Israel dives into deep end vs Germany

Israel opens its EuroBasket campaign against Germany in Siauliai, Lithuania on Wednesday night.

Lior Eliyahu (photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Lior Eliyahu
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Israel opens its EuroBasket campaign against Germany in Siauliai, Lithuania on Wednesday night, but it already finds itself in a must-win situation.
With games against France, Serbia, Latvia and Italy coming up, and only the top three teams from Group B to advance to the next round, the blueand- white knows its hopes of reaching the last 12 of the European Championships will be as good as over if it fails to overcome the Germans.
With NBA finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki and Los Angeles Clippers center Chris Kaman the stars of an also otherwise strong German roster, Israel will have to be at its very best right from the tipoff of the championships.
Nevertheless, forward Lior Eliyahu, who has an especially crucial role to play in the absence of the injured Omri Casspi, is confident Israel has what it takes to get its campaign off to a winning start.
“We believe we can beat the Germans, even if Nowitzki has a great game,” Eliyahu said. “Clearly he is their key player, but they have plenty of other good players. We will also need to stop them and play some good team defense.
“We are feeling good after our preparation games and there is always a good mood around the roster, especially when we are winning.”
Israel’s preparations for its 10th straight European Championships got off to the worst possible start after it fell in five of its first eight tune-up games and lost its only NBA player in Casspi to a knee injury.
However, last week’s 89-79 win over the strong Russians has given the side renewed confidence that it can make some noise in Lithuania and at the very least improve on the whitewash it experienced at the last championships when it ended the tournament with a 0-3 record, the first time it has finished the event without a victory in 25 appearances.
“We have shown consistent improvement throughout the preparation period and I certainly feel that we have made progress,” said coach Arik Shivek, who will be guiding the team in a major tournament for the first time.
“We know the challenges we are facing but we believe we can handle them.”
Nowitzki only joined the Germans in training less than two weeks ago, but the Dallas Mavericks forward has quickly settled and has helped the side to some impressive victories in warm-up games.
“I’m feeling good after taking a short break,” said Nowitzki, who averaged 27.7 points and 8.1 rebounds over 21 NBA playoff games, which ended with the Mavericks being crowned champions.
“It is going to be tough for us to advance to the next round because there are a lot of good teams in this group. Every night will be difficult.”
The 33-year-old 10-time All-Star has no intention of underestimating Israel.
“Israel has a group of good players who can all score,” he said. “They are tough and play a quick and fun style of basketball. They are very dangerous and it is important for us to get the tournament off to a good start. We haven’t played that much together, but we hope to find a way to win.”
Apart from Nowitzki and Kaman, the entire German roster plays in the local league, but coach Dirk Bauermann knows he will need more than two players to contribute if his team is to succeed in Lithuania.
“Nowitzki is an excellent player but this is a team sport not golf,” Bauermann said.
“The fact that we have Nowitzki and Kaman has resulted in unrealistic expectations, but we do feel that we have real chance to finish in the top six in the tournament, which secures an Olympic qualifying berth in next year’s playoffs”.
Bauermann has identified Israel’s three-point scoring as the key to the outcome of Wednesday’s game.
“Even though I think Casspi is an excellent player, I believe Israel is a very difficult opponent, especially in the first game of the tournament,” he said.
“Israel’s advantage is its scoring, with Yotam Halperin and Guy Pnini superb shooters. Lior Eliyahu is also an interesting and intelligent player, but if I have to point to one part of their game I would like to stop than this would be their three-point scoring.”
Halperin realizes that he is one of the players on Bauermann’s radar, but he believes that both he and Israel can compete with the very best.
“We will be the underdogs in every game, apart from maybe the encounter with Latvia,” he said. “But if we remain focused in every game, this tournament could end up being remembered as something great.”
On TV: EuroBasket 2011: Israel vs Germany (live on Channel 1 at 8:45 p.m.); Serbia vs Italy (live on Sport 2 at 3:05 p.m.); France vs Latvia (live on Sport 2 at 5:35 p.m.)