Israel’s best chance for ‘success’ may be lowering hopes

Sinai Says: The prospect of reaching the knockout stages of the European Basketball Championships now appears to be all but ridiculous.

Basketball 311 (photo credit: FIBA EUROPE)
Basketball 311
(photo credit: FIBA EUROPE)
It is hard to imagine how Israel’s preparations for next week’s European Championships could have gone any worse.
True, the blue-and-white could have lost all eight of its warm-up games so far, rather than just five of them, but that does nothing to change the air of pessimism hanging over the team ahead of next Wednesday’s EuroBasket opener against Germany.
Last summer’s excellent qualifying campaign left Israel fans full of hope and expectation for the 2011 Euros in Lithuania, with the national team playing captivating basketball and turning its weaknesses into strengths.
Coach Arik Shivek cleverly built his side around its forwards and Israel advanced from a tough group which included Montenegro, Italy, Latvia and Finland.
The blue-and-white reached a 10th straight European Championship with eye-catching basketball and there were even suggestions that Shivek’s men could go as far as the quarterfinals in Lithuania, something only the 2003 Israel side has managed to do since 1983.
However, one year later the optimism has been replaced by overarching skepticism.
The prospect of reaching the knockout stages of the event and perhaps even qualifying for the London Olympics now appears to be all but ridiculous.
As things currently stand, a far more realistic goal will be to avoid the whitewash experienced at the last championships when Israel ended the tournament with an 0-3 record, the first time it has finished the event without a victory in 25 appearances.
The first indication that expectations need to be lowered came when Israel went 1-2 in its first warm-up event in Cyprus.
However, with Omri Casspi missing out duo to a stomach virus and Yotam Halperin, Tal Burstein and David Blu all being given special permission to remain with their families, there was every hope that matters would soon improve significantly.
But Shivek never really enjoyed the privilege of having a full roster to work with, and his team was dealt what may likely prove to be the death blow to its chances in Lithuania when Casspi came crashing down after a routine play in training two weeks ago.
An MRI revealed that he has a slight tear in his left knee ligaments, and all the prayers for him to recover in time for the championships went unanswered after it was announced on Tuesday that he will need at least two more weeks to regain fitness.
Israel has already gotten used to playing without Casspi in the warm-up games, but its overall 3-5 record and disappointing performances don’t bode well ahead of next week’s opener against the Germans.
Maccabi Tel Aviv coach David Blatt, who also guides the Russia national team and will face Israel in its final game ahead of the championships on Wednesday, summed it up best by saying: “Israel is a completely different team when it has Casspi than when it doesn’t. You can’t escape that fact.”
Making matters even worse are the opponents the national team will face in Group B in Lithuania from which only the top three teams will advance.
A day after playing NBA finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki and Germany next Wednesday, Israel will face a France team that includes among others, NBA standouts Tony Parker, Joakim Noah, Boris Diaw and Nicolas Batum.
One day later, the blue-and-white comes up against the outrageously talented Serbians, who took a silver medal at the last Europeans before reaching the semifinals of the World Championships last year.
Israel will surely not lose the following day as it is not in action, but after a one-day break, it plays a Latvia team it will have to beat if it’s to have any realistic chance of progressing before wrapping up its group games against Andrea Bargnani’s and Danilio Gallinari’s Italy.
Under any circumstances, Israel would have struggled to finish in the top three in such a group, but in its current situation such an achievement borders on impossible.
Nevertheless, forward Guy Pnini believes Israel’s chances should not be ruled out just yet.
“We will undoubtedly miss Casspi, but this story has gone on for too long,” said Pnini after Israel defeated Poland 82-70 on Sunday.
“The players here are the important ones and every one of them will give 100 percent. We can accomplish nice things together.”
Down the years, the blue-andwhite has proven time and again that it can play better than the sum of its parts.
But there’s a limit to what can be achieved with inadequate resources. There were suggestions last summer that this Israel team may be truly special.
As things currently stand, more than a single victory in the group stage and a respectable exit will be a special achievement.
A quarterfinal berth will have to wait at least two more years.