basketball, we both played many minutes.
"I had a good game, our offence was fluid, and this game in general was better played than our last one. I sprained my ankle, that happens, let's hope it will be fine by tomorrow morning. And if not, by the game after that."
Mekel, too, has what to take pride in. Early in the first quarter he was offered a chance to show his skills, and responded with quick points. Any doubts as to his abilities were quashed Saturday night. Mekel played strong, coordinated Dallas' offensives with a capable hand. Just shy of the third quarter's end, he led the Mavs to a near comeback, and finished the game with nearly 23 minutes of play, with 11 points (5 for 7 two-pointers, 1 of 2 three-pointers) six assists, one rebound and one turnover.
"I had a good game, it's too bad we lost. But that's all right, tomorrow we play again. That's what one learns in this league- it's got a very short memory. Just yesterday I was discussing it with Omri, we've been playing together since a very young age, and suddenly we are pitted against each other here in the NBA. It was lots of fun speaking with him in Hebrew on the court. I am certain whoever watched the game back home enjoyed it. I am confident I can integrate myself into this league, and play well."
We had agreed on a joint interview after the game's ending, but the NBA has rules of its own. Due to his sprain, Casspi was spirited off to treatment, and Houston's bus had to depart for the airport. Thus, the first Israeli NBA face-off did not end with a joint interview- or even a commemorative photo. That will have to wait for the next match.
As to the game's non-Israeli aspects: James Harden starred, with 34 points in 39 minutes. Dwight Howard finished with only 13 points, collecting 16 rebounds. 'Superman' was weak from the line, scoring only 5 of 12 in free throws.
The Mavericks were led by Nowitsky, who scored 22 points – but with a low percentage, only 6 of 15 for two-point attempts. He was fouled out at the beginning of the last quarter.
And here's Dwight Howard's two cents: