Sinai Says: Blue-and-white have played themselves into nowhere-but-up status

Israel’s national basketball team has rarely entered the European Championships with lower expectations.

September 2, 2015 01:30
Erez Edelstein

Israel national team coach Erez Edelstein. (photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)

Israel’s national basketball team has rarely entered the European Championships with lower expectations.

Injuries, a poor preparation period and disappointing displays in recent tournaments mean very few people believe the blue-and-white can record any achievement of significance in EuroBasket 2015, which gets underway on Saturday.

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Israel faces Russia in its Group A opener in Montpellier, France on Saturday, the first of five games in six days in the group phase. The team will enjoy a rest day following the contests against Finland and Bosnia-Herzegovina before wrapping up its group games with encounters against Poland and France.

The top four teams in the group will progress to the knockout rounds.

On the face of it, Israel can compete against every team in the group apart from host and defending champion France, which has six NBA players, including the likes of Tony Parker, Nicolas Batum, Boris Diaw and Rudy Gobert.

Israel progressed to EuroBasket 2015 in impressive fashion last year, winning its qualifying group for the first time since 2001. With four teams advancing, two wins from five games could very well be enough to qualify for the knockout stages. Even so, Israel players often sounded like they were trying to convince themselves as well as their audience when speaking optimistically of the team’s chances in France over recent weeks.

Israel’s summer could have hardly gotten off to a worse start, with veterans Yotam Halperin and Guy Pnini both being ruled out before the team even held its first training session. Captain Halperin, who helped Hapoel Jerusalem to an historic BSL championship last season, was diagnosed with a back injury, while Pnini has yet to fully recover from the surgery he underwent on his Achilles last November.

Coach Erez Edelstein still spoke confidently of the side’s chances, but his tone quickly changed when he understood the magnitude of the task he faces.

After losing its first three warm-up games, two to Macedonia and one to Ukraine, Edelstein admitted that the national team is still “searching for its identity” before pleading for patience.

A little under two weeks later, the coach did his best to still remain positive after Israel fell to 0-5 in preparation games following two defeats to last year’s World Cup finalist Serbia.

“This was the best lesson we could have received ahead of the European Championships,” said Edelstein. “This is the intensity we will encounter in France. All the teams in Europe play defense like this.

“All in all I’m happy. This is a process and we are a new team. This takes time.”

The appeal for more time has been a constant throughout the summer, and while Edelstein may well be right in his assessment that changes can’t be made overnight, he knows as well as anyone else that he is all but out of time.

Israel finally registered a win last week, beating Estonia before falling to 1-7 to cap its warm-up games last Friday, losing 86-76 to Croatia in Zagreb.

Omri Casspi at least had his best game of the summer so far, finishing with 23 points, eight rebounds and five assists. However, Gal Mekel yet again failed to play to potential, with Lior Eliyahu and Yogev Ohayon also giving few reasons for optimism with their performances.

“This may be a cliché, but we will be entering the European Championships at 0-0. Even if we lose all our warm-up games and even if we had won them all it wouldn’t have been that important,” said Casspi last week.

Besides the absence of Halperin and Pnini, Edelstein’s plan has been derailed time and again due to minor injuries to other key players.

Casspi missed the second game against Serbia through illness, while D’or Fischer was unavailable for the first. Ohayon didn’t take part in the tournament in Macedonia due to his ongoing battle with Crohn’s disease, while Eliyahu also skipped the trip due to personal reasons.

At least all the team’s core finally got to play together last week, but it remains to be seen if that will prove to be enough time to be ready for the championships.

The blue-and-white will be making its 12th straight appearance in the European Championships this summer, but it is aiming to advance past the first round of the EuroBasket tournament for the first time since 2007 after winning just three games in total over the past three editions.

Under previous coach Arik Shivek, Israel finished bottom of its group in EuroBasket 2013, registering a humiliating 1-4 record. Two years earlier, it was knocked out with a 2-3 record, with both wins coming after the team had already lost all hope. In 2011, Israel ended its final tournament under the guidance of coach Tzvika Sherf at 0-3.

With David Blatt not interested in the job, Edelstein was a unanimous choice to replace Shivek and so far he has shown he is more than up to the task.

He is the kind of individual who is rarely pleased with his team’s performance, always expecting more. One of the reasons for Edelstein’s appointment was the fact that he often found a way to get his previous teams to play better than the sum of their parts.

He managed to do so with the Israel roster last summer, but his job has proven to be far more difficult over recent weeks.

The championships, which for the first time in the event’s 80-year history will be hosted by four countries (France, Germany, Latvia and Croatia), are also serving as a qualification tournament for the 2016 Olympics in Rio. The two Euro- Basket finalists will book a direct ticket to the Olympics, while the four teams finishing third to sixth will compete in the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament.

If Israel was once dreaming of taking a step towards Olympic qualification, now it is mainly hoping to avoid an embarrassment in France.

While progress to the knockout rounds used to be a given, this summer it will be regarded as a true triumph.

Low expectations are usually a bad sign as they reflect the struggles the team has experienced and its small chance of recording success.

However, it also means the team enters the tournament with nothing to lose, perhaps the only positive Edelstein will be desperately hanging onto as he looks to lead Israel to unlikely glory.

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